Environment: Greenhouse gases – same old winners, same old losers

Nov 6, 2022
Burning coal, closeup.

Whitehaven Coal is selling more coal and making record profits and (apparently) helping countries reduce their emissions. Rich nations should cancel developing nations’ debt to help them cope with climate change.

Whitehaven Coal increases profits from fuelling climate change

I attended the AGM of Whitehaven Coal last week. It was interesting in several respects.

First, Whitehaven is having a very good Covid and a very good war (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 2022, page 34). Exceptionally strong demand and record prices for their thermal coal led to a net profit of $2 billion and an almost four-fold increase in share price in the 2021/22 financial year.

Second, the company chairman (Mark Vaile, you remember him: ex-Leader of the Nationals, ex-Deputy Prime Minister, almost-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle) and the CEO stuck solidly to the script when responding to questions from the floor about the company’s response to climate change:

  • Whitehaven Coal is playing a crucial role in helping countries such as Japan and South Korea reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Whitehaven’s coal is the cleanest, highest energy seaborne coal in the world. If the overseas markets didn’t buy Whitehaven’s coal, they’d have to buy or mine their own dirtier coal that produces more greenhouse gases and more air pollution. According to the Vaile, Whitehaven is assisting its customers to meet their Paris agreements. He also quoted a Japanese customer, ‘We haven’t got a coal problem. We have a carbon problem. We need to deal with the carbon, not the coal’.
  • Whitehaven coal is all exported, mainly to Asian countries Some of these countries have High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE) or Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants that produce about 24% fewer emissions than typical coal-fired power plants in NSW. (My, my, only three-quarters of coal’s usual emissions – that’s going to save the world, isn’t it.) Several of the developing economies have newer power plants with many years of life left in them. All of these countries are looking for security of supply for several decades.
  • All Whitehaven’s Australian coal mines have received Federal and/or state approval, having met the rigorous environmental standards required.

There is, of course, an element of truth in all of these positions and it’s not surprising that Whitehaven’s directors, executives and some shareholders (see below) should hold on to them as tightly as they can and for as long as they can. What is revealed by companies such as Whitehaven trotting out these self-serving mantras is how completely uncommitted are the governments of the world, individually and collectively, to creating the conditions that will force the decarbonisation we need in the time we have left to keep warming under 1.5oC. Many countries, well-exemplified by Australia even under the new Labor government, like to develop renewable energy sources while simultaneously maintaining their support for fossil fuel facilities. Until all governments, led by the wealthy, developed nations, turn their fine-sounding promises and commitments into real action that delivers rapid change in fossil fuel production and use, companies such as Whitehaven will continue their merry, profitable way.

Third, Whitehaven is offsetting its mine-site Scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions (emissions generated off-site during the production of energy that is used on-site) ‘by purchasing 100% carbon neutral electricity across all of our sites’. Whitehaven has achieved this by buying carbon offsets from the Climate Active program established by the previous federal government – a program that has been described as state-sponsored greenwash being used to avoid the political pain and economic shifts that will be inevitable with genuine decarbonisation’.

One shareholder proudly proclaimed Whitehaven’s ‘noble purpose’ and suggested the best way to reduce the world’s carbon emissions is for the company to open more Australian mines that produce clean coal and close mines in places like China that produce dirty coal. He wanted Whitehaven to join with other miners to produce public education programs to counter the distorted claims of climate activists and educate the community about climate science and the importance of Australia’s coal industry to reducing carbon emissions globally, and funding Australia’s health, education and welfare programs. Rapturous applause followed.

Who should pay the cost of the floods in Pakistan?

Pakistan has a population of 230 million. The GDP/head is about one-fortieth that of Australia and their life expectancy is 16 years less. They have produced less than 1% of the world’s carbon emissions but are one of the world’s ten most climate-vulnerable countries. Pakistanis’ current emissions per head are about one-tenth those of Australians. The recent floods in Pakistan have killed about 1700 people, displaced more than 50 million from their homes (50 million!) and caused at least US$10 billion of damage.

Loss and damage is not a widely understood aspect of global climate action. I have written about it a few times but most of the articles I have referred to have been rather conceptual. Farooq Tariq, writing about the floods in Pakistan, takes a more grounded approach. In particular, Tariq highlights the injustice of poor countries such as Pakistan, that have contributed so little to the climate crisis, bearing most of the consequences caused by the excess emissions of rich countries and corporate polluters.

Individual countries, intergovernmental organisations and non-government organisations have rushed to provide emergency practical and financial aid to Pakistan but Tariq argues that the best financial aid would be cancellation of the country’s foreign debt. This year, Pakistan will make repayments of US$38 billion to financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank; money that then cannot be spent on healthcare, education, infrastructure, etc. at home. Were Pakistan’s foreign debt repayments to be suspended, or even better cancelled, the money could be spent on, among other things, rehousing the 50 million. According to Tariq, without debt relief or funding to compensate for the loss and damage caused by climate change, Pakistan’s cycle of debt, climate crises and human suffering will only worsen. As it will for all the poor, highly indebted, low emission, climate-vulnerable countries of the Global South.

We may get some indication of the rich nations’ willingness to soften their rock-solid resistance to recognising the concept of loss and damage, never mind talking about actual dollars, at the COP meeting that starts in Egypt this coming week.

Or perhaps the rich countries care as little for the poor as oil and gas companies care for everyone, as claimed in this parody of a Chevron ad.

Speeding up the transition to zero-emission transportation

Zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) are vehicles that emit no greenhouse gases from the exhaust pipe. They include battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Low Carbon Cities Canada has developed six strategies that local councils can implement to tackle the most significant barriers to the adoption of ZEVs:

  1. Encourage the uptake of ZEVs by making them a more appealing, more affordable option: e.g. introduce favourable parking policies for ZEVs and establish zero emission zones where ZEVs, pedestrians and cyclists have unrestricted access but all other vehicles are prohibited or have to pay a fee.
  2. Increase the availability of public charging stations: e.g. councils install their own charging infrastructure and encourage the private sector (employers and investors) to install them by removing regulatory barriers and providing financial incentives.
  3. Enable EV-ready retrofits of existing apartment buildings: e.g. develop bylaws and offer incentives to encourage retrofits.
  4. Ensure all new buildings are EV-ready: e.g. require all parking spaces in new residential buildings to be EV-ready and 20-40% of spaces in new non-residential buildings.
  5. Accelerate the use of ZEVs in all council vehicle fleets – cars, public transport, utility vehicles, and vehicles used for garbage collection, cleaning, and parks and recreation.
  6. Encourage electrification of car sharing arrangements: e.g. set a deadline and offer financial incentives for all taxi fleets, Uber vehicles, etc. to be zero-emission.

FrogID Week

Australia has over 240 native species of frog. Many of them are under threat from the usual suspects: habitat loss, pollution, disease, climate change, invasive species. November 11-20th is FrogID Week when the Australian Museum looks for help to record and identify the frogs that live in your backyard and local parks and bushland. Last year citizen scientists just like you recorded 37,000 frog calls during ID Week. It’s all made easy with the free FrogID app. Download it now and practise in the next week so that you’ll be all ready to go on November 11th.

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