Mining company Glencore could be forced to only sell coal from a new mine in New South Wales to signatories of the Paris climate agreement, under a proposal floated by the state’s independent planning commission.
Opposed by Glencore and its joint-venture partner in the mine, Peabody, the condition would see approval of the Wambo open-cut coalmine in the state’s Hunter Valley linked to the countries it exports to.
But the proposal has prompted a mixed response from environment groups. While some have argued linking the coal mine’s approval to global emissions is positive, others say merely restricting exports to signatories to the Paris agreement will not have any meaningful impact because virtually every country has signed up to the agreement.
In a statement, the NSW independent planning commission said it was considering approving the mine under the condition Glencore prepared an export management plan showing how it would “use its best endeavours” to ensure any coal extracted from the mine only be exported to signatories to the Paris deal, or to countries that have similar policies in place aimed at minimising greenhouse gas emissions.
The purpose of the condition, the commission said, “is to ensure that all practicable measures are adopted by the applicant to minimise greenhouse gas emissions”.
The proposal document circulated by the planning commission fails to distinguish between signatories to the Paris agreement and those that have actually ratified it; when it was negotiated in 2015 the Paris accord was signed by 195 countries covering most of the Earth’s greenhouse emissions.
While the Lock the Gate Alliance said the group supported the proposal, the Environment Defenders Officer said the proposal was “flawed” because it assumed countries which had ratified the Paris agreement would meet climate abatement targets; under current commitments, the world is on track for more than 3C of global heating, well beyond what was promised in the Paris agreement.
The EDO’s chief executive, David Morris, said the group was considering the “legal validity” of the condition, but that it was flawed because it was underpinned by “two factual inaccuracies”.
“Many countries that have signed the Paris Agreement, on current trajectories, will fail to achieve their existing commitments,” he said.
“Even if all signatories did meet their existing commitments, the world will warm far more than the goal set in Paris to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees.
“That is, despite the fact that most countries are signatories to, and have ratified, the Paris Agreement, there remains a huge disconnect between countries’ Paris Commitments and achieving the Goals of the Paris Agreement. “Also, given that the vast majority of countries have either signed or ratified the Paris Agreement, the proposed condition will do very little to change the business as usual approach to the mitigation of emissions from coal exports.”
The planning commission’s proposal comes seven months after the chief judge of the state’s land and environment court, Brian Preston, dismissed an appeal by mining company Gloucester Resources over the controversial Rocky Hill open-cut coking coal mine 5km outside of the town of Gloucester in the state’s Hunter Valley, in part because of its impact on climate change.
While that decision did not set a legal precedent, Georgina Woods from the Lock the Gate Alliance said the decision had “opened the door” for the commission to consider the global emission implications of an approval on a coalmine.
“I think that basically the commission has been grappling with what it can and should do in the wake of Rocky Hill and this is them trying to find a position on what is in their power to do,” she said.
“I think it’s positive that, rather than the commission taking at face value what Glencore is saying about its impact on emissions, it’s actually making that a legal requirement of its approval.
“The condition they have proposed does need augmenting to recognise that simply being a member of the Paris agreement doesn’t in and of itself achieve what the commission is seeking to achieve, but it is significant because it is the first time ever that the approval of a mine in NSW would be tied to the global effort to reduce global greenhouse emissions.”
Woods said that if Glencore was forced to develop an export management plan, it should be “dynamic”.
“What we will be arguing is that the management plan needs to have an annual review plan. The Paris agreement is an instrument that recognises mitigation needs to be dynamic and something that increases over time. The commitments are not static so neither can any emissions management.”
Glencore and Peabody argue that the condition should not be imposed because the most likely buyers of the coal were already Paris signatories. In a lengthy submission, it also argued against linking the mine with emissions from coal exported to a foreign country, as proposed by environment groups in the wake of the Gloucester decision.
The buyers, the companies argued, were “ultimately responsible” for emissions.
“[E]missions generated by the combustion of the project’s coal should not outweigh the significant social and economic benefits that the project will deliver at a local, regional and state level,” it said in a submission to the commission.