The Carmichael project is wrong on economic and environmental grounds, writes ACF President Geoff Cousins


This week the Australian Conservation Foundation took the unusual step of launching a Federal Court challenge to the Environment Minister Greg Hunt's re-approval of the Carmichael coal mine.

Our case centres  on the question of whether it is legal to approve this coal mine, knowing that the burning of the mine's coal will contribute to climate change, which is damaging the Great Barrier Reef – a World Heritage-listed site that Australia has international obligations to protect.

At a time when the world is recognising the urgent need to move away from fossil fuels, we are convinced the approval of Australia's largest-ever coal mine, which would cover more than 45,000 hectares and produce as much carbon annually as does New Zealand, is the wrong move for Australia and the wrong direction to be travelling in a rapidly warming world.

If successful, this case will fundamentally change environmental law in this country.

This year we witnessed how desperate the Queensland and federal governments were to not jeopardise the World Heritage listing of Australia's much-loved reef. With this action we are simply asking the government to face up to the obligations of that listing and not allow warming to kill the reef off through coral bleaching that is already occurring in our oceans and will become far worse if ocean temperatures continue to rise.

Leaving aside the environmental rationale behind this action, the entire Carmichael project is ill-conceived, including on economic and geopolitical grounds.

We've witnessed a disingenuous misinformation campaign that was cooked up in the backrooms of the Institute of Public Affairs and sheepishly repeated by senior government ministers in an attempt to prop up a dying polluting industry under the false moral argument that Australia's dirty coal will lift India's poor out of poverty.

What a shamelessly self-interested argument that is.

What the flag-wavers for the coal industry won't tell you is that the Indian government itself doesn't want Australian coal. India's Energy Minister Piyush Goyal is on the record talking about India's plans to bring about a "paradigm shift" in the way its energy is sourced, and his policy position to stop importing thermal coal within the next two to three years.

The approval of the huge Carmichael coal mine is the wrong move for Australia and the wrong direction to be traveling in in a rapidly warming world. 

"I'm very confident of achieving these targets and am very confident that India's current account deficit will not be burdened with the amount of money we lose for imports of coal," Goyal says. "Possibly in the next two or three years we should be able to stop imports of thermal coal."

If Australia really wants to help set up India for a more prosperous and sustainable future we would be putting our resources into fast-tracking solar and battery technology to help India's rural poor leapfrog old polluting power and move straight to clean affordable micro-grids.

That would also spare India's next generations the health consequences of mass pollution as well as the environmental impacts of erratic weather patterns caused by climate change.

I've been a businessman all my life in Australia and it is crystal clear to me that the economic case here makes no sense – it's a blatant and self-interested attempt to convince us we should keep digging up coal at the exact moment in history when we need to leave it in the ground.

On Carmichael the economic case here makes no sense

This action is historic in that it's the first case that has sought to test the Environment Minister's World Heritage obligations as they relate to the climate-change impacts on the reef caused by pollution from burning a mine's coal. If we are successful it will place climate-change considerations front and centre as necessary to meeting World Heritage obligations in Australia.

Taking legitimate legal action in the public interest is central to keeping governments accountable in a democracy. Our action is not without precedents internationally. In the Hague a court recently ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions by 25 per cent to protect its citizens from climate change.

In the 50-year history of ACF we have launched only a handful of court challenges. We are not in the business of holding governments or corporations to ransom, but we do want to hold them to account. We take this action as a last resort and out of an obligation to do everything we can to protect the environment.

Let me be absolutely clear about our aims. We have no desire or intention to simply delay the Adani Carmichael mine. We want to stop it in its tracks. It is an unacceptable threat to one of Australia's most loved and cherished icons.

This article first appeared in The Age

Geoffrey Cousins

Geoff Cousins is a past president of the Australian Conservation Foundation; ACF Life Member