Australia’s history with coal is almost as old as the country itself.

And while it’s long been at the face of Australia’s energy supply and industries, coal is now at the forefront of change as a new generation of power sources rises to prominence.

First collected in 1799, just a decade or so out from colonisation, coal immediately became an export commodity for settlers, shipping out to India in 1801, beginning a trade relationship that continues today. Traditionally, coal has provided thousands of coal miners with a steady, stable income while supporting the surrounding business ecosystems.

But coal’s primary function has always been to generate the power that Australia – and many other nations – have relied on to fuel their economies and drive progress. And while many Western, wealthy nations ‘splash the cash’ on new ideas and energy technologies, many countries in the developing world still rely on Australia’s vast coal export supply.

And herein lies one of the many issues we face and a hot debate around the future of coal mining Down Under. While many in-country and worldwide are calling for the planned extinction of Australia’s coal-fired power plants, that’s only half the equation, as coal will still be mined and exported globally, and in essence, so will the emissions. 

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Coal is on the Nose, But Investment Continues to Grow

Despite the broad aim for ambitious climate targets and net zero by 2050, and perhaps not what you might think, the coal industry is thriving. Fresh investment continues in states like New South Wales and Queensland as coal miners, companies, and the government work out how to tackle the Energy Transition while slowly phasing out coal-fired sources.

However, Australia was recently singled out as a significant carbon emitter by a group of global researchers, who called for cuts to subsidies to coal and a ramping up of emission reduction policies. According to the study, on a scorecard featuring 20 (G20) economies, Australia ranked “low” on the coal phase-out in power generation compared to countries in Europe, alongside a “medium” rank in renewable energy generation.

The experts say Australia would need to generate electricity with zero carbon emissions by 2035, with an 80% waypoint in 2030 remaining out of sight. The contrast is that globally, coal demand reached an all-time high, with 8031 million tonnes projected for use in 2024. Leaving the question, if coal is still so critical, how can we reduce investment and replace it in the medium term without impacting power supply?

It’s a balancing act that will impact coal miners and potentially every Australian who turns their lights on.


Coal Mining: A Future Still Unknown

With so much still up in the air and so many strong yet polarising opinions, the coal debate will undoubtedly rage for a while. There is no doubt that coal-fired power plants in Australia are on the chopping block; however, the future for coal miners is less clear.

With much of the world demanding more giant quantities of coal and with Australia’s considerable reserves and export network, it’s easy to see coal mining as a viable career for the near term. At some point, however, if the world is to meet its decarbonisation targets, coal mining will have to cease altogether.

But by that time, and on the bright side, it’s likely that new industries will have popped up in the clean energy sector and that coal miners can transfer their skills to a new generation of power supply. Thus ensuring that the tradition and hard work put into coal mining over 200 years continue to provide Australia and the world with the energy we need to succeed. 

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