Australia’s Consistent Expansion in Fossil Fuels Makes Paris target unlikely

The 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is drawing to a conclusion. The purpose of the conference is largely to flesh out how the Paris Agreement of 2015 will be implemented. The Paris Agreement is an agreement (yet to be ratified by the government of 10 nations) between all nations, except the USA, that intends to combat human-driven climate change. Climate change being, basically, a process of rising global temperatures due to the release of greenhouse gases, primarily but not limited to CO2. The burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for various purposes is a key polluter of greenhouse gases.

COP24 has offered a mixed range of issues and events so far; ranging from the hopeful, accusing and poignant speech of Greta Thunberg; to the presence of fossil fuel companies, like Shell, that were the invited guests of host country Poland; to the alignment of Russia and the USA in standing against the latest IPCC report on Climate Change to serve their economic interests; to the USA informing an angry audience of the role of ‘cleaner’ fossil fuels in the future of combatting climate change.

That last one sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Around Australia the political establishment, both Labor and Liberal, has been showing its dedication to fossil fuels and continuing to serve the fossil fuel industry. The time our Prime Minister brought a lump of coal to parliament, inventing the term ‘coal-a-phobia’ to describe those of us that actually read the science on climate change and fear its very real effects, is still fresh in many memories. The UN has reported that in order for us to mitigate severe climate disaster (though effects are real and being experienced to tragic extents now: see California wildfires, extreme storms across the US and Europe, and extremely hot summers right here in Australia) we must limit average global temperature rise by 1.5C over pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve this, all countries must commit to a 45% decrease in CO2 emissions, relative to 2010 levels, by 2030. Folowed by a commitment to reduce emissions to 0% by 2050. According to that IPCC report even if we do manage to curb our emissions, we would still see ongoing effects of the emissions released since the Industrial Revolution, including intense storms, wildfires, sea level rise and other destructive natural phenomena. These phenomena just wouldn’t be nearly as intense as if we were to continue polluting as we are now.

Australia has made a commitment to a 26-28% reduction in it’s emission levels, relative to 2010 levels. A commitment that the Morrison government intends to stick by, despite increases in Australia’s emissions levels of approximately 1.3% this quarter. This commitment falls clearly short of the 45% recommendation by the IPCC, but within Australia, it appears that the political establishment is intent on pushing our nation and species to ecological disaster.

Let’s go round Australia and examine some of the more egregious attempts to blow the national target.

Queensland

The obvious example to draw from Queensland is the famous Adani Carmichael coal mine. This is obvious but needs to be discussed as it is such an affront to the Australian people. The development has been met with staunch opposition in Australia for good reason. And for those reasons, failed to get funding from any of the big four banks. After failing to get international funding, Adani has said they will revise and scale back the plans for the development in favour of funding the project entirely on their own.

The new project will be producing between 10-15 million tonnes of coal per year, instead of the originally planned 60 million. The plan for the coal is to ship out of Abbott Point (opposite the Great Barrier reef), through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area, to India where it will be used to generate electricity in coal-fired power stations. There is a significant risk of contamination to the Great Barrier Reef through collisions, spills and exposure to excessive amounts of coal dust. The reef has already undergone massive bleaching events that have caused large areas of the reef to die, along with species inhabiting those areas.

In a report on the Adani coal mine ,the Climate Council has recommended that no coal projects be started anywhere in the Galilee basin, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter, letting alone the Adani super-mine. The report was undertaken on the original proposal for a 60 million tonne a year mine, stating that the mine would be adding 130% to Australia’s current emissions from ALL sources. While the current proposal has been scaled back to approximately ¼ of that size, it only takes a quick calculation to get a ball-park figure of emissions production equal to 32.5% of Australia’s current emissions. This report notes that the current issues being experienced by Australia as a result of climate change include heatwaves, intense rainfall and wildfires. Sea level rise is also likely to affect Australia severely, as approximately 85% of the population live within 50km of the coast. Droughts are also projected to increase.

