The Government's inconsistent ethical argument for coal


Coal fired power plant

Coal has been back in the news recently. The ALP has committed itself to the reintroduction of carbon pricing; signs are that Adani will not proceed with its massive Queensland coal project without massive government subsidies; controversy has arisen over the conditional endorsement of the Shenhua mine in the Liverpool plains.

These developments should be seen in the wider context of the present Australian Government’s commitment to coal mining and export as a central part of economic development.

They also take place within a growing ethical debate, expressed in pressure from other nations to curb emissions, and more recently from Pope Francis. This has increased the pressure on ethical investors to withdraw from energy companies. In response both the Government and the coal industry have offered ethical arguments for mining and exporting coal and opposing disinvestment.

Their ethical argument for coal is that it is the most readily available and cheapest resource for generating electricity. Electricity is essential for the development of poorer nations, and the heat, light and power it brings to brings impoverished people in those nations improve their lot enormously. For advanced nations to deny coal to these nations is to prevent the poor from rising out of their poverty and to prevent national development.

The structure of this argument based on our duty to the poor is significant. It assumes that governments, mining companies, banks and the people who invest in them a duty to consider the effects of their actions on people both in their own nations and in other nations.

This assumption is important, perhaps even surprising, because the actions of business and government interests are so often seen as ethics-free zones, where corporations must take into account only their own self-interest. What is profitable for government and shareholders can and must be done. This argument for coal is inconsistent with this view.

In dealing with this argument I would argue that the effect of mining on poverty stricken people must also consider all the other salient effects. These include the effects on the health and welfare of people in the vicinity of the mines and electricity generating plants. These must be weighed against the damage caused by not exporting coal.

The effect of coal mining and electricity generation on the environment with its fragility, diversity and beauty must also be taken into account. Human beings and many other species can survive only in a tightly defined environment. They have a duty to refrain from activity that would put the environment at serious risk. This duty binds nations and corporations as well as individuals.

Associated with care for the environment is the duty of care for future generations. If continued coal mining will put at risk the health and welfare of future generations in Australia or elsewhere, it cannot be ethically justified.

The arguments for and against coal mining clearly depend on the extent to which it contributes to climate change and to which that change is catastrophic. There is a general consensus among scientists, with some disagreement that the contribution of coal to global warming and the effects of global warming do constitute a crisis.

I would argue that it is ethically unjustifiable for governments not to act in accordance with that consensus, given what is at stake. They would be in the position of a local fire authority refusing to act on a weather bureau warning of catastrophic fire danger on the grounds that the boffins sometimes get things wrong. Where lives and safety are at risk, officials must follow prudent advice even if they personally disagree with it.

If, as the ethical argument for coal supposes, individuals – including shareholders and those in government and in institutional relationships in corporations – have a responsibility for the actions of their corporations, they must try to direct the behaviour of the organisations to ethical action. If indeed coal mining and export are necessary to benefit the poor now and in the future, they should press for it. If it is prejudicial to the poor now or in the future, they should oppose it.

If the latter is the case, as the best evidence suggests, pressure for disinvestment in coal mining firms and  financial institutions, such as banks and investment funds, which make possible their activities, is not only ethically justifiable but urgent. If this pressure sullies the reputation of these companies and institutions, they are free to dissociate themselves from coal mining.

All that said, the poor who are at the centre of the argument for coal continue to make their claim. If the abandonment of coal mining in Australia can be proved to damage the overseas poor, it may need to be phased out slowly. But that must be part of a policy, such as carbon pricing and the encouragement of large scale renewable energy technology, which will lead to cheap and clean light, heat and power in developing nations.

Ethical arguments are easy to make, but their demands are often hard to accept.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is a consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Coal power plant image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, coal, environment, ethics, development, poverty



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Existing comments

At most, there might be a marginal ethical argument for Australia continuing to export coal to poorer countries that need its contribution to energy while they move to cleaner means of generating needed energy. But that argument surely only applies to existing coal mines that have already amortised their startup costs , including costs of environmental safeguards, and are now efficient going concerns . It does not cover proposed huge new projects like Shenhua or Adani . On those,,I would say the weight of all the ethical,arguments is against proceeding. These will be very expensive stranded assets in a few years. Why destroy good farmland to build them?
Tony kevin | 24 July 2015

