On December 12, 2015, leaders from 195 countries reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change and accelerate the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future.

The main aim of the Paris Agreement is to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels, with an ideal aim of keeping the rise to less than 1.5C. One of the key prerequisites of this was to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

For Australia this potentially means a lesser reliance on fossil fuels and coal- red power stations for energy production.

Three years on from the famous agreement, the National Mining Chronicle looked into the impacts the Paris Agreement has had on the mining industry and the impact it could continue to have into the future.

Coal is undoubtedly an important commodity for the Australian economy, and despite calls from some sections of the public for mining of the commodity to be banned, the impact this would have on jobs and trade cannot be downplayed.

New South Wales Minerals Council Chief Executive Officer Stephen Galilee said it was clear how important coal was to Australia.

Mr Galilee said producers in NSW – the largest coal mining state in Australia – employed around 22,000 coal miners, which did not include associated personnel, and the coal industry provided 15 per cent of the state’s exports by value.

“We have seen with some concern, policy calls from the Greens here in NSW to end coal mining within the next 10 years,” he said. “We know if those sorts of policies are implemented, it would have a devastating impact on the region.

“Our assessment is that if this was to happen – if there was to be a significant reduction of coal mining activity in NSW – we expect it would put the economy into a state of recession.”

A report released by the Institute of Public Affairs in August 2018 suggested the economic cost to Australia in meeting its Paris Agreement emissions reduction target between 2018 and 2030 was $52 billion in net present value terms.

This figure considered the additional cost of generating electricity in Australia as a result of the Paris Agreement’s emissions targets, but did not include the economic costs of losing coal mining and exports.

Should the economic costs of a reduction in coal mining be as severe as Mr Galilee suggested, the actual cost of meeting Paris Agreement targets could be far higher.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Mr Galilee was con dent a balanced energy mix which included coal and achieved increased energy efficiency and reduced emissions was possible through industry collaboration.

He said choosing one method of energy generation as the only way forward was an extreme view and one unlikely to succeed.

“We are moving towards an energy mix globally, and there is a desire for more efficient energy with lower emissions and cost,” he said.

“As renewable energy improves and as the cost comes down it’s able to compete, and that’s what we’re seeing.

“From a mining industry perspective, the increased use of renewable energy actually provides significant opportunity.

“Renewable energy is technically not renewable if you consider you do have to mine the components that are required to manufacture the machines that generate the renewable energy.”

For Mr Galilee new coal- red power stations being built today represented efficient, clean energy sources which would run for 30 to 40 years, even in a carbon-constrained economy.

“Coal power stations are efficient generators of electricity at low cost,” he said. “This alone will help to ensure their longevity for the foreseeable future.”

Another argument put forward by Mr Galilee for the continued mining and export of Australian coal was the quality of the commodity.

He said Australia was playing an important role in helping to reduce emissions through its production of coal, as the alternative was higher emissions from lower-quality coal sourced elsewhere.

“Power stations using new technology are being built and they need the high-quality thermal coal Australia has got,” he said.

“If we don’t supply it to them, they will get their thermal coal from elsewhere and it will be a lower-quality thermal coal, which will generate the same amount of energy but will do so with higher emissions.”

Chief Scientist of Western Australia Professor Peter Klinken was also an advocate for industry collaboration, viewing the ongoing transition to a broader energy mix as an opportunity for miners.

Professor Klinken said it was unequivocal that climate change was happening and there was a strong anthropogenic component to it, which meant it was incumbent on all industries to band together to alleviate this by whatever means possible.

“As my mum always told me, if you make a mess you clean it up, and as humans that responsibility is ours,” he said.

“Australia has done extremely well out of its resource sector, but the world is changing. We need to make sure we don’t remain fixed in our views. We need to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances and actually grasp opportunities.”

For Professor Klinken these opportunities included manufacturing batteries, as he said Australia was blessed with sunlight and had the whole range of components required.

“The Western Australian State Government is definitely looking into this,” he said. “There is the lithium taskforce that is looking all the way down the value chain so WA can participate, but it cannot just be governments pushing this, the industry has to get involved as well.

“If it does, and manufacturing batteries comes to fruition, the potential future I see is rather than replacing coal- red power stations at the end of their lifetimes, you actually transition towards renewables, a transition engineered by the mining industry.”

Looking to the next big thing

While the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries looks to be a fruitful avenue for the Australian mining industry, AusIMM Director Chris Davis warned against placing all our eggs in the one basket, reasoning that more efficient new technologies that were cheaper to manufacture and run could overtake the poster child in the coming decades.

“Within the next two decades lithium-ion battery technology will be obsolete,” he said.

“Hydrogen could become a significant part of Australia’s energy landscape within the coming decade.”

Professor Klinken said while there would be improvements and advancements that would eventually replace lithium, 20 years was still a long time and the key thing Australia needed to do was position itself for the transition to the next big commodity.

“Australia is ideally placed for this transition if we get our act together and we actually line up all of the different components we’ve got instead of just saying ‘well you know we take big rocks and we make them smaller and we put them on a ship and then we buy back the manufactured product’,” he said.

Mr Galilee said there would be a number of new energy sources and storage options in the future, but the mining industry was well placed to be a big part of whatever the future held.

“What is going to drive energy policy into the future is not governments forcing people to change their behaviours, it is innovation, technology and entrepreneurial skill in delivering cheaper, more efficient energy which will then get people to voluntarily change behaviours,” he said.

“This is where the mining industry can capitalise, but anyone trying to force the issue will have a counterproductive effect on the outcome.”

Image: Underground miners at Centennial Coal’s Mandalong coal mine in the Hunter Valley.