In addition to this the mining activities, including those of Adani, in the Galilee Basin have been deemed 95% likely to impact the water resources there. The mine will require vast amounts of land to be cleared, on top of enormous amounts of water in order to operate. It will cause immense stress to local ecosystems that are already under threat.

Despite the environmental concerns the QLD government has provided Adani with the necessary registration as a ‘suitable operator’ of a mining company. Though a report by Environmental Justice Australia alleges a history of disregard for Indian law in favour of damaging the environment. The mine has already failed to report clearance of 6 hectares of land for testing to the QLD government.

The Adani coal endeavor also happens to be another case of indigenous rights being stepped on, and another case of indigenous peoples standing up to established power in favour of protecting the environment. The Wangan and Jangalingou peoples are the traditional owners of the land where Adani intends to build their mine and have engaged a fight to stop Adani from poisoning our earth and their land.

On top of all of these issues, it appears that India, along with China and many other developing nations is on a trajectory toward more renewable energy and less coal-fired stations over the next years, suggesting that Adani will not have a reliable buyer over the life of the project. This is due to renewables now being more economically effective than fossil fuel powered stations.

New South Wales

The current ruling coalition of the Liberal and National party in NSW has tried to make very visible their attempts to make the NSW power grid renewable. While they have made efforts to try and make the shift to some renewables for their domestic power generation, the public has not seen monetary value from this as the privatization of the energy sector has driven energy costs steadily upwards. Though the establishment has made consistent claims to the contrary. This shift in domestic power generation is a small, positive step, however the continuation to rely on the mining of coal to be burnt elsewhere in the world and Australia is damaging to the state’s overall emissions.

New South Wales has a long history with mining fossil fuels. Coal mining accounts for the largest share (77%) of cash generated from the industry in the state and historically has produced taxation and royalties for the state. The NSW Department of Industry website boasts that their coal industry was worth $1.2 billion in 2015-16 and that 246 million tonnes of coal was pulled from the earth. The website also mentions that there are 20 new coal development proposals for the state. The possible uses of coal are wide and include the making and smelting of useful metals like steel, but the largest worldwide use of coal is for energy generation in power plants. The large majority of NSW coal is destined for export.

A local activist group, Lock the Gate, has reported on 11 new and expansion proposals for coal mining operations in the Hunter Valley region. The combined effect of these mining operations (if approved), they calculate, would be even greater than the scrapped Adani super-mine proposal in Queensland, discussed above. Lock the Gate has calculated that the proposals comprise 75 million tonnes a year more coal (to Adani’s 60 million), 39,000 hectares of land clearing (to Adani’s 28,000). The new mines will require 23.5 billion litres of water (compared to Adani’s 21.5 billion). The new mines are projected to produce an astonishing 181 million tonnes of CO2 per year, compared to Adani’s projection of 120 million tonnes.

Most of the coal from these mines would be destined for international export for use in coal-fired power stations, thereby adding to the climate crisis. The proposed mines are also at significant risk of affecting the drinking water catchments for major areas including Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Illawarra and others.

The land clearance and water cycle disruption of these mining activities will no-doubt negatively affect local wildlife in the region.

A large new coal project by Shenhua Australia is also destined for the Namoi Valley, part of the Murray Darling Basin. The project is marked for the Liverpool Plains, a fertile farming valley. The coal mine is projected to pull a further 10 million tonnes of coal from the earth and puts the drinking and agricultural water in the area directly at risk of contamination.

While the NSW government may claim that they are making strides toward a renewable energy system in Australia, the ongoing effects of their expanding coal mining sector beyond counteracts these supposed gains.

Australian Capital Territory (Federal)

The current Liberal and National party coalition in Canberra has shown nothing short of contempt for the environment, whilst maintaining in rhetoric that they will absolutely meet their stated target under the Paris Agreement. I would rank their de-funding of environment science programs as the most prominent display of disregard for Australia’s climate future.

Since the coalition took office under Tony Abbott in 2013, environmental science funding has been repeatedly slashed. After Turnbull took over leadership, the environment budget was continued to be slashed.

