The Illawarra can choose a prosperous future with steelmaking at its heart if the right decisions are made about coal, a climate change flagbearer has told the Independent Planning Commission hearings into the Dendrobium mine's extension.
Former Australian of the Year, Climate Council member and Thirroul resident Tim Flannery said the mine's future should be seen in the context of the Earth's future climate.
"If we make the right decisions now and we get on the right track we can have a very prosperous community here in the Illawarra with steelmaking at the heart of that," he said.
"If we make the wrong decisions the costs, both environmental and financial, will be very large indeed."
Dr Flannery said serious climate "tipping points" were approaching which would bring major consequences to Arctic ice reserves and the Amazon rainforest.
Australia could expect "increasing ... damage to the Great Barrier Reef, more megafires of the kind we had last summer, longer, hotter, more damaging heatwaves [and] damage to coastal infrastructure through rising sea levels".
To avoid this, temperatures should be stabilised at about 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average, which would require "substantial cuts" in carbon emissions - six per cent a year, according to a United Nations report released on Wednesday.
"Rather than expanding our coal mining and our other fossil fuels, we need to be cutting six per cent per year every year ... to keep ourselves safe from these dangerous tipping points," Dr Flannery said.
"I'm really concerned also about my community here in the Illawarra - those jobs are very, very important, and the right decisions need to be made by our industries if we are to see those jobs go forward into the future.
"Coal mining is not going to be the future - we can see that as we get closer to these tipping points. There's a pushback all around the world [that] we need to cut emissions rather than increase them."
Dr Flannery said in Germany, five-year-old coal power plants were being closed, while BHP was investing in hydrogen steelmaking in China.
Later, Mt Kembla resident Peter Green gave an account of what it was like to live next to the mine, describing his battle to have mine noise monitoring performed properly, and asked the commission to make sure dust, noise and traffic was properly monitored.
Coal mining 'is our identity'
Father of two Gene Cooper is a coal miner born and bred, growing up near the Dendrobium mine and in no hurry to see it close its gates.
Mr Cooper was one of the most articulate speakers before the IPC on Thursday, making clear his support for the mine's extension and jobs in the industry for his kids.
Hard hat and work gear still on, and with the blackened face of a miner pre-shower, the fitter at South32's Mt Kembla operation said Wollongong was inseparable from the industries that had founded its economy.
"I went to the primary school across the road and I had my first beer at the Mt Kembla pub," he said. "Mining's a part of Mt Kembla's identity - it's who we are."
Port Kembla Coal Terminal general manager Dave Richards told the IPC the terminal, also operated by South32, would struggle to stay open without its major export pipeline from Dendrobium.
As environmentalists called for a future beyond coal and the change that would bring, Mr Cooper agreed change would be massive - and not the sort he wanted to see any time soon.
"The Illawarra thrives because of our coal mines and our steelworks - not in spite of it," he said.
"Wollongong would be a very different place without the industry that built the town in the first place - and the change would not be for the better."
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