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NSW plan for 21 coal plants would create seven years of nation’s emissions, expert says

A New South Wales mining industry push for 21 new coal projects to be approved to boost an economic recovery from coronavirus would add seven years’ worth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere if they were all developed, according to analysis.

The NSW Minerals Council identified the unapproved coal projects, at various stages of environmental assessment and development, saying they would create about 10,000 jobs and generate billions in royalties.

A University of New South Wales academic says if all the projects go ahead, they would have a “huge climate impact” emitting 3,717m tonnes of CO2 equivalent over their lifetimes from the burning of the coal for power generation and to make steel.

In a report, Mining for the Recovery, the council identified 21 coal projects among 32 mining developments currently being assessed in NSW.

In the report, the council said a series of economic shocks “including drought, bushfires and a worldwide pandemic” was threatening the state’s economy.

“There may never be a more important time to support mining in NSW, one of the largest contributors to the state economy,” the report said.

Among the 21 projects, seven were to extract coal for power generation, three targeted coal for steel-making, and 11 would dig up a mixture of both types of coal.

In May, federal government figures showed Australia’s emissions in 2019 were 532.5 m tonnes – a drop of 0.9% on the previous year.

In June, the Minerals Council of Australia – of which the NSW council is an associate member – declared it had a goal to reach net-zero emissions “as fast as possible” without setting an actual date.

Prof Jeremy Moss, at the UNSW Climate Justice Project, who carried out the analysis, said Australia was already struggling to bring its annual greenhouse gas emissions down.

Some of the coal from the 21 projects would be exported before it was burned, he said, because the domestic market for coal was not strong. Countries only declare emissions from burning fossil fuels within their own borders.

While domestic emissions were down only 1%, Moss said emissions from exported fossil fuels were up more than 4%.

He said: “It’s pathetic action at home, coupled with outrageous disregard abroad – that’s what we are doing. Where the action is with [Australia’s] emissions is in our exports.

“Taking the lifetime emissions of these projects is a better way of helping people understand the contribution that we make to climate change.”

To calculate the figures, Moss analysed the production estimates from the projects and the type of coal their proponents said they would extract.

He said: “NSW does not need 21 new coalmines to help it recover from the economic impacts of Covid-19.

“What the state does need is a plan that can help the state’s economy, workers and communities transition away from fossil to new low-carbon industries that will be sustainable in the future.”

Georgina Woods, a spokesperson for the NSW Lock the Gate Alliance, which campaigns against fossil fuels, said: “The NSW Minerals Council is typically ignoring the environmental and social damage of the new and expanding coalmines on its list and trying again to coerce New South Wales into accepting mining projects that will damage our long-term interests.

“The mines on the list include Watermark on the Liverpool Plains, Wallarah 2 in the drinking water catchment of the Central Coast, and mines in the heart of the Hunter Valley where air pollution is already harming people’s health.”

In June, the NSW government released a Future of Coal statement which it said articulated the state’s approach to “the global transition to a low carbon future, consistent with Australia’s ambition under the Paris agreement” and how it would manage the impact on communities reliant on coal for jobs.

The statement said commitments from countries under the Paris climate agreement would “ultimately lead to the global phasing out of coal in electricity generation” but this would take decades to complete.

The statement said: “Ending or reducing NSW thermal coal exports while there is still strong long-term global demand would likely have little or no impact on global carbon emissions.”

Guardian Australia asked the NSW Minerals Council for comment on the analysis and asked how the promotion of the coal projects could fit with the Minerals Council of Australia’s pledge on net zero-emissions.

A spokesperson said the state’s coal exports were important for growing Asian economies and emitted fewer emissions when burned than coal from other export countries.

In a statement, the spokesperson said: “The coal industry continues to invest heavily in low emission technology to reduce carbon emissions.

“High efficiency, low emission power stations are helping to reduce emissions, and there are now examples of carbon capture and storage being applied to coal fired power stations. As costs decrease, this technology will be able to be deployed more broadly, helping to achieve deep cuts in emissions.”

The statement added mining projects in the NSW planning system “have the potential to deliver almost $13 billion in investment and over 15,500 jobs” at a time when the coronavirus pandemic had generated an “enormous task in rebuilding” the state’s economy.


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