Scott Morrison took over from Turnbull this year, and though there was little expectation that there would be an increase to environment science funding, the announcement of almost half a billion dollars of public money being handed to a think-tank with ties to fossil fuels and with no intent to lower carbon emissions was still met with surprise and justified outrage.

Over the period of the cuts, the Commonwealth Science Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has been hit repeatedly, with environmental scientists either being forced out due to budget cuts or leaving the bureau in frustration. At the end of 2017, Scientific American reported that CSIRO’s climate capability had been cut by 80%.

The climate of the southern hemisphere has not been frequently studied. CSIRO ran the most comprehensive modeling and monitoring programs in the Southern Hemisphere, so these funding cuts have hurt and will continue to hurt global capability to understand and therefore combat climate change. The enormous funding cuts and layoffs to the CSIRO have alarmed scientists around the world, (2800 of them) saying that the decision lacks insight and understanding. The Liberal National coalition have defended the cuts on the grounds that the programs fail to demonstrate commercial viability.

Setting aside for a moment that these kinds of cuts are an assault on the ability of all of us to live in a habitable planet, let’s acknowledge the economic issues this causes. Firstly, governmental investment in scientific research has been repeatedly shown to drive innovation and the economy. Going back as far as Adam Smith, the link between science and economic growth has been identified. So this type of organizational gutting is also an attack on the economic future of the nation.

Secondly, those scientists that are leaving, whether by frustration or the boot, are highly educated, qualified people that possess specialized knowledge in their chosen field. This kind of knowledge is likely to be taken in by nations and companies that realise the potential long term benefits. That is effectively crippling Australia’s hopes of capitalizing heavily on the future renewable energy boom.

The head of the CSIRO, Larry Marshall, has justified the cuts and personnel changes by claiming that the debate on the existence of climate change was settled, moving the focus of the organization to how to deal with the conditions we are facing. This outlook overlooks the fact that we cannot possibly hope to deal with or adapt to rapidly changing conditions that we have no understanding over.

Victoria

The current Victorian government has maintained a policy of 20% of it’s energy supply by renewable sources by 2020 and 40% by 2025. In 2017, the state generated 16% of its power needs by renewable sources. The Victorian government has a variety of investment programs intended to facilitate the shift to renewable energy generation domestically.

The Victorian government has also decided to ban fracking for on-shore gas seams. A move that will likely be mirrored in South Australia, NSW and Tasmania.

Victoria has big dreams for renewables, however its policies seem to be slightly out of tune with the rhetoric. The state still generates 84% of its energy from fossil fuels, largely coal. And despite a commitment to moving to net 0 emissions for the state by 2050, the Labor Party in Victoria has decided at the beginning of this year to extend the operating license of Australia largest emitting power plant. This allows for EnergyAustralia to continue pulling coal from the ground at Yallourn and using it to fire the Yallourn Power Plant until 2032. The license was previously set to expire in 2026.

EnergyAustralia, the operator of the plant, has of course welcomed this decision, however the CEO of Environment Victoria has said that the plant poses an “unacceptable risk to our climate”. He also notes that the Victorian people support a shift toward more renewables. Finally Environment Victoria state that the Labor government should be facilitating an economic support and transition package to the people in the town that currently rely on the mine and plant in order to bring about its closure.

See these diagrams and analysis for the link between our coal fired power plants and the emissions levels of each state.

The Victorian government has also entered into an arrangement with Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the federal government and the Japanese government to arrange half a billion dollars for a ‘clean coal’ hydrogen capture plant, powered by Victorian brown coal.

Clinging to old, heavily polluting technology is surely to undermine the 0 emissions and renewable energy targets of the state.

Tasmania

Tasmania leads Australia in renewable energy, having 88% of its energy needs met by the sector over 2017. Tasmania also leads Australia in its emissions reductions efforts, having reduced its emissions levels by 100% by 2016 compared to 2005 levels. For the year 2016, Tasmania even recorded a negative number of total emissions (meaning that the state actually scored a net sequestration of carbon).

