Government must support communities bearing the weight of transition to clean energy
30 Jun 2023|

As the energy transition gathers momentum across the globe, sources of electricity are decarbonising, fossil fuels are slowly being superseded by renewable supplies, and more policies are being introduced to increase energy diversification and efficiency. Global efforts to achieve net-zero emissions strongly focus on cities and urban areas, rightly addressing populous centres that require a wide range of sustainable technologies.

But an equally important aspect of the energy transition is the need for governments to assist workers and communities that are dependent on the material the transition is shifting from—coal. These coalmining communities are not passive participants in the energy transition. They have much at stake and their specific challenges need to be met.

For decades, coalmining has played a crucial role in powering Australian households and stimulating the national economy. At the same time, a substantial portion of the energy-transition discussion identifies Australia’s long-embedded mining culture as one of the greatest challenges to the nation’s decarbonisation.

What’s often overlooked is what must be done to ensure that Australia, with a strong mining identity established over centuries, can make this energy transition in a way that’s equitable for all.

Such a ‘just transition’ ensures that the whole of society—including all workers, communities and social groups—is brought along in the shift to a low-carbon future. While the notion of a just transition hasn’t been widely prioritised in the global imperative to reduce emissions, it carries immense significance in creating the social ground for a lasting and durable net-zero economy.

The Australian government has identified this policy gap in announcing the creation of a new executive agency, the national Net Zero Authority to aid the fossil fuel mining workforces and the communities built around them in transitioning to clean-energy industries. From 1 July, the agency will support coal workers with new employment and reskilling opportunities; provide policies to financially support transitioning mining communities; and create low-carbon, renewable investment incentives.

The announcement of the Net Zero Authority and the reason for its inception have received broad approval from the public and civil society because it could strongly bolster Australia’s energy transition. But its success is contingent on the specific provisions to be implemented and how they address the nuanced consequences of decarbonisation on mining communities.

If this is done right, Australia may be able to make the transition in a way not yet seen across the world.

A clear task for government is reducing the risk for personal hardship.

An immediate possible impact from the transition is reduced livelihoods and quality of life for individuals residing close to coalmines and power plants slated for closure a result of the diminishing global demand for coal. The closure of these sites forces miners out of employment, dramatically cutting local tax revenues that fund public transportation, waste collection, health departments and education services. That damage to community infrastructure can make individuals more susceptible to physical and psychological problems such as chronic disease, substance addiction and mental illness. Putting mine workers and communities at the centre of Australia’s energy transition will need to involve providing support to ensure healthcare infrastructure and community facilities are maintained rather than put in jeopardy.

The longstanding commitment to coal extraction has produced a social identity among generations of mining communities and pride in the professions of miners, engineers, electricians and builders. That is further embedded through the industry’s presence in day-to-day community activities such as school events and local parades. Now, coal workers must face the reality that their children will need to find new professions.

A critical aspect of the transition that the Net Zero Authority must manage is the association between the decline in the use of coal and the loss of personal or community identity along with people’s sense of place and belonging. Programs aimed at supporting regions and communities should stress their historical importance to Australia’s economy and society as well as opportunities to become clean-energy producers for the nation.

Without strong support for coal workers, the energy transition risks causing a rift between those communities and others in society committed to achieving net-zero emissions. Mining communities are already located in remote regions, and their isolation is compounded by a belief that the decreased demand for coal has been exaggerated and a lack of consensus on what’s needed to avoid climate change. Changes that arise from the transition—without proper consultation with coalmining communities—may increase this discord and create resentment towards other communities, particularly in urban areas, that advocate for a shift away from coal.

Such friction was evident in the 2019 federal election when mining communities in Queensland voted in favour of the Coalition’s support of Adani’s Carmichael coalmine because they didn’t trust Labor’s promise to protect mining jobs.

Coal communities often view the process of decarbonisation as a threat because it is formulated and advocated by people outside their communities and institutions who don’t understand their common identity, values and priorities. Collaboration with state and territory governments, regional bodies and unions will be crucial if the new agency is to ensure that ideas to achieve the energy transition are locally born and accord with community values.

The Net Zero Authority can devise inclusive and enduring policies that allow the nation to make an energy transformation that is politically and economically acceptable, but it must help transform the social policies supporting Australian individuals to adjust to the transition. If the authority succeeds in ensuring the welfare of mining communities, Australia could become an exemplar to other resource-producing countries on how to minimise the impact on those carrying the economic weight of the energy transition.