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Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a strident defence of coal on Wednesday, saying the industry was worth $70 billion a year to the economy and vital to many communities around the country.

Asked about the world’s biggest investment fund BlackRock dumping half a billion dollars in coal shares, Morrison said transitioning away from coal could “[pull] the rug from regional communities”.

But experts say most Australians would “hardly notice” if we went coal-free, and that the transition was already well underway. 

“Life would go on as usual,” said Paul Burke, an economist working on energy, the environment and transport at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. 

“We’re just talking about one input into the economy, and fossil fuels are substitutional for renewables, especially given they are now much cheaper and reliable than before.”

Burke said despite the polarisation of the climate change debate in Australia, the shift away from fossil fuels was not in fact a radical one, and “could happen in a way that most of us would hardly notice”. 

So what would the next steps be in terms of weaning ourselves off the black stuff?   

More job transition schemes

With a dozen coal-fired power plants already closed in Australia since 2013, according to some figures many local communities are already grappling with the issue of unemployment. 

But Burke says the number of people affected is small in economic terms, and that transitional programs are already operating in some states to great success.

The Latrobe Worker Transfer Scheme in Victoria, which is redeploying retrenched Hazelwood power station workers to other sites, has become a world-leader in regional labour adjustment. But more programs will be needed for NSW and Queensland. 

“Providing adequate retraining and a safety net for people in those areas is a very important part of planning for this transition.” 

Electricity

According to experts, coal is already making a much lower contribution to our electricity mix — down to 60% to from 80% 20 years ago. And Australia’s transport system is increasingly shifting to electricity and batteries. 

Dani Alexander, a research principal at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, said a grid powered completely by renewables was closer to reality than most people think.

“All the technologies already exist. We don’t need any technological breakthroughs to make it economically viable. If you built a new power station now, it would be renewable. All we’re missing is a comprehensive energy policy.” 

Exports

After iron ore, coal is Australia’s biggest export and has propped up the economy for decades. 

But Burke says Australia is already primed to export renewable energy to Asian markets.

Iron ore billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes have invested millions in a $20 billion-plus Sun Cable project set to drive Asia’s transition to cleaner energy.

“This sector could be really ramped up,” Burke said. “There are lots of land and wind resources in the north of Australia, and there is the potential we could be exporting more in terms of energy content and making more revenue from these zero carbon opportunities.” 

The take-away?

While the transition away from coal might require political leadership and policy change, it’s happening already.

“The lights will still go on and we will continue to live our lives, and most of us will not even notice,” Burke said.

Will Australia manage to transition away from coal power? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.