Thank you, Mr Hamilton. A Maori elder is currently being prosecuted in NZ for having dead kereru, a native bird, endangered. Yet Bathurst Resources, an Oz company, is allowed to mine the Denniston Plateau, killing rare, endangered and unique species. It's all for the dollar. Their coal dust will cause hundreds of residents to sicken and die (see Michael Hendryx's research, and others) and they have consent to build a coal stockpile and rail loading bay 1km long and 12+ metres high, next to our homes. It isn't just the poor who suffer the pollution and death that coal brings. Companies in this Pure NZ can do anything they like and our councils and government will turn a blind eye and simply block protest. They can breach even our rights to life. We already have the lowest life expectancy in NZ on the West Coast. I wonder why! Clean, green NZ? Huh! We are simply another corrupt country that exists for the corporations.
Jane Orchard | 25 July 2015

I would endorse both this article and Tony Kevin's comment on it. It is also, I think, necessary to take into consideration and plan for the long term future of those who currently work in or are employed in services supporting the coal industry. These are mostly blue collar working class people who are traditional Labor voters. Any future for this country must provide secure employment for these people. They must not miss out on sharing the future prosperity of this country. The gradual change to renewable energy needs to factor this in.
Edward Fido | 25 July 2015

Ethics are indeed curious things. I understand that the billowing clouds we see rising skywards from the chimney pots of our coal-powered electricity generators are indeed steam, harmless water vapour, and not, as might be expected, polluting clouds of hydrocarbon. If this is indeed the case then it imposes an ethical question re the use of today's photograph heading this article which most would interpret as a disastrous polluting generator. If, however, the clouds are not steam clouds then it points to a lack of ethics in those who claim that they are. Maybe we now live in a world where ethics no longer exist in reality but are simply descriptors that apply only to the winning of argument between opposing factions. I understand that once these generators did belch forth hydrocarbon soot but have been modified in Australia and no longer do. Is that correct? I wonder. Is today's photo not current but a relic of the past and no longer ethically admissible in this debate?
john frawley | 27 July 2015

My normal response to an argument such as "but if we can the coal, what will the poor people do" as being just another justification for digging up and selling the stuff by people who really don't care about the long term effects. So, it is good to read this well-reasoned argument - as it makes me pause and consider. I think that Australian governments and companies would do well to invest more in research in renewable energy technologies, as well as smart- and no-grid solutions that can be implemented cheaply and effectively in developing nations.
DeC | 27 July 2015

Thanks for this article, Andrew. For mine, you have provided a sound summary of the ethics of coal-mining, and I've oft seen the argument about coal being necessary to "lift the teeming millions" from their impoverished state. That the self-serving purveyors of this argument neglect that coal-fired power generation also necessitates the damming, diversion and loss of life-giving water is surprising; perhaps it doesn't suit their purpose? The one point with which I'd take exception is where you write : "There is a general consensus among scientists, with some disagreement ..." I can assure you that any such disagreement is both fabricated and and well-renumerated by the same people who seem to not understand the necessity of water for life.
David Arthur | 27 July 2015

John Frawley " I understand that once these generators did belch forth hydrocarbon soot but have been modified in Australia and no longer do. Is that correct????????"...... If coal is burnt, CO2 is produced. Where else will it go? Alan Jones once claimed (correctly) that CO2 is a colourless, tasteless and odourless gas. His questionable intention at the time seems to have been to obfuscate the debate. The mention of hydrocarbon SOOT (??) seems similar.
Robert Liddy | 27 July 2015

I endorse the thrust of this article, and in particular the qualification given by Tony Kevin. Any entrepreneur now proposing new large coal power stations etc has has its head in the sand for decades, not just over recent years. Can I have one point aside, though? the general reader of the press or viewer of TV is subtly but effectively influenced by visual images: Once again, the photograph attached to the article is dominated by billowing clouds that "suggest" harmful emissions; in fact the five main structures in the foreground are cooling towers, and the "emissions" are steam, not carbon dioxide etc. The latter come from the slender chimney stacks at left in the picture- can you see anything? I do not mean that carbon emissions are no problem, but simply point out that the visual effect is dominated by non-carbon emissions, which is grossly misleading. As an engineer I have had over twenty years experience in the electricity industry. Another point to add to perspective: while electricity from coal is rightly targeted, it still contributes a minority of all carbon emissions, and I see little concentration on other sources..
Dennis Green | 27 July 2015

