A dreadful week for the climate

This week’s events illustrate Australia’s rush to expand the fossil fuel industry is matched only by its rush to cut climate change and renewable energy policies.

In Saturday’s Queensland state election, a major issue was coal seam gas. Both of the two major parties, Labor and the Liberal National Party (LNP), seem happy to let the industry devastate Queensland and watch the profits flow in. Only two minor parties, the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party, supported the community campaign for a moratorium on coal seam gas development. The election result was a bitter disappointment for me. True, one in five Queenslanders voted for parties opposing coal seam gas. Yet the Greens lost votes, and an almost-majority voted for the LNP. Because of the state’s unicameral single-member electorate system, the LNP was able to win almost all the seats in the Queensland Parliament and will face no significant parliamentary opposition for at least the next three years, a critical period for mining investment. I look forward to seeing whether voters will turn on the LNP when they realize the party is not so different to Labor on coal seam gas.

Prior to the election, Clive Palmer, the mining magnate who is the LNP’s biggest donor and arguably most enthusiastic supporter, accused the Greens of being part of a CIA conspiracy to undermine Australia’s coal industry. Palmer’s company Waratah wants to build the world’s largest coal mine and port, due to be approved by the federal Government in December and opposed by the Greens. On Monday, after the election, Palmer retracted his bizarre accusation, all but boasting that he had made it up to distract attention from the LNP. “It took a great lot of attention off some of the negative aspects of the election,” he said. “Who knows where the attention might have been in the last weeks coming up to the election? So it’s wonderful that you [journalists] could play a small role in having Campbell Newman elected as Premier of Queensland. […] I don’t regret having made that statement.” Environmental activist Drew Hutton has announced his intention to sue Palmer for defamation. I think Palmer’s actions are despicable. Hopefully nobody will take anything he says seriously anymore. Continue reading

Queensland election has disproportionate result

Yesterday’s Queensland state election result shows the need for a proportional representation system.

The incumbent Labor Government suffered a humiliating defeat, with the Liberal National Party winning an overwhelming majority in the Queensland Parliament. Yet at last count, the Liberal National Party received slightly less than a majority of the vote (49.68%). The rest was split between Labor (26.95%), Katter’s Australian Party (11.50%), Greens (7.27%), Family First (1.37%), and other minor parties and independents (3.23%).

There are 89 seats in the Queensland parliament (and only one house). In a proportional electoral system, yesterday’s result should have distributed those seats approximately as follows: Liberal National 44, Labor 24, Australian 10, Greens 6, Family First 1; with the 3 final seats won by others or perhaps decided by preferences.

Continue reading

The real coal export scandal

The recent leak of a Greenpeace anti-coal strategy document has diverted attention from the real scandal: the mining industry is gearing up for an exponential increase in Australia’s already massive fossil fuel exports. The centre of activity is the Galilee Basin in Queensland, where companies are planning “mega-mines” and infrastructure to extract nearly a billion tonnes per year of coal, not to mention coal seam gas, and ship it through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The scale of it is almost unimaginable, and the CO2 emitted when all this carbon is burned overseas will be many times larger than Australia’s emissions at home.

Australia’s domestic CO2 emissions, excluding land use, are 400 million tonnes per year (Mt/yr), 1.2% of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions which total 33.4 billion tonnes per year (Gt/yr). If you include other greenhouse gases, Australia’s domestic emissions are 546 Mt/yr CO2-equivalent, and if you include land use they’re 600 Mt/yr. It is these emissions which the Gillard Government’s carbon price promises to reduce by at least 5% by 2020, though the Government prefers to frame it as a cut of 160 Mt in 2020 compared to the emissions growth projected to have occurred otherwise. Much of the claimed reduction could come from dubious international offsets, so there may not even be any absolute emissions cut domestically, but let’s be generous and grant the Government a saving of 160 Mt.

Australia is already the Earth’s largest coal exporter, dispatching 285 Mt/yr, 30% of the global coal trade. Assuming each tonne of coal burned emits 2.7 tonnes of CO2, these existing exports account for emissions of 770 Mt/yr, 2.3% of global fossil fuel emissions and greater than all domestic activity. That’s today. According to Greenpeace, currently planned projects could almost quadruple that in a decade, increasing national coal exports by ~800 Mt/yr and hence emissions by ~2 Gt/yr. Plus, according to the Government’s Draft Energy White Paper, liquid natural gas exports could increase from 20 Mt/yr to 70 Mt/yr, adding another 140 Mt/yr CO2. In other words, expansion of fossil fuel exports could add 14 times as many emissions as the 160 Mt supposedly saved by Australia’s domestic carbon price. That would bring Australia’s total fossil fuel exports in 2020 to over 3 Gt/yr: 9% of current global fossil fuel emissions, five times Australia’s domestic emissions, and twice Saudi Arabia’s current fossil fuel export emissions.

