As Australia’s response to climate change accelerates, decarbonisation efforts are focused on reducing the domestic use of thermal coal in coal-fired power stations. This has placed the spotlight on regions such as the Hunter and the Latrobe Valley, where thermal coal production and coal-fired power generation are co-located, and where the socio-economic impacts of energy transformation are already impacting on workers and communities. In contrast, much less policy attention has been focused on the future of export-oriented coal production. Australia exports about 80% of its coal production, consisting of thermal coal used for energy generation, and metallurgical coal used in steelmaking. Scalable alternatives to metallurgical coal in the steelmaking process are still in early development globally, putting metallurgical coal on a different trajectory to that of thermal coal. This is a starting point for the conversation we need to be having around decarbonisation in the Illawarra, where an export-oriented metallurgical coal industry is experiencing record production levels. Drawing on ABS data and qualitative interviews that emphasise the voices of coal workers, I explore the range of factors shaping this alternative trajectory, and how it intersects with on-the-ground conditions and everyday lives in the Illawarra.
Chantel Carr is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow working on the socio-economic dimensions of energy transitions in urban and regional Australia. Her current research focuses on how environmental change is transforming regional places and communities. Chantel is working on three funded projects connected with this agenda: an ARC DECRA Fellowship and an ARC Discovery Project focused on industrial transformation in the Illawarra, and a major contract research project looking at energy transitions in the built environment for the Australian government.