There is a naked disingenuousness to the arguments being put forward about expanding Australia’s coalmining sector to help lift Indians out of poverty, writes ACF President Geoff Cousins

The rest of the world knows the health and climate impacts of coal are too great for it to be a realistic energy option for the future, but in Australia the vestiges of a dying industry keep waving their flags and lining their pockets.

There is great duplicity in making a “moral” case for exporting coal while saying the government takes climate change seriously.

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of man-made CO2 emissions and the greatest threat to our climate.

We are seeing some very senior government ministers attempting to fabricate a moral case for what is little more than a self-serving economic agenda.

These ministers are trying to construct this flimsy case at the behest of powerful coal lobby and the Institute of Public Affairs — the organisation that recently put out a report heralding “the lifesaving potential of coal: how Australian coal could help 82 million Indians access electricity”.

Putting aside the moral duplicity at play here, the fact is India itself wants to get away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

India itself wants to get away from its reliance on fossil fuels

India’s Energy Minister Piyush Goyal has spoken of India’s electricity system undergoing a “paradigm shift”.

The country has set an ambi­tious target to cease thermal coal imports within the next few years to rely more on domestic supplies and rapidly shift to renewable energy.

“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.”

So despite Greg Sheridan and others’ claims that “out of touch’’ “high-profile activists” are ‘‘drooling nonsense” the fact is the India government itself has different ambitions. India doesn’t want to continue importing our dirty coal.

Behind the so-called moral argument to increase coal exports is a push to build new coalmines in Australia — especially the Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a mine that would be the largest built in Australia, five times the size of Sydney Harbour, producing about 130 million tonnes of CO2 a year, more than the entire annual output of New Zealand or Victoria.

Moreover, most of India’s rural poor are not likely to benefit from coal exports from Australia or elsewhere because they are not connected to the power grids.

Of the 1.24 billion people living in India, 68 per cent live in rural villages and nearly 50 per cent of them have no access to power grids.

So the benefit to these people of Australian coal will be zero

So the benefit to these people of Australian coal will be zero — and it makes much more sense to supply them with solar and off-grid solutions.

These are the same people who will be most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

They are literally on the frontlines of climate impacts — remember the mega-heatwave in India this year that killed more than 2500 people?

In areas where new coal power plants have been built there are severe health impacts being reported from large quantities of toxic pollutants such as lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and sulphur. These health impacts outweigh the perceived benefits of coal.

In the same way that many remote Indians leapfrogged landline telephony and took straight to mobile phones, Australia has the opportunity to assist India by providing cutting-edge renewable technology such as 3-D printed solar cells that are currently being developed by researchers from CSIRO.

These type of technologies could provide a genuine moral contribution to sustaining India’s power needs in the future.

As EAS Sarma, former secretary of India’s Ministry of Power has argued: “Australian coal, like any other coal, is not good for Indian people’s health and it will not deliver electricity to those who are currently living in energy poverty.

“It’s time for the Australian government and coal industry to realise that the era of Australian coal exports is coming to an end.

“What Indians need is affordable, locally generated renewable energy, not coal.”

This article first appeared in The Australian

Geoffrey Cousins

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