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Net zero: Why they're worried in rural Australia

Net zero: Why they're worried in rural Australia

This file photo taken on Nov 18, 2015 shows a large truck driving through an open-cut coal mine in Singleton in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. (Photo: AFP/William West)

SYDNEY: As Australia's prime minister Scott Morrison attends the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow this weekend, Jeremy Brett and his employees will be toiling away in Singleton, a small but prosperous, rural community around 200km north of Sydney.

Mr Brett is general manager of Morgan Engineering, which has been providing specialist services to the local mining and construction industries for more than 40 years.

The size of his business will soon increase by another 30 employees as he builds a brand new workshop to cope with the ever-increasing demand for his company's skills.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of his business comes from mining and right now Morgan Engineering is going gangbusters.

With the price of coal at record levels and planning approval to keep the mines operating for at least another 20 years, Singleton and the surrounding Hunter region is enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity.

It is a world away from Glasgow where politicians, scientists and environmentalists will argue the case for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.


While the people of Singleton are well aware that fossil fuel and the many industries that rely on its production have a limited life expectancy, reports of the imminent death of coal are greatly exaggerated, at least in these parts.

"Obviously we keep one eye on the news and talk about these things, (but) I think the world still has an insatiable appetite for coal," said Mr Brett.

And that is good news for Australia's second-largest export industry – almost A$55 billion (US$42 billion) worth of coal was exported in 2020.

Coal employs around 50,000 people and generates more than half of the country's electricity supplies. More importantly the Minerals Council of Australia predicts that the value of coal exports will increase by 23 per cent in the next decade.

The downside is the impact on global warming. Coal-fired power stations add to harmful greenhouse gases which are not only bad for health but also create extremes in climate.

Australia has been particularly hard hit by the growing influence of higher temperatures and the natural disasters they cause.


Scientists argue it is no coincidence that Australia suffered some of its worst bushfires in living memory in 2019/20, a period of intense drought and record heatwaves.

Floods, cyclones and other extreme weather events have also been attributed to increased carbon emissions, as well as more localised environmental crises.

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland is the largest and most complex coral reef system in the world. The underwater wonderland attracts many thousands of tourists a year.

Yet in the past five years it has suffered three mass bleaching events, which have been partly blamed on climate change.

Warmer sea temperatures have removed the algae which in turn causes coral to turn white, thereby threatening the long-term survival of one of the planet's most sensitive ecosystems.

The future of the reef - and how to prevent its destruction - is just one of many environmental issues that will place added pressure on the Australian government at COP26.

The question is: How much is the nation prepared to sacrifice in the form of higher energy costs and loss of jobs in the quest for a safer planet?


Professor Andy Pitman, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, likened the current debate to the end of the horse and cart era and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Jobs and the economy face inevitable change, he argued.

It is not about whether it happens, it is about how effectively it's managed," he pointed out.

"It's going to happen whether or not Australia or Singleton like it. What's critical is that replacement and better opportunities are made available to these people."

Chris Briggs, a research director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, agreed.

He is a specialist in renewables and has no doubt that clean energy transition will more than compensate for the loss of jobs in more traditional industries.

"The regions built around coal are certainly vulnerable but there's no question there's the potential for more jobs and a lot of upside" he told CNA.

He pointed to Australia's bountiful supplies of wind, solar and hydro resources, which he believes will boost employment.

Then there is the lucrative market for other minerals such as copper which will continue to require labour.

"There is going to be enormous demand for non-coal types of mining," he added.

"And we could see a resurgence in aluminium and steel based on low costs renewables."

Hydrogen also has the potential to replace locally produced gas, while more heavy industry could end up being powered by renewable energy.

"As we transition to clean energy local advantages in solar, wind and hydro will become more important," he predicted.

And that could mean many more jobs.


Back in Singleton, the local mayor, Sue Moore, is not so sure.

And she has little time for Australian government guarantees that jobs in renewable industries will have the potential to replace employment lost by the end of coal production.

As a Singleton resident born and bred, she knows how the locals feel.

"Generally speaking, they don't see that renewables are going to deliver the jobs. There might be jobs in the construction phase but definitely not once the structures are complete," she said.

Such sentiments are echoed by many people in regional Australia. It is why the National Party, which keeps the coalition government in power, has negotiated generous guarantees about future jobs growth and renewable technology from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in return for their support.

It is their backing that will allow him to commit to a 2050 net zero emissions target at COP26.


But while this may keep his critics at bay in Glasgow, there is a wider political agenda back home.

With rural Australia hoping to reap big financial benefits under the government's net zero strategy, country voters could be tempted away from the smaller independent parties such as One Nation.

Alternatively, the net zero commitment by the National Party could undermine backing among low-paid rank and file voters who fear for their livelihoods.

Others suggest it might benefit the Labor Party, which is yet to reveal its manifesto, by picking up support from an electorate which has become increasingly disenchanted with eight years of conservative rule.

Mr Morrison, whose coalition government has been running behind Labor in the opinion polls, needs all the support he can muster at the moment.

However, like so much in politics, nothing is assured, much like the outcome to COP26. In common with most of Singleton, Jeremy Brett is wary of politicians bearing gifts.

"I think it's all about short term politics to win votes and every country around the world suffers from it," he said.

"I don't think anybody has a long-term vision or commitment."

Right now, the head of Morgan Engineering is more concerned about completing his new workshop so he can continue to grow his company and employ more staff.

"I want to protect the environment as much as anyone but you've got to give people access to a standard of living offered by electricity," he insisted, in reference to the worldwide demand for energy supplies.

But he is also aware of the need for change as fossil fuels fall out of favour and the planet turns to more sustainable power.

While the great climate change debate will not be easy to resolve, Mr Brett worries about the impact of mine closures on his close-knit community.

"Not just for us but for the mum and dad cafe owners and even the local embroiderer who makes all the hi-vis shirts," he pointed out.

"It would have a devastating impact."

Australia's prime minister insists it will not come to that, predicting on Tuesday (Oct 26) that his plan will create 62,000 mining and heavy industry jobs.

"Australians want action on climate change …. but they also want to protect their jobs," he acknowledged.

"I also want to protect the Australian way of life, especially in rural and regional areas," he told reporters in Canberra.

It is exactly that sort of reliable, homespun future that so many country folk fear is most at risk.


Source: CNA/ac