PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 23 June 2019

Poor planning seems to be endemic in the gas industry. Despite clear evidence that gas is not low in emissions, not needed for grid reliability, not a viable transition fuel and not cheap, governments and gas producers continue to peddle the myths and develop more gas production facilities. Michael Mann argues that system-wide changes, not personal behaviour changes, are required to avoid catastrophic global warming, and graphic evidence that renewables are increasing in parallel with fossil fuels, not replacing them. But first a good news story about eagles.

Did anyone have a look at the eagles last week? Whether you did or not, you might like to have a look now. The stork has visited our nesting couple and left a couple of eggs, the first on the 16th, the second on the 20th. So they hatch around the same time, mum and dad left the first egg uncovered for extended periods for four days to delay incubation. Check out Eagle Cam –  if you keep watching you should see the eggs when there’s a shift change.

According to Zoe Yujnovich, chair of Shell Australia and of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, getting the message out that natural gas is an ally, not an enemy, of renewable energy is key if the sector wants to move forward with the support of the general public. Pull the other one, Zoe.

How often do we hear from the ignorant and the deceitful that natural gas has lower emissions than coal, that it can be turned on and off at the flick of a switch when then wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, and that it can save the world by being the transition fuel from dirty coal and oil to clean renewables? A new report, ‘Burning the gas ‘bridge fuel’ myth: why gas is not clean, cheap, or necessary’, blows these fibs out of the water (not for the first time). Even if one ignores the not-insignificant leakage of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – that is inevitable during the production and processing of natural gas, the carbon dioxide emissions from current and under-construction coal, oil and gas fields are double the carbon budget to stay under 1.5oC. Switching from coal to gas does not deliver anywhere near the emissions reductions needed. Development of any further fossil fuel supplies is reckless folly. The report also demonstrates that low cost renewables are now the economically rational replacement for coal and gas fired power stations, and that batteries and redesigning the way electricity is bought and sold to benefit from the new technologies will soon render gas redundant for grid reliability. Sinking capital into new gas production facilities locks in carbon emissions for 40-50 years, well beyond when the world must reach zero emissions. There must be a rapid, though managed, decline of gas, just like coal and oil.

But gas exploration and production plans abound around the world. South Africa has plans to develop an off-shore gas field and I have previously highlighted the massive gas and plastics industry developing in the north-east USA – with Shell leading the way, Ms Yujnovich will be delighted.

In Australia, Queensland’s Labor government, fearing a fate similar to their federal colleagues in the state’s next election, have not only given the Adani coal mine the green light to proceed, they are also creating more opportunities for gas production in the Galilee Basin. This is in addition to expanded gas production plans in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, despite the fact that it makes massive economic sense for the NT to become a renewable energy powerhouse, exporting energy to Asia, rather than a stranded fossil fuel dinosaur. Even South Australia, whose Liberal government recently stated its expectation that the state will be net 100 per cent renewables by 2030, is hedging its bets in the short term. Note the ‘net’. SA’s plan is to produce more renewable energy than they need and export the surplus, but also to include a ‘sensible level of gas generation’. SA’s stand out achievement though, apart from their drive to 100% renewable energy, is that they have a plan and are resourcing its implementation. That’s a novel idea that other Australian governments might like to consider.

Talking of a lack of planning, three companies built gas liquefaction plants within spitting distance of each other in Gladstone so that Australia could export gas to Asia. A global oversupply of gas led to a fall in prices internationally. In Australia though the exports created a gas shortage and Australians are now paying higher prices than Asians for Australian gas. Solution … keep exporting Australian gas and build gas import terminals here so we can buy cheaper gas from overseas. How good is capitalism?

There are many good reasons for individuals to choose to eat less meat, walk and cycle more, install rooftop solar, not use plastic bags, recycle and reuse, choose a super fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels, insulate the house, minimise air travel, grow their own fruit and vegies, buy a hybrid or electric car, etc. etc. etc. But can we reduce greenhouse gases to zero, and more generally create an environmentally sustainable world, by individuals changing their behaviours? Do we (the wealthy we in rich countries, that is) simply have to change our self-indulgent ways to avoid climate catastrophe? In economic terms, can the demand side of the economy force the supply side to change its ways? No, definitely not, according to highly respected climate scientist, Michael Mann. To eliminate greenhouse gases we need national plans and corporate action; collective action, not personal virtue signalling; a different energy system, not less water in the kettle. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t install LED globes or eat less meat, etc.; it just means you shouldn’t fool yourself that doing all those worthwhile things will be sufficient to solve the climate crisis.

This week’s graph comes from ‘Renewables 2019. Global Status Report’ produced by REN21, the Renewable Energy Policy Network. The report presents further evidence of the widely-recognised falling price of renewables, greater annual investment in new renewable energy sources than new fossil fuel sources, and increasing proportion of renewables in the world’s power generation (all good news). Increases in the number of Gigawatts of energy supplied by renewables and the percentage of total energy provided by renewables (now over 26%) are, however, not what matters when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What is needed is a reduction in the absolute amount of power (fewer Gigawatts) provided by fossil fuels, and hence a reduction in the amount of fossil fuels burnt. Until this happens, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase. As the graph clearly shows, fossil fuel generation capacity has been steadily increasing over the last decade – from approximately 3,500 Gigawatts/year in 2008 to approximately 4,600/year in 2018. Renewables are not displacing fossil fuels; they are simply mopping up just over half of the increasing demand for electricity. The remainder is supplied by burning more fossil fuels. This isn’t even winning slowly. This is losing rapidly.

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