I’m not sure this week’s COP26 achieved as much as it hoped. What was abundantly clear, though, was the dismal performance by the Australian government. With no real strategy for combatting the crisis, it was obvious they didn’t even want to be there. For those not familiar with what’s going on in Australia, you might be surprised to hear that even arguing about the existence of a climate crisis is still an actual thing in government circles. Pretty incredible in 2021. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, bluffs his way through most things, hoping that others will take the initiative but happy to take credit for anything that works.
One of the reasons for Australia’s unenlightened stance is coal. This is a country of fabulous mineral wealth and along with iron ore, coal is its biggest export. It means Australia has become the world’s dodgy dealer, happy to supply so long as there’s demand. Ethics don’t come into it, even if it means losing natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef and killing off farming with longer droughts and fiercer fires.
Coal always makes me think of my birthplace, South Wales. The coal mining valleys were quite close to our little market town but felt like another planet. When the terrible disaster at Aberfan happened, with a school obliterated by a slipping slag heap, killing all the kids, my school clubbed together to buy a doll for a girl whose cousin had been killed in it. I remember thinking what an ugly doll it was. Everyone had coal fires in those days and I suspect the town air was quite poor at times. Every classroom in my infant school had a big coal burner in it, surrounded by a metal guard on which wet coats were hung to dry on rainy days, the steam rising from them. The days of the famous London pea soupers were over but the buildings of cities were still grimy with soot.
When we moved to Yorkshire, you had to close the car windows when driving through the Sheffield area, famous for its steel. There was a constant yellow cloud hanging over the city that stank of sulphur. Further north, near Durham, there was the belching smoke of huge iron and steel works at Consett. All of that has gone: British industry is more or less dead. The cruelty of simply shutting down entire communities in the 1980s without giving them much hope for a future probably led to the Brexit mindset and a harder north-south divide in Britain. That might be a lesson for Australia, too. The air is clearer, though.
I encountered shocking air pollution in two countries that are still among the world’s top coal users. The first was in India when I was staying in the gorgeous city of Mysore (Mysuru) in Karnataka. There was an on-going energy shortage so electricity was cut for a couple of hours every evening. I was already enthralled by India but walking along Mysore’s dark streets, the ramshackle shops lit only by battery-torches or small braziers, the smell of burning cow dung heavy in the air, I felt as though I was in Dickensian London. Dipping into it as a tourist is one thing, living like that is quite another.
Some years later, I visited one of the sacred mountains in China, Wutaishan in Shanxi province. It was a beautiful place set at the end of a long valley filled with temples and had a remote, vaguely Tibetan atmosphere. By day the sun shone on its golden roofs but at night it was different. Shanxi province is one of China’s biggest mining regions. That evening, after dinner, we wandered through the streets of the tiny town, enjoying the silhouettes of pagodas and mountains, but gradually became aware of the acrid smell of burning coal. A kind of smog was travelling up the valley and then pooling over the town, pressed down by the cold air flowing from the hillsides. Quite quickly it became so choking that we had to hurry back to the hotel. The next day we travelled to the city of Datong, passing endless coal trucks and numerous factories belching out steady streams of smoke. It was hard to believe any of this would ever come to an end.
China is cleaning up its act but it’s a long process. While its streets were full of electric motorbikes back in 2015 and are doubtless filled with electric cars today, they are mainly charged using electricity from coal-generated power stations, some of them burning Australian coal. Despite that, there is in China a sense of moving towards the future. There are wind and solar farms everywhere, just as there are in Europe.
Meanwhile Australia, with its na-na-not-listening Prime Minister, took displays of new schemes to COP26, most of them, rather incredibly, sponsored by fossil fuel companies. It clearly showed that coal still rules this country. They talked of other fossil fuels that might be used when the coal industry finally grinds to a halt. By then, though, I suspect it will all be too late. The government ministers responsible for this lack of action will be gone but not, I think, forgotten. Like coal smoke, it brings tears to the eyes.
What’s the most polluted place you’ve been to?