Dennis Green is concerned that the photograph accompanying the article is misleading. It's just one of those things, Mr Green, that carbon dioxide is a colourless, odourless gas that mixes well throughout the atmosphere. In fact, it mixes so well that about 280 parts per million of the atmosphere were carbon dioxide even before humanity started exploiting fossil fuels to excess, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. That we have so done, to the extent that the atmosphere is now about 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, is concerning, even though carbon dioxide remains a colourless, odourless gas. The difficulty, Mr Green, is that the atmosphere now has as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as it did ~4 million years ago, in what we fondly call the Pliocene Epoch. At that time, there was little ice on Greenland, and substantially less ice on Antarctica; sea levels were at least 6 m higher than present, and possibly 25 m higher. Perhaps you could suggest a photograph that could accompany Fr Hamilton's article?
David Arthur | 27 July 2015

I agree with the ethical arguments presented, but the economic argument is also swinging, and it bodes ill for Australian coal. A year ago, I installed solar panels and LED lights throughout the house and purchased a plug-in hybrid car. I have kept account of my energy usage and can compare year to July 2014 with year to July 2015. Electricity is $120 less, but my petrol cost has dropped from $1,800 to $240, for total saving of just over $1,700. The panels generated 4MWh of energy in the year, displacing 6 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Elon Musk (the Tesla man) claims that the energy saved when delivered by wire is less than the energy expended to get fuel to me as petrol. My savings will pay for one of his batteries in two to three years. As for the poor in Africa and India, they spend, say, $50 a year purchasing kerosene for household lighting, and I believe kerosene for lighting is about 3% of global oil use. A solar lamp sells for about $10 and pays for itself in a few months. See and to learn what is happening.
Peter Horan | 27 July 2015

Crikey Robert Liddy, I can't stand a bar of Alan Jones and haven't been able to since he was a rugby opponent of my school mates representing the local country Catholic school while he represented the local Grammar school. He couldn't stop chattering on the rugby field even at that young age - usually inanely and to little advantage since we almost always hammered the Grammar School. It was probably the three Hail Mary's we always said before we ran onto the paddock! Now that I have been aligned with Jones I won't be able to look in the mirror tomorrow and will have no choice but to go unshaven. I do know, however, that Co2 is produced from coal burning generators. My point was that illustrative photos such as today's look to be terribly polluting because they look so dreadful. People swimming at Bondi beach in winter might be a bit more accurate if illustrating the heat insulating effect of increased Co2 levels in the atmosphere - but not anywhere near as off-putting as a coal stack. Ethics ain't necessarily ethics, Sol !!!!!!
john frawley | 27 July 2015

David Arthur, this is just cherrypicking. We can by the same token also point to the 20 million years of the Carboniferous/Permian period when CO2 was at today's level, as was the temperature. We can point again to a mere few million years at the end of the Ordovician when the temperature was at today's level, but the CO2 level was almost 10 times higher, at around 4,400 ppm! It's also worth pointing out that historically the normal (mode) global temperature of the earth is around 22 degrees and that our current global temperature (around 12 degrees) is a rare, low exception. Likewise, at 400 ppm the current CO2 level is in geological terms unusually low, even after anthropogenic input - and not far above the c150 ppm whereat virtually all life would be wiped out. Moreover, when CO2 and temperature levels were much higher, life teemed. Hence our vast deposits of Brother Coal. Even today, 90 percent of all life on earth exists in the tropical zone, whereas less than 1 percent exists in the polar regions. Perhaps a photo depicting life teeming in the warm tropical zones and almost non-existent at the North or South Pole - rather than cooling towers emitting potable H2O - might be in order?
HH | 27 July 2015

Normal CO2 levels or not, HH, life on earth will survive, but will we?
Peter Horan | 28 July 2015

Peter Horan, interesting question. My understanding is that humans are well able to survive in 4,400 ppm CO2. Eg, it's only at at 1% (10,000 ppm) CO2, some people start to feel drowsy. And only at 5% (50,000 ppm) is CO2 directly toxic. So I think we’re safe, given what it would take to get to those levels. Temperature wise, Oymyakon (Russia) villagers are used to -50 C in winter, and probably felt it nippy at -67C in 1933, while at the other end there are a few cities that average in the high 40 Cs (eg Kuwait) with heatwaves in the low 50s. We're a pretty flexible mob, - more so as technology develops, provided energy is cheap.
HH | 29 July 2015

The argument for coal based electricity assumes that it is cheaper than that produced by renewables. This assumption is very much questionable. In Australia, two studies have concluded that, while coal based electricity is currently cheaper than renewables, this probably will not be the case when the current ageing infrastructure need more maintenance or needs to be replaced. I see little reason to believe that the situation is any different in developing countries, even now it is very likely cheaper to develop renewable generation, rather than to acquiesce to the bleating of an industry trying to avoid its inevitable terminal decline.
John Stafford | 31 July 2015


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