June 23, 2020 / 9:11 AM / a month ago

Column: Australia's mining lobby takes a baby step on climate change

LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - Australia’s mining lobby group, the Minerals Council of Australia, long derided by environmentalists as coal-loving dinosaurs, has launched a climate action plan that is probably significant for what it doesn’t say than what it does.

A stacker/reclaimer places coal in stockpiles at the coal port in Newcastle June 6, 2012. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

On the surface the council’s report looks reasonable, committing to an ambition of net zero emissions and outlining a series of actions aimed at achieving the goal.

But the document, released on Monday, is short on specifics, with many of the action points and activities couched in vague language that is open to interpretation.

An example is the activity point on “supporting adaptation”.

“Understand the types of adaptation investments needed in the minerals sector, especially in regard to operations, employee health, supply chains, water use, energy resources and local communities, to help minimise the adverse impacts of a changing climate,” the report said.

The paragraph is a smorgasbord of ideas and words, but leaves the reader wondering what exactly the group is proposing and what would “adaptation investments” actually look like.

Leaving aside the verbosity, it’s the lack of specifics that is probably the report’s most unsatisfactory aspect.

There is no time frame for committing to net zero emissions, and there are no time frames specified for any of the action points, even those that seem fairly specific.

It calls for the “widespread deployment of low and zero emissions technologies”, but doesn’t spell out what that means.

Does this imply the council supports moving all mining equipment from diesel power to electric? Does it support using renewable energies such as wind and solar, and battery storage, to power remote mine sites?

The council merely says it supports these moves, but then it also supports a whole range of other measures, so gaining a sense of the priorities is challenging.

Elsewhere in the report the council says there are opportunities for pursuing “decarbonisation including through operational efficiencies, abatement, developing and deploying low emissions technologies including renewables, hydrogen, proven, safe and reliable Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) and advanced nuclear solutions, as well as digitisation, automation, and electrification”.

But the council doesn’t specify which one of the plethora of above ideas is high on the agenda, and the inclusion of widely discounted technologies such as CCUS would appear to be little more than a sop to the coal mining industry.

Outside of the coal sector and its political promoters, it’s hard to find any credible researcher, analyst or industry leader who believes CCUS is viable from a cost or scale perspective.

The council’s mention of nuclear power also appears designed to distract from other issues, given Australia’s policy of no nuclear power and widespread public support for that position.

RENEWABLE ENERGY MINERALS

Where the report is on more solid ground is the recognition that mining will be vital to produce the metals needed to drive a switch to cleaner energy and technologies.

While Australia’s current mineral expertise is concentrated on being the world’s top exporter of iron ore and coking coal, the country also has significant other advantages.

It ranks fifth in world copper and cobalt output and has the second-largest reserves of copper, cobalt and bauxite. It is ranked third in reserves of lithium and rare earths.

Australia is the world’s top producer of bauxite, the base for aluminium, in which it ranks number five in global output, according to the government agency Geosciences Australia.

The council is correct to focus on developing these minerals in a push to drive the uptake of renewables, but at no point in the report does it talk about coal, other than a brief mention about a demonstration carbon capture and storage project.

It’s hard to see how Australia could achieve a net zero emissions mining industry while remaining the world’s largest exporter of coking coal used to manufacture steel, and the second-largest thermal coal exporter.

Of course, the council may not be considering the emissions created once the resource has been shipped out of Australia, and there is no mention of this in the four-page report.

If the council wishes to be taken seriously on climate change, it will have to do considerably more to flesh out its plans. At best, the report is a reasonable first statement of intent, but it falls short of being a comprehensive roadmap.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters. 

Editing by Himani Sarkar

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