The politics of coal and climate
A UTS team of political sociologists is investigating the coal industry with a research project that challenges the development of new mining projects.
James Goodman, Devleena Ghosh, Tom Morton, Jonathan Marshall, Linda Connor (University of Sydney) and Stuart Rosewarne (University of Sydney)
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Australian Research Council Discovery Grant
A research team from the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is investigating the how, what and why of new coal mines in an effort to understand why they’re approved, the social conflicts they cause, and what it will take to stop them.
Called ‘The Coal Rush and Beyond: Climate Change, Coal Reliance and Contested Futures’, the ARC-funded project investigates the politics underpinning coal reliance and supply in Australia, India and Germany.
“In researching the problem of climate change, we realised that the main barrier to addressing emissions reductions is the coal industry,” says Associate Professor James Goodman, who is leading the research in collaboration with Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh, Associate Professor Tom Morton and Dr Jonathan Marshall.
“The world needs to move beyond coal if it wants to make any headway.”
It’s a familiar refrain, supported by a significant body of international research showing that the energy inefficiency of this little black rock is causing catastrophic damage to the environment. But even in the face of such damning evidence, too many countries remain reliant on it, either as a fuel source or export product.
While the outlook is grim, the group’s research has revealed some bright spots among the smog: over the course of the last five years, the research team have noted the beginnings of a global shift towards renewable energy, which is reflected in the way that governments are dealing with the development of new coal projects.
“What’s incredible about these mines we chose is that as we’ve been tracking them over the past 3–4 years, the whole politics around them have changed. That’s a product of climate policy, but also of governments realising that the renewable sector does actually offer an alternative,” he says.
Germany and India are both showing promising signs of reducing their reliance on coal as they increase their uptake of renewable energies. The key, Goodman says, seems to be in keeping renewable energy distributed and small-scale — in Germany, approximately half of the renewable energy infrastructure is managed by co-ops, communities and municipalities, while in India there are numerous distributed power systems at the village and local levels. Local participation gives political leverage.
Australia, however, remains stubbornly wedded to a coal-powered future.
“If the renewable sector is controlled by large companies with their own vested interests, which it looks like is increasingly happening in Australia, it’s not clear that they would have the political clout that is needed to force fundamental change,” Goodman says.
“It’s going to take a major government investment to shift this sector significantly. There are some really interesting and exciting things happening in the community power sector in Australia, but not at the scale that’s needed.”
The Coal Rush and Beyond project hit the national radio waves in a three-part series on the Science Show on ABC Radio National.
- Part 1: The march of coal (Saturday 27 August 2016)
- Part 2: The age of coal (Saturday 3 September 2016)
- Part 3: The transition begins (Saturday 10 September 2016)
The program received a bronze award in the Climate Change and Sustainability category of the 2017 New York Festivals World's Best Radio Programs awards.
Photographer (James Goodman and Tom Morton): Joanne Saad
Photo of Devleena Ghosh supplied
All other photographs courtesy of coalrush.net