Environment: Pacific wants Australian support for strong climate action

Sep 10, 2022
National Park wildfire
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pacific nations want climate action not military bases. Emissions and temperatures keep rising and forest fires keep increasing.

Pacific nations’ security priority is tackling climate change

The bottom line of a recent Climate Council report is that Australia, and other high-emitting Pacific rim nations, should worry less about China’s growing interest in the Pacific and focus more on reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and working harder to ensure that global emissions fall to zero as quickly as possible.

This is a message that is strongly endorsed in the report’s Foreword by Pacific Elders Voice, an independent group of previous leaders in the region, who say:

‘The primary security threat to the Pacific islands is climate change. Without urgent global action to cut emissions our countries, especially low-lying atoll states, face the prospect of annihilation due to rising sea levels.’

The ex-leaders acknowledge the new Australian government’s ramped up commitment to tackling climate change but are also clear that more must be done, and soon, if Australia wishes to convince Pacific islanders that they take the existential threats faced by the Pacific nations seriously. They want to see no new coal and gas, new finance for unavoidable loss and damage caused by climate change, greater integrity in any Australian carbon offset schemes, plus not using offsets as a substitute for actual emissions reductions, support by Australia for Pacific nations’ priorities at COP27 in November, financial support for resilience and insurance programs in the Pacific, and working with the Pacific nations to drive global climate action.

The Climate Council report identifies four major climate-related threats to the islands: more destructive tropical cyclones, sea level rise and coastal flooding, coral bleaching and degradation of marine ecosystems, and more extreme droughts and more intense rain. The report’s main recommendation is that Australia should support the Pacific nations’ own positions and priorities:

  • Recognise that climate change is the single greatest threat to the security and livelihoods of Pacific peoples;
  • Cut emissions at a pace that reflects the science and will limit warming to 1.5oC, the level that is critical to the survival of many Pacific nations;
  • End the use of fossil fuels in OECD nations by 2030, and around the world by 2040;
  • Support adaptation and provide finance to the Green Climate Fund to address climate impacts;
  • Provide financial support to address irreversible loss and damage arising from climate change.

Our new government might be engaging more than the last one with Pacific nations but it isn’t obvious that they are taking the Pacific’s own priorities seriously.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

CCS is like one of those birthday cake candles that you blow out and think you’ve done the job, only to see it burst back into flame as you turn your attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, one of the prices Joe Biden had to pay to secure the progress of his Inflation Reduction Act was to throw a mining dump truck-full of money at repeatedly moribund CCS. And just like directing a blast of pure oxygen at the apparently dead candle, the effect will be to reinvigorate the ultimately doomed beast for a while.

Charles Harvey, a professor of environmental engineering, and Kurt House, CEO of a metals exploration company, have been burnt by CCS: fifteen years ago they started the first privately funded company in the USA to use CCS to capture and bury the CO2 emitted by coal-burning power stations. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as expected. The technology doesn’t work very well and the cost of renewables plummeted.

Harvey and House make four telling points about CCS in a recent New York Times article:

  • Every dollar invested in renewable energy will eliminate far more carbon emissions than CCS.
  • In 2021 there were 12 operational CCS projects in the USA. Most were involved in separating CO2 from methane in natural gas and then piping the CO2 back into wells to produce yet more gas and oil. Harvey and House’s summary of this is very neat: ‘This process produces more natural gas and oil, increases carbon dioxide emissions and transfers carbon dioxide that was naturally locked away underground in one place to another one elsewhere’, all at a time when the world should be ending its dependence on fossil fuels are rapidly as possible.
  • Apart from problems with the technology, CCS projects fail because electricity from renewable energy is cheaper than electricity from coal-fired plants, even those without CCS. Add in the cost of the energy required to install and run CCS in a coal-fired plant and it’s hopelessly uncompetitive.
  • Government subsidies to CCS disadvantages far more promising technologies that are seeking to avoid CO2 emissions from the energy, steel, fertiliser and cement industries in the first place.

H&H conclude: ‘Clean power from carbon capture and sequestration died with the success of renewable energy; it’s time to bury this technology deep underground.’

A new report from IEEFA makes similar points but also emphasises that CCS is not a new technology. It’s been around for 50 years and it’s still struggling – most of the few projects that have got started have severely underdelivered. Currently a mere 39 million tons of CO2 are captured annually around the world. Almost three-quarters of that is captured from the processing of natural gas and three-quarters of all the CO2 that is captured is reinjected into oil fields to enhance the recovery of more oil and gas. Only a quarter ends up being stored underground. IEEFA concludes:

  • Failed projects considerably outnumber successful ones;
  • Using the captured CO2 to increase the production of fossil fuels is hardly a win;
  • Whatever you do with the CO2 recovered from natural gas, there are still the massive emissions associated with transporting and burning the gas;
  • The only possibly justifiable use of CCS is in the short term to help the hard to abate industries such as steel and cement decarbonise;
  • The heavy promotion of CCS is simply greenwashing to keep the fossil fuel industry in business as long as possible.

Forest fires increasing

There may be a tendency to regard forest fires as catastrophic for the animals, plants and humans in and around the areas that burn but not necessarily a major cause of tree loss overall. Not so, however. Forest fires are becoming more widespread and burning nearly twice as much tree cover now as twenty years ago. Over those twenty years, fires have caused more than a quarter of all tree cover loss.

In the histogram above, ‘non-fire related loss’ relates to forest clearing for agriculture, mining, logging and urban expansion, and also to natural causes such as wind damage and rivers changing course.

The longer, more extreme heat waves and dried out landscapes associated with climate change are a major cause of the increasing forest fires, especially where human activities have already disrupted the forest. This is particularly the case in the northern boreal forests which have accounted for 70% of all fire-related tree cover loss over the last twenty years. While fires have always been a feature of boreal forests, the faster rate of warming being seen at higher latitudes is probably responsible for the marked increase. Boreal forests don’t have such a good publicity team as tropical forests, which is a shame because they are one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with much of the carbon stored underground in soil and permafrost. As temperatures increase the permafrost could release much of its stored carbon.

Somewhat different factors are at play in tropical forests where natural fires are not so common and are responsible for less than 10% of the tree cover loss, although this also is increasing. The major cause of tree cover loss in the tropics is clearing by humans. Higher temperatures, drier conditions and disrupted forests contribute to the increase in natural fires in these areas but another significant problem is the common practice of lighting fires to help clear the land. These fires are not considered to cause ‘tree cover loss from fires’ as the trees have already been cut down but sparks from these fires can start fires elsewhere. Almost all fires in tropical forests are started by humans, not natural causes.

You don’t need a Nobel Prize to work out how to halt the increase in forest fires.

Emissions and global temperatures stayed high in 2021

The following three graphs speak for themselves but I will just point out that although 2021 was a bit cooler than the previous two years, the last seven years have been the hottest on record.

 

I’m going away for a few weeks and taking a short break. Back on Sunday, October 16th.

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