Lately we’ve been reading many articles about energy transition, so we thought it would be a good time to discuss how Australia can move away from coal in a ‘fair’ transition.
With 2018 and 2019 being record years for large-scale solar and wind developments and rooftop solar in Australia, change is already disrupting the energy sector. The government, energy authorities, and market operators are all now trying to decide the best way to go about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
One very important aspect of the transition that is being discussed is how to make it just and fair for those Australians currently working in the energy sector, particularly for those in coal mining. Let’s take a look at what the clean energy revolution means for coal workers and communities.
The economic and social price of going without coal
Historically, abrupt change associated with coal and industrial transitions brings a heavy price for workers and communities because regional economies and labour markets can’t always cope.
Coal communities tend to be economically dependent on mining, and the winding down of coal industry would have flow-on effects to local economies and businesses that could be substantial. In some cases, as many as a third of workers could be struggling to find alternative work.
In coal mining, there is a high concentration of low and semi-skilled workers, and in Australia, 60% of coal mining workers are younger than 45 years old. Mining is well paid compared to other jobs, say in power stations or in other industries. If coal workers don’t lose their job through the transition away from fossil fuels, they could be facing a pay cut.
Cultural and environmental factors
Cultural and environmental factors also need to be taken into account when planning a just and fair transition. There is a long tradition of coal mining shaping the local culture and identity of coal communities, and these communities can be opposed to change if they consider it will cause a loss of history and character for them.
As for the local environmental impacts of coal mining, these are well known: the pollution of land, water, and air due to mining operations and mining waste has created brownfields and degraded land.
There are political ramifications if an energy transition is not conducted in a fair and just way. The term ‘energy justice’ is often used to capture the ideal aims of
distributing benefits and costs equally; engaging all stakeholders in decision making; and recognising multiple perspectives when it comes to considering and planning investments, incentives and whatever else is required to minimise the economic and social impacts of a rapid energy transition within coal communities.
No-one said making the transition from fossil fuels to renewables was going to be easy, but an important first step to doing it right is for governments to be aware of the areas they need to consider.