2023: A Year of Consequence – Essay on Coal

In the book, 2023: A Year of Consequence, the country’s top thinkers from The Conversation provide their evidence-based research and insights on our most significant challenges in a year of consequential decisions.

The historic referendum on the Voice to Parliament dominated this year. As did the transformation of military to respond to the shifting security challenges in the region. The government also faced a housing crisis, inflation, rising costs of living and overall economic uncertainty.

In this extract we read economist, author and public policy commentator, Richard Denniss‘ essay on coal.




Australia’s 116 new coal, oil and gas projects equate to 215 new coal power stations

Richard Denniss
Australian National University


Australia has 116 new coal, oil and gas projects in the pipeline. If they all proceed as planned, an extra 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere annually by 2030.

To put that in perspective, Australia’s total domestic greenhouse gas emissions in 2021–22 were 490 million tonnes. So,annual emissions from these new projects will be almost three times larger than the nation’s 2021–22 emissions. That’s theequivalent of starting up 215 new coal power stations, based on the average emissions of Australia’s existing coal powerstations.

The reason we can get away with this is that the current global framework for emissions accounting only considersemissions generated protecting our fragile world onshore. And almost all coal, oil and gas from these new projects would be exported. But as we share the atmosphere with the rest of the people on the planet, the consequences will come back to bite us.

The 2023 Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described how fossil fuels arewreaking havoc on the planet. The science is clear: the IPCC says fossil fuel use is over- whelmingly driving global warming. ‘The sooner emissions are reduced this decade, the greater our chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. Projected CO2 emissionsfrom existing fossil fuel infrastructure (power plants, mines, pipelines) without additional abatement exceed the remain- ing carbonbudget for 1.5°C,’ says the IPCC, let alone new coal, oil and gas projects.

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres: ‘Every country must be part of the solution. Demanding others move first only ensures humanity comes last.’

Guterres added that ‘the acceleration agenda calls for a number of other actions’, specifically:

  • no new coal, and the phasing out of coal by 2030 in OECD countries and by 2040 in all other countries
  • ending all international public and private funding of coal
  • ensuring net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and by 2040 for the rest of the world
  • ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas – consistent with the findings of the International Energy Agency(IEA)
  • stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves
  • shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just-energy transition
  • establishing a global phase-down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net-zero


Hidden in plain sight

Our research, released in March by the Australia Institute, reveals the pollution from Australia’s 116 new fossil fuel projects. Theseare listed among the federal government’s major projects. Government analysts estimate each project’s start date and annual production figures. If they are correct, by 2030 the projects will produce a total of 1466 million tonnes of coal and 15,400 petajoules of gas and oil.


Conversation internal 2.1

Conversations internal 1

Source: Office of the Chief Economist. Created with Datawrapper.


Then it’s fairly straightforward to calculate emissions. We simply multiplied these enormous new fossil fuel volumes by their ‘emissions factors’. When 1 tonne of coal is burned, it releases approximately 2.65 tonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalent (CO2-e) into the atmosphere. Whilst also burning 1 terajoule (0.001 petajoules) of naturalgas, which results in 51.5 tonnes of CO2-e. Combined with the 164 million tonnes of emissions that the mining of these fuels would cause. The result is a planet-warming, but spine-chilling, total of 4.8 billion tonnes by 2030.

This amount is twenty-four times greater than the ambition of the federal government’s key emissions reduction policy. The so-called Safeguard Mechanism (SGM). That aims to reduce emissions by 205 million tonnes over the same period.


Rather than embrace the task of decarbonising the Australian econ- omy, the Albanese government has continued down the path laid out by the former Coalition government. It’s a path that relies more heavily on the use of carbon offsets than curtailing coaland gas.

Even though the rest of the world is committed to burning less fossil fuels, there are more gas and coalmine project proposals in Australia today than there were in 2021. Note also that this list does not include several large, advanced projects actively supported by Australian governments. Including Santos’s Barossa gas field, Shell’s Bowen Gas Project, Chevron’s Clio-Acme, and several vast, new, unconventional gas basins, including the Beetaloo, Canning and Lake Eyre basins.


Three reasons to change our ways

Climate change minister Chris Bowen argues that Australians are not responsible for the emissions from our fossil fuel exports.That’s becausethe international accounting rules distinguish between the emissions that occur within our borders (known as scope 1 and 2emissions) and those that occur when other countries burn the coal and gas we sell them (known as scope 3 emissions). But ifBowen really wants to tackle climate change, there are three reasons both he and Australians should bear this responsibility.

First, there’s the moral argument. Australia didn’t ban whaling and asbestos mining because we wanted to stop Australiansfrom eating whales or building hazardous homes. We stopped these activities because they were dangerous. Countries can and do shape the world they live in.

Second, even just the emissions in Australia from these 116 new fossil fuel projects (their methane leaks, fuel use and other relevant emissions) will pour 344 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmos- phere by 2030. That dwarfs the 205 million tonnes of emissions the entire SGM is supposed to save over that same period.

And finally, leaving aside the risks of catastrophic climate change, which is admittedly a big ask, it is hard to overstate the risks to the Australian economy of continuing to focus our investment on the expansion of export industries that the rest of the world is committed to transitioning away from.

If we aimed the $11 billion per year we spend on fossil fuel subsidies at decarbonising our economy, we would slash emissions in no time.


No new coal, oil and gas

The Australian Government continues to support unlimited growth in fossil fuel production and export, despite clear statements from the UN, the IEA and the IPCC that new fossil fuel projects are incompatible with global temperature goals.

No matter where in the world Australian fossil fuels are burned, they will turn up the heat. We can’t escape the simple truth that humanity must stop burning fossil fuels. It’s the only path to a liveable future.


Richard Denniss economist authorDr Richard Denniss is the Australia Institute’s chief economist. He is an economist with a particular interest in the role of regulation. Prior to taking up his current position he was an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government. He continues to hold an adjunct appointment at the Australian National University.

Richard has also worked as Strategy Adviser to the Leader of the Australian Greens. As well as Senator Bob Brown, Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Australian Democrats, and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. He has also lectured in economics at the University of Newcastle.

Richard has published extensively in academic journals. He is a frequent contributor to national newspapers. Richard was the co-author of the best selling Affluenza (with Dr Clive Hamilton). He is also the co-author of An Introduction to Australian Public Policy: Theory and Practice (with Dr Sarah Maddison).



Category: Literature & literary studies

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Thames & Hudson Aust

ISBN: 9781760764173

RRP: $29.99

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