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August 24, 2012

Grassroots Movements Driving Back Coal Worldwide

CoalThe global grassroots movement against dirty, polluting coal-fired power has added another continent to the ranks of those finally moving away from the carbon-intensive fuel source: Australia. This July, the government of Australia announced that it is cancelling an A$100 million grant to Australian conglomerate HRL for a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Victoria.  This is likely to be the death blow to what many believe is the last coal plant planned for Australia.  

The government's announcement marked the culmination of over half-a-decade of grassroots opposition to the project.  Led by Greenpeace International, as well as Australian environmental groups Quit Coal and Environment Victoria, activists staged protests, sit-ins of government offices, direct actions at the proposed project site, and legal challenges. The withdrawal of public funding for the HRL plant -- thought to be Australia's last major coal plant project -- likely means the end of new coal plant construction in the country, as the upside-down economic model for coal-fired power has clearly been proven unviable. 

On the heels of this victory, a new report shows that coal-fired generation in Australia fell by 10% in July of 2012 as compared to the same month the previous year. While lower energy consumption in the country due to the economic recession has some part to play in Australia's July coal decrease, it cannot account for the whole gap. Analysts link the shift away from coal to a combination of decreased energy demand, the rising price of coal due in part to Australia's new carbon tax, and increasing competitiveness of alternative fuel sources such as natural gas and renewables.

The defeat of the HRL plant and decrease in coal consumption in July, coupled with continually-increasing coal prices which are going nowhere but up for the foreseeable future, suggests that the move away from coal may become a long-term trend in Australia's energy distribution.

This news out of Australia marks another in a series of victories for grassroots anti-coal campaigners around the globe. The success of activists fighting the coal industry in the U.S. has been well-documented: coordinated grassroots campaigns against coal-fired power plants across the country have resulted in the retirement or cancellation of hundreds of existing and proposed coal plants with more retirements projected.

Similar campaigns have been successful across the European Union, where coal consumption has decreased by nearly 50% over the past two decades.  The recent SudWestStrom case out of Germany is representative of many battles throughout the EU: a hotly contested €3.2 billion, 1.8-gigawatt coal-fired power station, already beleaguered by economic concerns, was scrapped when it failed to obtain government clearance in the face of public opposition.  The EU's Energy Roadmap 2050 calls for the complete elimination of coal in the coming decades, with much of that generation replaced by renewable energy.

The decline of the coal industry in developed countries in the last decade has shifted the battle to developing economies, triggering a global Amazing Race of sorts with King Coal dashing around the world seeking ever-wider and more desperately for any last-remaining markets in which to push its polluting product. The result has been an upsurge in coal exports on the international market and proposals for massive coal-fired power development in emerging countries like India and China.  

But the Australian case is a prime example of the story that is being repeated around the globe: everywhere King Coal rears its ugly head, local communities and grassroots movements are cropping up to drive back the beast -- and they're winning. From China to India to Bangladesh, Burma, Colombia, Kosovo, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, and elsewhere, coal projects are coming up against surprisingly well-organized and vehement public opposition, facing strikes, 10,000-person protests, even kayak-blockades of coal ports.    

Thanks to this strong and increasingly-coordinated network of anti-coal activists worldwide, fully half the world's continents are now on a path toward reducing coal consumption and the corresponding carbon emissions. With escalating campaigns in developing countries, it is becoming more and more difficult for the coal industry to maintain its foothold, bringing the inevitable global demise of coal ever closer. 

-- Gordon Scott, Sierra Club International Program

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