Environment: Atmospheric CO2 hits 420ppm. Operating mines and wells must close to stay under 1.5C

May 21, 2022
Image: Pixabay

The level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise and staying under 1.5 degrees of warming will require closing almost half of currently operating fossil fuel wells and mines: regional Australians know this. Conflicts over water are increasing worldwide.

Atmospheric CO2 levels hit 420 ppm

When the level of CO2 in the atmosphere began to be measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai’i in March 1958 the monthly average was 314 parts per million (ppm). In May 2013 the level exceeded 400ppm for the first time and in April 2022 the level hit 420ppm. The decadal increase in the CO2 concentration has grown over the last 60 years. In January 1970 the level was 9ppm higher than in January 1960 but in January 2020 it was 24ppm higher than in January 2010.

While much of the discussion around global warming focuses on how much additional CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) we pump into the atmosphere each year, it is the total amount of CO2 sitting in the atmosphere that determines the actual amount of warming. Halving the annual global CO2 emissions is a useful thing to do only if it is the half-way house to rapidly reaching zero emissions. Halving current emissions is still half of a lot and still increases the critical factor, the actual amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It is this that we need to reduce and return to something approaching the pre-industrial level of 260-280ppm.

But of course, the only currently feasible route for humans to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius is to reduce our emissions of all greenhouse gases. And to do that we …

… must close currently operating oil and gas fields and coal mines

I’m sure that many readers are well aware that the International Energy Agency said last year that the world does not need any more oil or gas fields or coal mines if we want to stay under the 1.5 degrees warming barrier. A new study has taken this further by demonstrating that the fields and mines that are currently producing oil, gas and coal, or are already under-construction, hold more reserves than we can possibly burn to stay under 1.5.

In the explanatory diagram below, the orange ‘Developed Reserves’ section represents the fossil fuel extraction facilities that are already producing or are approved, funded and under-construction. The ‘Reserves’ section represents those fossil fuel deposits that have been discovered and could be commercially extracted but are not currently planned to go into production. Previous studies have looked at these two sections together but the new study focused on only ‘developed reserves’, where the amounts of oil, gas and coal to be produced (and their associated carbon emissions) are locked in unless decisions are reversed. About half of the already committed carbon emissions will come from coal, a third from oil and the rest from gas.

The study’s results show that almost 40 per cent of developed reserves cannot be burnt if we want a one-in-two chance of staying under the 1.5 degree limit. So, to stay under 1.5, a significant portion of existing fields and mines must be decommissioned before their reserves are exhausted. Unplanned, this will create many stranded assets, both physical and financial, and cause major disruption to many communities.

The study also demonstrated that almost no new fields or mines can be developed if we want to stay under 2 degrees of warming.

The implications of these results are obvious. All undeveloped reserves must be left undeveloped, and almost half of already producing fields and mines must be closed soon. Despite their rhetoric and promises, many countries continue to approve and fund the development of new oil and gas fields and coal mines. Governments control these processes. Any government that is serious about tackling climate change must:

  • stop issuing exploration and development licenses
  • signal their intention to revoke existing extraction licences
  • begin to plan with the industry, unions and communities for the closure of existing facilities.

The longer these decisions are delayed by weak and self-serving governments, the more fossil fuel companies will be encouraged to develop more reserves and drain every last dollar from the industry regardless of the consequences. As a result, the worse the climate crisis will become, the more precipitate and chaotic will be the eventual transition, the greater will be the disruption to workers’, families’ and communities’ lives, the more stranded assets will be abandoned, and the more capital will be destroyed.

As an aside, one-in-two is pretty darn risky if you ask me. It’s like trusting your life to an airline that allows half of its planes to crash.

Australia’s coal regions increasingly accept the need for change

Regional areas, particularly those that are heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry, have been sceptical about the need to transition to renewable energy. Their understandable reluctance to change has been vigorously egged on and exploited by the industry itself and certain politicians. However, 2021 saw a significant change and by the end of the year the majority of people living in regions with close ties to fossil fuels acknowledged that the use of coal in Australia’s energy system will fall significantly over the next decade and that fossil fuel use will eventually be phased out. Conversations with a diverse mix of interested parties in these regions revealed five main themes:

  1. The expansion of renewable energy provides an historic opportunity to create a wide range of new industries and jobs that are particularly well suited to regional Australia.
  2. The shift from fossils to renewables requires government planning and regulation as well as public and private investment.
  3. The lack of, particularly federal, government leadership, policy and targets is making it difficult for investment to flow into the new industries.
  4. Independent, well-resourced, regional transition authorities are required to plan and coordinate the decarbonisation of the entire regional economy, not just manage the transition of energy generation.
  5. More creative, diverse and responsive financial mechanisms are needed to meet the needs of the changing regional communities.

The participants were also unhappy about the condition of democracy in Australia at present and called for protection of public servants and decision making from political interference, banning political donations and a national corruption watchdog.

As Richard Denniss pointed out recently in The Saturday Paper, the demographics and politics of regional areas are changing. Proportionally, parliamentary representation of the regions will fall as Australia’s population grows, with an increasing percentage living in the cities. Three-quarters of the population is expected to live in just the capital cities by 2050. Plus, the mix within regional areas is changing as knowledge-workers, essential workers and retirees, with city values but not city finances, increasingly adopt tree- and sea-change options. According to Dennis, fewer country seats will soon make it impossible for the Coalition to win government based on their current approach. The Nats in particular had better listen to what their traditional regional voters are saying about the future they want.

Conflicts over water increasing

The incidence of water being the cause of a conflict or being used as a weapon during a conflict increased markedly during 2010-19 compared with 2000-09. As the bar chart below demonstrates, conflicts in Asia increased more than three-fold between the two decades. Only last year, approximately 40 people died and buildings were destroyed in a one-day border conflict between Tajikistan and Krygyzstan sparked by the installation of a camera over a water source in the former. Although the number of conflicts is lower in Africa and Latin America, both regions also experienced significant increases in the number of water-related conflicts. Ethiopian plans to dam the Blue Nile are not surprisingly causing concern in Egypt.

A word of caution about these ‘conflicts’. Don’t think that they all involved international wars, bombardments and gunfire. Many were within national boundaries, some involved demonstrations and some were primarily interpersonal disputes – although people sometimes died in these domestic conflicts. More details about this can be found in the Pacific Institute’s chronology of water conflicts since 2500BC, including Australia’s two water-related conflicts in the noughties (one involved a death in a fight and the other hacking into a wastewater control system).

Regardless of the location and nature of the dispute, it’s highly likely that the potential for conflict over water resources will increase as populations in many countries grow and global warming increases temperatures, changes the patterns and distribution of rain, and reduces snowfall and glacier melt.

Damaging wells, poisoning water sources, diverting and destroying irrigation canals and aqueducts, damming rivers, destroying dams, flooding lands – they all seem to have been frequently used tactics of war in Europe and Asia in ancient times.

Taller trees store more carbon

The map below shows the height of trees in the world’s forests: the darker the green, the higher the canopy. Taller forests typically store more carbon. Areas with tree canopies that are 30 metres or more above the ground cover only 5 per cent of land but only a third are on protected lands. Preserving the forests we’ve got and planting new native forests are essential to combat global warming and protect biodiversity but it’s not wise to count on forests continuing as carbon sinks during the 21st century unless we limit global warming. Higher temperatures mean more droughts and droughts slow forest growth, limit the amount of carbon that trees absorb, increase the risk of fires and make trees more vulnerable to insect attacks.

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