Climate crisis: Australia should join the methane pledge

Nov 4, 2021
According to the BBC, “the UK has given Australia pretty much everything it wanted in terms of access to the UK agricultural market.” (Image: Unsplash)

By stopping the government signing the EU-US methane pledge, the Nationals have ensured Australians will suffer more climate damage than they should.

The European Union and the United States have pledged to cut their national emissions of methane by 30 per cent or more by 2030. It is not in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “Australian Way” plan, because of a National Party veto. We should join the methane pledge and make it a part of our climate policy.

In the late 19th century, when “horseless carriages” began to appear, Great Britain passed a law that obliged the driver of any motorised vehicle to have a man walk ahead carrying a red flag. This did not stop the irresistible change to motor transport, though it gave German and French car companies a head start over British rivals.

The same spirit prevails in Australia today in the National Party, which wants to stop the inevitable move to a zero-carbon economy, a move that will leave us weaker economically and suffering worse damage than we should from climate change.

The Nationals would do far better to follow the example of NSW’s Treasurer and Environment Minister Matt Kean (a Liberal). Kean leans into the trend and has designated several Renewable Energy Zones, prioritising new grid infrastructure.

Private interests are rushing to propose new wind and solar farms and energy storage, including pumped hydro. Carbon-free electricity will power future industries and underpin jobs and a strong economy in areas such as the Hunter and Illawarra. If only Matt Kean were in charge federally!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change drew attention to methane in the first volume of its Sixth Assessment Report, which came out in August. Methane emissions are second only to carbon dioxide as the biggest factor in climate change due to humans and the gas is responsible for 23 per cent of global warming since the pre-industrial era.

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas; its impact on climate change is out of proportion to its presence in the atmosphere. Over 20 years, a kilo of methane causes 86 times more warming than the same amount of CO2.

On the other hand, methane decays, eventually becoming more carbon dioxide, plus water vapour. Half of any methane emitted today will be gone from the air in 10 years — so cutting methane emissions now means the amount in the air will fall over the coming few years. Its warming influence will fade, just when we need to do all we can to hold back climate change.

According to the latest National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, nearly half of Australia’s methane comes from agriculture (mainly from animals like cattle but also from activities like rice faming). Nearly to 30 per cent comes from coal mining and oil and gas production, with a little from the energy sector. About 10 per cent comes from waste, especially landfills. The balance is apparently from “LULUCF” (land use, land use changes and forestry). Emissions from agriculture are declining slowly while the share from oil and gas is growing as the industries expand.

Senior federal ministers rounded on the pledge’s implied cuts to emissions.

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce said: “The only way you can get your 30 per cent by 2030 reduction in methane on 2020 levels would be to grab a rifle and go out and start shooting your cattle.”

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor said: “No affordable, practical and large-scale way exists to reduce it (in agriculture) other than by culling herd sizes. What activists in Australia and elsewhere want is an end to the beef industry.”

These statements are completely wrong and unworthy of senior ministers. Meat and Livestock Australia last year committed to making the whole red meat industry in Australia carbon neutral by 2030, using a mix of new technology (such as food additives) and improved farming practices.

Reuters reports New Zealand is considering joining the pledge, despite methane from dairy cattle being a large factor in its emissions. If they can do it, so can we.

Fossil fuel companies like to refer to “fugitive” methane, as if it has a mind of its own and runs away. It doesn’t. It leaks out or is released or “vented” to the atmosphere. Better maintenance and stricter regulation can cut these emissions.

As the gas is invisible and difficult to detect, measurement of methane emissions is uneven at best. There are reports that they have been underestimated, particularly from the oil and gas industry.

The Washington Post has reported on planes with infra-red sensors flying over the fracking fields of the Permian Basin in West Texas, spotting several “super-emitters” that were allowing methane to billow invisibly into the air. More precise instruments are coming, as are satellites, and it will soon be impossible to hide significant methane emissions.

In the Trump era, American oil and gas firms lobbied successfully to have controls on methane emissions relaxed. President Biden is restoring the controls and making them tougher. It is too awful to think of the fate of the planet if Trump comes back.

The science journal Nature reports that about 70 oil and gas firms, including giants such as Shell and BP, have committed to setting clear emissions-reductions targets and reporting emissions under an initiative led by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

The Morrison Government doesn’t think the same way and that is a pity. We should make the methane pledge part of our climate change policy.

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