Morrison’s 2050 carbon neutral ‘plan’ is deceptive and damaging

Oct 29, 2021
Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The slew of new gas and oil projects in Australia amounts to a pre-emptive strike to force the widespread use of carbon capture and storage

The Morrison government’s newly announced commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 is fraudulent.

Obscured by an avalanche of silvered spin and a deceitful “technology not taxes” narrative, the government and the states have been approving a massive slew of new gas and coal projects.

In October 2020 there were 21 new coal projects worth $80 billion in the investment pipeline as well as around 40 new LNG/petroleum projects worth $130 billion. Current estimates (Market Forces) put the number of new or expansion carbon fuel projects at 116, worth $200 billion.

In NSW alone there are now 23 new mine proposals representing an output capacity of 155 million tonnes. Woodside is pushing forward with plans for a $16 billion West Australian offshore gas field. Santos has its $4.6 billion Barossa offshore gas field in the Northern Territory in the making. All this is in direct opposition to the International Energy Agency’s carefully researched assessment that to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius globally, no new coal or gas should be brought on stream.

Australia has thus become a leading member of a rogue group of countries, which includes Russia, China, India and Brazil, whose new projects could by 2030 see the world swimming in twice the amount of fossil fuel that is consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C (The Production Gap report). That is, 240 per cent more coal, 57 per cent more oil and 71 per cent more gas than is needed. On coal, Australia is the leading contributor of new projects.

This rogue club’s carbon fuel expansion is precariously based on the science of carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the corporate world’s escape route on greenhouse gas emissions. The new oil and gas projects are taking the shape of a pre-emptive strike by carbon corporates to force widespread use of CCS, prolong the life of carbon fuels and delay their replacement by renewables.

The problem is that when denialists claim that unproven technology makes the 2050 target impossible, they are unwittingly talking about CCS. Witness the half billion dollars thrown away by the Abbott government in a hapless and hopeless search for CCS sites in Australia. What we learnt was obvious: underground reservoirs do not conveniently occur next to coal fired power plants, and even where there are reservoirs elsewhere they are not without formidable technical problems and high costs.

No such lessons or doubts are evident in Morrison’s 2050 “plan”. In the document CCS/CCUS is repeatedly mentioned 95 times and clean hydrogen and clean energy (read energy derived from carbon fuels with CCS) 130 times. Green energy/hydrogen (zero emissions energy) is mentioned just once. The plan boasts of over $1.2 billion committed to supporting clean hydrogen so far, including up to seven clean hydrogen industrial hubs, and over $300 million for carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) hubs and technologies”.

It is unfortunate that our love affair with CCS has probably been aided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports that have given a lot of oxygen to the potential for CCS. Its only thorough analysis of CCS technology was published in 2008. In one sense the 400-page tome remains remarkably accurate in admitting “the real potential of this technology (CCS) in terms of scale and economic dimensions is still uncertain … There is relatively little experience in combining CO2 capture, transport and storage into a fully integrated CCS system … The utilisation of CCS for large-scale power plants (the potential application of major interest) still remains to be implemented“.

Notwithstanding its own serious caveats, the IPCC went on to assert that 20-40 per cent of global fossil fuel C02 emissions could be “technically suitable” for CCS, including 30-60 per cent of carbon-fuelled electricity generation.

Apart from a half-page acknowledgement, the report does not take on the now seminal issue of whether renewable energy would be a competitive alternative to using CCS to green the burning of coal and gas. That’s not surprising given that, in 2008, the cost of solar power was 10 times higher than now and wind power three times higher. What is surprising is that, over the intervening 13 years, no comprehensive review of the implications of these major cost shifts has surfaced.

The 2008 report also acknowledges that the marriage of CCS to carbon fuels results in substantial upstream and largely unmeasured fugitive carbon emissions. Again, a rigorous assessment of the extent and control of such emissions has yet to be done.

CCS thus remains infused in the IPCC’s five scenario pathways which, in varying degrees, allow for an increasing role for CCS through to 2050. Thus the IPCC saw CCS as being responsible for between 15 per cent and 55 per cent of global mitigation through to 2050. The claim is also made that this use of CCS would reduce mitigation costs by 30 per cent. That the IPCC has yet to rework its pathways to carbon neutrality reflects, it would seem, its broad church approach to bringing all countries on board the Paris agreement.

Whatever changes the IPCC now has in store should have already been made available as part of its sixth assessment report, providing crucial input for the Glasgow climate summit.

Problematically for governments, due to Covid-induced delays the key part of the report on mitigation will not be published until early next year.

There is therefore real urgency for a comprehensive review of the dramatic past and likely future changes in cost relativities between renewables and carbon fuels with CCS. What is needed is a rigorous cost benefit analysis of the extent to which renewable energy already is, and is likely to be, a replacement for fossil fuel with CCS. In that assessment a key element will be measuring and costing upstream and downstream fugitive emissions inherent in the use of carbon fuels.

Australia in particular needs such a review and the development of a set of carbon emission standards that can be used to vet the opportunistic avalanche of new gas and coal development applications and “clean” energy projects. Perhaps, post-Glasgow, the Labor Party might stick its head above the parapets and recognise this need.

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