Foreign Minister Penny Wong
Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the Annual Leaders' Meeting in Jakarta this month. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP IMAGES

Penny Wong misses the mark with China coal claim

Max Opray June 15, 2022

Most of Australia's coal exports are to China.


False. Australia has not exported any coal to China since February 2021, due to an informal trade ban imposed by Beijing.

In her first weeks in the job, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has visited Pacific nations as Australia steps up its diplomacy efforts with climate policies a central part of her messaging.

At a press conference in Fiji on May 26, Senator Wong was asked by a local journalist how Australia’s new government could claim to be credible on climate change given it had not put forward a plan to reduce fossil fuel exports (video mark 22min 30sec).

The questioner added that China – which is competing with Australia for influence in the Pacific – had offered to do what Australia wouldn’t on climate.

The journalist later clarified that Beijing seemed to be suggesting that Australia was paying “lip service” to genuine emissions reduction efforts.

Senator Wong, who had earlier spruiked the Labor government’s 43 per cent reduction by 2030 target, asked what China had committed to doing that Australia hadn’t, before claiming that Beijing was Australia’s biggest coal customer. 

“Most of the coal we export is actually to China,” she said.

However, Senator Wong’s claim is false. Australia has not exported any coal to China since early 2021 due to informal trade restrictions, and in the financial year prior to that only about a quarter of its coal exports went there.

According to historical data published by the federal government’s Office of the Chief Economist, in 2019-2020 China received 102.1 million tonnes of Australian coal. This represents 26.17 per cent of Australia’s total coal exports for 2019-2020 – the second largest export market behind Japan, which received 106 million tonnes. 

Coal exports to China dropped steeply in the second half of 2020, and in the first quarter of 2021 under 0.2 million tonnes was exported. Since then no Australian coal has entered China, a representative of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources confirmed to AAP FactCheck.

Experts say that this was due to an informal ban on Australian coal imposed by Chinese authorities, which has not been lifted to date.

“The biggest reason (for the drop in coal exports to China) is an embargo on coal imports by the Chinese since late 2020,” Dr Jorrit Gosens, an expert on China’s energy transition at Australian National University, told AAP FactCheck via email.

“This embargo was a result of the political strife. This has never been officially acknowledged, but it’s fairly obvious that Beijing halted imports.”

The ban, born out of escalating geopolitical tensions between the two countries, saw ships loaded with Australian coal stuck outside Chinese ports for months, before many were diverted to other countries.

Associate professor Hao Tan from the University of Newcastle, an expert on international business and China’s energy sector, agrees that political tensions have driven the drop in coal exports.

Dr Tan told AAP FactCheck via email that even if these tensions with Australia are resolved, he does “not anticipate the volume (of exports) would recover to its previous level”. 

He pointed to his 2021 study that found China is closing down coal power plants in coastal regions typically reliant on imported coal, and depending increasingly on domestic coal production and power in the west of the country, along with expanded renewable energy.

Dr Jonathan Pickering, an international relations expert at the University of Canberra, said that Australia’s reputation on climate change is of particular significance to its relationships with Pacific nations exposed to rising sea levels.

“This comes at a time when Australia’s relations with the Pacific are arguably more important than ever, particularly as China seeks to expand its trade and security presence in the region,” he told AAP FactCheck via email.  

“Australia’s emissions per person and income per person are much higher than that of China’s, so it’s likely that this stance is shaped by an expectation that Australia ÔǪ can and should show leadership on this issue. All the same, Pacific leaders have also called on China to do more on climate change.”

Dr Pickering added that coal exports “continue to tarnish Australia’s reputation” in the region.

The Verdict

Senator Wong’s claim that most of Australia’s coal is exported to China is false. Since February 2021, no coal has been exported to China due to Beijing imposing an informal trade ban. Prior to this in 2019-20, China still only accounted for roughly 25 per cent of Australia’s exported coal, the second largest destination market behind Japan.  

False ÔÇô The claim is inaccurate.

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