Written by Isabella Kwai
Australia’s biggest mining company, BHP, announced on Tuesday that coal output was down at one of its large mines. The reason? Smoke from the country’s ferocious wildfires — a crisis fed by climate change, which is caused in no small part by the burning of coal.
The reduced air quality in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, has helped slow the company’s production of electricity-generating coal by 11% there, BHP said in a review of its midyear financial results. “We are monitoring the situation, and if air quality continues to deteriorate, then operations could be constrained further in the second half of the year,” said the company, which ends its fiscal year on June 30.
The irony was not lost on many in Australia.
The country, which just endured its hottest and driest year on record, has been dealing for months with bush fires that have killed at least 29 people, ravaged tens of millions of acres, and left residents in its largest cities wheezing from the most polluted air in the world.
“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!” Terry Serio, an actor, and musician said on Twitter.
“I did roll my eyes,” Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, a policy institute, said in an interview.
The smoke, Hare said, was most likely a minor inconvenience in the supply chain for BHP, the globe’s biggest mining company. But, he added, it served as a “wake-up call” to BHP that the world needs to wean itself off coal to avert the most damaging effects of climate change. “You can see the mood is changing in Australia,” Hare said. “Sooner or later, the companies are going to run out of social license.”
A BHP spokesman said that smoke from the bush fires had reduced visibility and made equipment harder to operate at the Mount Arthur coal site 150 miles north of Sydney. In addition, some employees have taken leave from work to protect their properties from fires or to serve as volunteer firefighters.
While the fires have affected production, the spokesman said, the slowdown was also the result of a shift to mining higher-quality products. But even as the company investigates options to reduce its climate impact, he said, coal will remain a major part of its energy production mix.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and the industry wields a wide influence on the country’s political leaders. The country has annual coal exports worth 67 billion Australian dollars, or about $45 billion, including major nations like China, Japan, and India.
Although Australia emits only about 1.2% of global greenhouse gases, its economic reliance on fossil fuel extraction makes it the sixth-biggest producer of fuels that release carbon. Those emissions are expected to double by 2030, according to a 2019 report from the United Nations Environment Program.
Under Australia’s current conservative leadership, emissions have been rising, and renewable energy targets have stagnated, even as the government says it will meet its carbon reduction targets under the Paris climate agreement. Climate scientists say the targets were among the weakest of those proposed by developed nations.