Since its inception in 1977, the Uniting Church has been working towards a safe climate by encouraging congregations and agencies to reduce energy use and consider alternative forms of power. Throughout that time the Church has also called on governments to put in place policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Burning coal for electricity is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. Climate experts agree that to reduce the impact of climate change, we need to transition away from coal and make space for renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind.
In Victoria, power companies burn brown coal which is more polluting than black coal burnt in other states. The four power stations in the Latrobe Valley are responsible for 50 per cent of the state’s contribution to climate change.
The synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit is running a campaign asking that the government take action on climate change, while providing support for communities in the Latrobe Valley. Someone who understands the complexity of the issues facing the Valley is JIM director Mark Zirnsak, who grew up in Morwell.
“Our family only had food on the table because Dad worked at Hazelwood power station,” Dr Zirnsak said. “But the time has come to phase-out coal and transition to a renewable energy future.”
Wendy McDonald, presbytery minister in Gippsland, said the people in the Valley have been hard hit throughout the years. Many lived through the sale of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, the subsequent redundancies and the impact that had on the community. They have also experienced the adverse effects of coal mining when, in 2014, the Hazelwood open cut mine caught fire and blanketed Morwell in thick acrid smoke for more than a month. An exhaustive inquiry found that the fire contributed to increased deaths in the Latrobe Valley.
“The church has a role to play in ensuring there is a ‘just’ transition away from coal in the Latrobe Valley, being aware that the community is fragile, with a history of having been overlooked in previous major decisions,” Ms McDonald said.
The Climate Institute emphasises that if a staged phase-out is not implemented now, many power stations will need to be removed almost simultaneously around 2030 to meet Australia’s climate targets. A more managed phase-out would allow local communities near power stations to have a say in what their future looks like and to plan for the transition.
The Victorian Government has started this work by allocating $40 million towards transition in the Latrobe Valley in this year’s budget.
Rosalie Hamilton is a member of Morwell Uniting Church. She feels that with forward planning, the social impact of closing the power stations can be reduced.
“It is a time of great uncertainty for the community, but also potential opportunity for the future,” Ms Hamilton said. “We need rehabilitation of the mines, packages for affected workers in mine closures and policies to attract new industries to the region.”
Copies of the letter writing campaign can be obtained by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org