Tasmania has achieved laudable goals in renewables and emissions reduction, though there remains work to be done to achieve 0 total emissions. The state has achieved this kind of change through changed in their Land Use and Forestry policies, which has preserved for much of the state’s natural beauty (which is also a tourist attraction) to be a form of carbon sink.

While the greatest emissions in Tasmania are from energy generation, the state continues to plan for further investment in a wider renewables grid and aims to be totally renewable by 2020.

Tasmania is leading the way for Australia, but that isn’t to say that it does not contribute to global emissions. There is ongoing engagement in coal mining activities in the northeast of the state, most of which is destined for export to nations for burning in power plants.

Tasmania is demonstrating the way forward in domestic power production, however continuing to capitalize on the use of coal by developing nations (or other Australian states) still affects the output of carbon from the state. And will continue to affect Australia’s efforts under the Paris Agreement.

South Australia

South Australia is responsible for approximately 3.8% of Australia’s carbon emissions, and of these, their oil and gas industries, power generation and metal production industries are the greatest contributors to greenhouse gases.

South Australia had 45% of their energy needs met by renewables in 2017, though it is unfortunate the extent to which the state continues to rely on natural gas powered plants. Natural gas is a carbon polluting fossil fuel, though it is less carbon intense than coal or oil. It is estimated to produce approximately 40-60% less CO2 when burnt in a new, efficient plant when compared with coal being burnt in a new, efficient plant.

South Australia currently does not have a coal exporting industry, though the continued extraction of oil and gas for the purpose of energy generation and use in vehicles is severely damaging to the state’s global emissions. The extraction and transport of natural gas also causes for leakages of methane to the atmosphere, a gas that is 34 times as efficient as CO2 at trapping heat.

South Australia has recently legislated to stop fracking in the south-east of the state, though has also approved a controversial mining technique that caused Queensland’s largest mining contamination to be used by Leigh Creek Energy. The technique, simply described, involves setting fire to underground coal seams in order to release trapped gas pockets for extraction. It has been banned in places around Australia and the world due to the risk it poses the environment.

The South Australian Liberal Party has been opening up more offshore gas and oil mining operations in the iconic Great Australian Bight.

When it comes to emissions reduction and renewables, it appears that the establishment in South Australia will only go as far as they are pushed. Until the extraction of oil and gas for the purpose of power generation and petroleum production is halted, the state is continuing  to damage the global environment.

Western Australia

Western Australia is Australia’s fourth largest emitter of carbon. It relies largely on coal for its energy supply and continues to extract it for export.

However the most recent and glaring infraction under theParis Agreement is the recent lifting of the moratorium on Fracking. Read morehere.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is currently expanding its emissions levels, relative to 2005 outputs it has increased 27.6%. The Northern Territory is home to Australia’s iconic outback. It is also home to large gas fields, the harnessing of which is yet another project that would be likely to jeopardize Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

In April of 2018, the NT government decided to ignore environmental and community concerns in favour of lifting the moratorium on fracking in the state. If the gas fields are fully opened for extraction, it would raise Australia’s overall emission levels by 6.6% and global emissions by .17%. It was found that the gas fields would produce 38.8 million tonnes of carbon domestically and 98 million tonnes internationally after export.

The environmental concerns of fracking the Northern Territory are even more diverse when one considers the impact that the process can have on the wider environment such as the water system.

Conclusion

The latest IPCC report notes that for policymakers to limit warming effects to 1.5C, it will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”. I would also add that is will require rapid change in agriculture (to the extent that isn’t implied by changes in industry). Rapid transition is something that Australia has ever shown too much interest in. The political establishment appears entirely satisfied to continue serving the fossil fuel industry, except in the small concessions to the people where they fight for their right to a livable environment. It’s important that as people who want to see a habitable future, we continue to voice our opinions, sign petitions, stage protests and organize to force the establishment away from the suicidal tendency of extracting, trading and burning fossil fuels.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu