As the federal government harrumphs, Australia moves away from coal

As the federal government harrumphs, Australia moves away from coal

Both its states and its export markets have pledged drastic cuts in carbon emissions

If a coal-free future awaits the town of Muswellbrook, in New South Wales, there is little sign of it. It is surrounded by vast canyons of grey and brown rock—open-cast coal mines. Nearby, two huge power plants burn their output for electricity. More is piled onto sooty trains which rumble constantly through the town, conveying its riches east, to the port of Newcastle, from which the coal is shipped across Asia.

According to Muswellbrook’s mayor, Martin Rush, the surrounding region is the source of more than a tenth of the world’s internationally traded thermal coal (the sort burnt in power plants, as opposed to coking coal, which is used to make steel). Fully one third of locals rely on the stuff for well-paid work. The problem is that, in the next five years, three of the area’s mines will close. So will one of the ancient power stations, as utilities replace coal with cheaper, cleaner energy. Mr Rush reckons that it will take “between 20 and 30 years” for the local industry to die out altogether. Some miners hope for longer. Either way, says Mike Kelly of the local chamber of commerce, no one denies that the long-term trend is down.

The same realisation is dawning across Australia. Its three biggest export markets for fossil fuels—China, Japan and South Korea—have all recently pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century or just after. Another buyer of Australian coal, the Philippines, has banned new coal-fired power plants.