The majority of the planned development is in Queensland. Up and down the coast new ports are proposed, as well as massive upscaling of existing ports at Abbot Point, Hay Point, and Gladstone. The biggest development is at Abbot Point, which is intended to increase its coal export capacity to 385 Mt/yr, making it three times bigger than any coal export port in the world. Hay Point is already one of the world’s largest, and its capacity is planned to more than double to 340 Mt/yr. Gladstone’s capacity would increase to 219 Mt/yr. Greenpeace argues the single most important piece of infrastructure is a rail line to the Galilee Basin. All in all, the boom could sextuple the coal export capacity of ships traversing the Great Barrier Reef area from 156 to 944 Mt/yr, and the number of ships from 1,722 to 10,150. That’s one ship full of coal per hour, 365 days a year!

Figure 1: Visual depiction of proposed fossil fuel export expansion in Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Greenpeace 2012). Click to enlarge. Continue reading

China could cap coal consumption

China is expected to announce in the first half of this year a national cap on coal consumption. If the reports are accurate, the cap will begin in 2015 at 4.1 gigatonnes (Gt), with budgets for each individual province. This would be the world’s first direct cap on a fossil fuel.

Policies China is already implementing include a 17% cut in emissions per GDP by 2015, an 11% target for non-fossil-fuel energy by 2015, an increase in forest area, feed-in tariffs for small-scale and large-scale solar energy, and trials of emissions trading schemes.

Of course, China, like everyone else, should be doing more. Even if China goes ahead with the cap, its coal consumption in 2015 will still be 18% higher than the 2011 figure of 3.5 Gt (however, under the current growth rate of 7.5%/year it would grow twice as much, to 4.7 Gt).

All of China’s actions should shame governments of the developed world into acting consistently with our greater wealth, per-capita emissions, and historical responsibility for the emissions that have already accumulated in the atmosphere. Rich countries like Australia should move towards phasing out coal and other fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, and provide financial and technological support for emerging and developing nations to follow in our footsteps.

A Chinese consumption cap would lower the global demand for coal. This should make Australia reconsider its plans to exponentially expand our coal exports.

Whatever China decides this year, the urgency of rapid emissions cuts required to meet even the target agreed by the world’s governments means the market contains a bubble of high-carbon investment, and it is inevitable this bubble will burst sooner or later. As the Executive Director of India’s largest energy company, Tata, said last week: “Why would anyone want to invest at this stage in a coal project?”

Why indeed?

An unsurprising anti-coal campaign plan

The Australian Financial Review today revealed a leaked Greenpeace document containing the startling revelation that environmentalists oppose the coal industry.

The document, entitled Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom, seeks to raise millions of dollars for a campaign against the expansion of the Australian coal industry. This isn’t particularly surprising: it is only logical that we need a strategy to get from Point A (Australia’s leaders believing fossil fuels are the best thing since sliced bread) to Point B (zero or nearly zero fossil fuels being burned) as quickly as possible.

The document notes the next two years are an important window to stop massive investments being locked in, and an opportunity to influence government through the Greens and independent crossbenchers who hold the balance of power in Parliament. I agree; science tells us time is fast running out, and the next couple of years will be critical.

It’s actually a pretty good campaign strategy – just what is needed to get the Australian climate movement back in motion. It lists six steps to be taken; here are my thoughts on each one:

  1. “Disrupt and delay key infrastructure.” The underway expansion of the Australian fossil fuel industry is monstrous in scale, with plans to double or triple fossil fuel exports in the near future. Both major political parties refuse to do anything to stop it, happy to sit back and watch the profits flow in. In these extraordinary circumstances it makes sense for citizens to take matters into our own hands. The document proposes legal challenges against new mines, rail lines, and port expansions. Continue reading

Rudd’s political tantrum must be opposed

Yesterday in Australia, a politician I once believed in, Kevin Rudd, challenged our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. I responded by doing something I never thought I would do: I emailed every Labor MP and Senator urging them to oppose Rudd’s attempt to regain the Prime Ministership.

Although I was too young to vote in the 2007 election, if I had had a vote I probably would have voted Labor, because I misguidedly believed Rudd would take serious action on climate change. For the first two years of Rudd’s government, I felt reassured the Government knew what it was doing and had the problem under control. Rudd and the Labor Party accepted the science of climate change, while the opposing (conservative) Liberal Party, currently led by Tony Abbott, tended towards denial. I assumed the Rudd Government believed its rhetoric.

I was right about the Liberals, but I was wrong about Rudd. The more I learned about Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, the less I liked it. I realized Labor wanted to set weak targets diluted by dubious international offsets and unnecessary compensation to polluting industries. The scheme’s most fundamental flaw was that it would have locked in Rudd’s pathetic targets for at least five years, and a target range for fifteen years.

