11 March 2021

In the 1890s, following the sudden death of his wife, my great-great-grandfather Eli Pizer packed up four of children and his life in Melbourne to join the luck of the gold rush in Kalgoorlie.

In the 1890s, following the sudden death of his wife, my great-great-grandfather Eli Pizer packed up four of children and his life in Melbourne to join the luck of the gold rush in Kalgoorlie.

Eli Pizer wasn’t a miner but he started a hansom cab service to move the lucky and luckless around the booming town. 

One of his sons, Thomas, went on to provide the essential service of running the Clydesdale horses that hauled kegs of beer to the hotels that shot up during the greatest gold rush Australia has seen.

These days, judging by the magnitude of the Super Pit gold mine on the eastern border of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, it feels like the rush never ended.

Around Australia there are scores of communities with stories similar to Kalgoorlie, where the discovery of natural resources has brought people, essential infrastructure and great wealth.
Last financial year, Australia’s total resources exports hit a staggering record high of $290 billion, led by iron ore, coal, natural gas, gold and copper.

The industry now accounts for half of Australia’s total exports and directly employs more than 250,000 people, many of them in regional areas.

Australians understand that the hard work of those people underpins our standard of living and ensures that governments can fund essential services such as hospitals and schools.

Yet those who care deeply about the future of the mining and energy sectors often find themselves caught between opposing forces in the climate wars.

On one side of this shrill and often counter-productive debate are the green activists who naively seek to shut down, or rapidly phase out, all of our extraction industries.

At the other extreme are the conservatives and climate change deniers who have ensured that Australia has become an international outlier in the global drive to reduce carbon emissions.

Both of these arguments are dangerous and wrong. Both pose a risk to the health of the resources sector and to the critical need to address climate change and therefore our economic prosperity, in coming decades.

The reality is this: the inevitable global transition to net zero emissions presents a massive opportunity for Australia and its bounty of natural commodities.

With our distinctive luck, Australia is sitting on huge reserves of the very minerals – lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and rare earth elements -- that the world will need to be carbon neutral.

These so-called critical minerals form the essential ingredients in products such as lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles.

On top of this, we have been handed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that these minerals are not simply dug out of the ground and shipped overseas.

With the right policy settings, we must be able to process them here and export value-added products like lithium-ion batteries, creating new manufacturing jobs in our cities and regions.

Sadly, the Morrison Government has failed to take climate change seriously, leaving the country without the policies needed to foster these new technologies and industries.

It’s astonishing to me that Resources Minister Keith Pitt said in 2019 that “solar panels and lithium batteries …. could turn out to be this generation’s asbestos”.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because that was around the same time Scott Morrison claimed the introduction of electric cars in this country would “end the weekend”.

Fortunately, it’s not simply these new and emerging industries that could thrive in a low-carbon future

The traditional minerals we have mined in Australia so successfully for decades will continue to be in demand as countries around the world shift to renewables.

Our world-class iron ore and metallurgical coal will remain the key ingredients in making steel, which will be needed to manufacture wind turbines that generate clean energy.

A single wind turbine contains about 270 tonnes of iron ore and 200 tonnes of metallurgical coal, as well as around four tonnes of copper.

Copper is also used to make electric vehicles, leading to forecasts that global production of the shiny metal in the next 25 years will be larger than all the copper mined in world history.

In my electorate of Brand, BHP is building a refinery that will produce nickel sulphate, another product used in lithium-ion batteries. 

More than 75 per cent of BHP’s nickel is now sold to global battery material suppliers.

Several years ago, BHP was planning to mothball its nickel operations in Western Australia. But as the world moves rapidly to decarbonise, it’s firmly back in business.

Australia’s natural gas reserves will also be in demand to help countries in the Asia-Pacific, including India and China, to modernise their energy systems and reduce pollution.

Iron ore miner Andrew Forrest, the chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, isn’t waiting for the Government to act on climate change.

He has ambitious plans to build Australia's first “green steel” plant, powered by hydrogen, and predicts Australia could capture 10 per cent of the world steel market, generating 40,000 jobs.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has predicted the hydrogen export industry could be worth $1.7 billion within a decade.

Like Forrest, the rest of the industry is pushing ahead.

Last month, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), the peak body for Australia’s upstream oil and gas industry, backed net zero emissions across the economy by 2050.

APPEA joined the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, numerous big miners, our biggest airline, the National Farmers Federation, our biggest banks, and every state and territory, in signing up to net zero emissions by 2050.

More than 120 countries worldwide have adopted this target.

Worryingly, however some, of our key trading partners are preparing to impose carbon levies on imports of products from countries – such as Australia – that are less ambitious in cutting emissions.

The European Union and the UK are also insisting Australia adopt stronger climate targets as a condition of the free trade agreements that are now being negotiated.

Despite these risks, the message is loud and clear: Australia can continue to have a strong resources export sector and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it creates, while at the same time take strong action on climate change.

Our mineral wealth must be a big part of the solution, not the problem.

If only Scott Morrison and his laggard Liberal and National colleagues would listen.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Thursday, 11 March 2021.