Rudd’s policy was repeatedly blocked by the Senate – by the Liberals because they generally oppose any action, and by the Greens because of the policy’s locked-in targets and numerous other flaws. Still Rudd refused to even talk to Greens leader Bob Brown during the last year of his Prime Ministership. For Rudd, emissions targets were non-negotiable. Finally, when he could have called an election to resolve the deadlock, in April 2010 (on Gillard’s advice) he chose to walk away from emissions trading. To me this was the last straw – Rudd was demonstrating he didn’t really believe in climate action or even his own policy. Continue reading

US energy sources could be mostly renewable by 2030

A US government agency has found renewable energy could become the country’s major energy source in two decades.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compared the geography of electricity demand with potential supply from solar and wind resources. They concluded 70% of US electricity demand in 2030 could be met by wind and solar as well as 15% from hydroelectric and nuclear, leaving only 15% of power dependent on fossil fuels.

The NOAA analysis joins a growing number of studies concluding renewable energy can repower at least some of the world within decades:

The new NOAA study is particularly notable in that it comes from one of the world’s most fossil-fuel-addicted governments.

To avoid dangerous global warming, we urgently need to shift our global energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources. All these studies are telling us we can make this transition if we put our minds to it. It’s time to get on with it.

Get ready for the carbon bubble

Remember the sub-prime mortgage bubble? The next economic bubble could be caused by investing in the unsustainable fossil fuel industry. The idea might sound incredible, but it results from our failure to seriously address the science of climate change.

The science tells us we can’t burn all fossil fuels

Fossil fuels formed over millions of years from dead plants that were quickly buried, removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process. Thus fossil fuels contain carbon which has been out of circulation for up to hundreds of millions of years. Yet humans are digging up this carbon and burning it in the space of a few centuries. When carbon (C) is burned, it reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is the main cause of anthropogenic global warming, now far outstripping natural influences on climate. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like radioactive waste: much of it hangs around for a very long time. As long as humanity continues to burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and the Earth will continue to warm. The urgent need to prevent further warming leaves us with no choice but to phase out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.

In the words of NASA climatologist James Hansen, saying what other scientists have generally failed to communicate, “we cannot burn and emit to the atmosphere most of the remaining fossil fuels”. If we wish to avoid unimaginable global catastrophe – or to meet the target the world’s governments have agreed to – let alone to limit global warming to a level anywhere near what scientists consider safe – we must leave the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. Continue reading

Real-world measurements confirm gas is no cleaner than coal

Figure 1: Methane emissions from natural gas fields are much larger than the industry claims. (Nature, 2012)

I have written before about why natural gas is not, as is fashionably believed, a bridge fuel to a zero-carbon economy. Even if gas were cleaner than coal, it’s still a fossil fuel and switching to it would still cause dangerous levels of global warming. But whether you can call gas a low-carbon fuel in the first place is very questionable.

Natural gas is composed of methane (CH4), and when burned for energy it results in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. While only carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for millennia, methane has a much stronger warming effect on human timescales (~100 times more powerful on a 20-year timescale; ~25 times greater on a century timescale). A methane spike in the next few decades could set off slow feedbacks also leading to greater warming over the long term.

The gas industry and its friends in government advertise gas as “clean energy” because the carbon dioxide emissions from burning it are less than those from coal. What they don’t tell you is that along its journey to being burned, unknown amounts of methane leak out. This is particularly evident during the process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) used to extract unconventional forms of gas like shale gas and coal seam gas. A 2011 study estimated that when these leaked methane emissions are taken into account, shale gas is comparable to coal over 100 years, and much worse over 20 years.

Because the industry has been uncooperative, real-world measurements of these emissions have been elusive – until now. Continue reading

Australia’s real climate policy

If you live in Australia you’ve no doubt heard of the Gillard Government’s climate and energy policy: a carbon price branded as the way to a “Clean Energy Future”. But just as a magician misdirects an audience’s attention, the Clean Energy Future diverts attention from Labor’s real energy policy. The Draft Energy White Paper (EWP), released on 13 December while you were distracted by the holiday season, makes clear that despite the rhetoric, the Government still intends Australia’s energy future to be as dirty as ever, and has no qualms about allowing global warming to spiral out of control.

The wrong objective

The main objective of any government energy plan in 2011 should be transitioning to zero-carbon energy sources, as is urgently needed. But according to the EWP, the core challenge is “ensuring that our energy markets deliver efficiency to minimize costs for consumers while also providing a commercially attractive environment for investment” (p. ix). It also lists four policy priorities; one is “clean energy” but as I will explain the actual policies will ensure the opposite. The others are review, deregulation, and – in direct conflict with climate action – developing Australia’s energy resources.

A fossil-fuelled future at home…

Figure 1: Sources of electricity generation in Australia from 2011 to 2050 according to two different Treasury models. Red = renewables; blue = gas and oil; purple = brown coal; black = black coal; teal = gas CCS; green = coal CCS. Continue reading