Wrong way, not just kidding, on climate change

May 3, 2022
Ross Garnaut
Image: Flickr / Monash University Gippsland

Ross Garnaut has said the leaders are “just kidding” on climate change in the election campaign. It’s worse than that. They are leading us the wrong way.

What a dismal election campaign we are enduring.

You can find insight if you look for the best commentators, like John Hewson, Waleed Ali, Katherine Murphy, Niki Savva or Ross Gittins. But for the most part the media are just giving us a Punch and Judy show where the leaders whack and shout at each other. For a week we heard little but the fact Anthony Albanese forgot the unemployment level. This is a number of little use in any case. It counts anyone who works for an hour a week as employed and ignores many thousands who want more or better paid work.

It is not by chance we have this sort of campaign. It is perfectly suited to Morrison’s blustering style.

Climate change, by far the most important challenge of our time, gets short shrift. Ross Garnaut, the eminent economist, said last week in P&I and The Australian Financial Review that the leaders are “kidding” on climate change. He was too kind.

While Labor has policies trimmed to be just slightly better than those of the Coalition, the PM ignores his commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 and goes around dishing out millions for gas wells here, pipelines there, dirty hydrogen over here and carbon capture somewhere else. You would think there was no climate emergency. Only the “Teal” candidates and the Greens take it seriously.

Morrison took the net zero pledge to the giant COP 26 conference in Glasgow. We now know he had to pay off the Nationals first with billions for dams of doubtful merit, gas projects and a new port in Darwin. But after the conference he must have said “Phew! That’s over. Now back to business as usual.” Garnaut reminds us that Morrison refused to join a pledge launched by President Biden to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, and we emit a lot of it.

It may be hard to understand climate change, especially if your wealth depends on not understanding it. The way it works was illustrated in a recent article by David Leitch in RenewEconomy (based on an important scientific paper).

The total primary energy used in all human activity last year is a big number. We will call it X (it is in zetajoules, but never mind). Humans have been doing this for quite a while and have accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These trap more of the sun’s energy than before industrial times, warming the earth. The amount of heat added to the oceans in this way last year alone was between eighteen and twenty times X. Further amounts were added to land and the ice caps. And every year, as we send forth more greenhouse gases, the accumulation of heat accelerates.

This is why the world is having more heatwaves, droughts, floods and massive storms, with much worse to come.

Garnaut said we should be working hard to develop new export industries based on our large solar and wind resources. We need to: our coal and gas exports are bound to decline. He first pointed this out in his 1999 book Superpower. He says we have an advantage over other countries if we use this energy to process raw materials here. If our energy is used for processing offshore, the cost advantage disappears. Shipping renewable energy to other countries, whether by undersea cable or as ammonia, is expensive. He is right, of course.

I would start with aluminium. It is a big industry. Using renewable power for smelting aluminium does not need a new process. It does require investment in making a smelter better able to ramp its output up and down. This has an additional large benefit in that it would enable the smelter to cut its power use in times of shortage. The release of a large amount of power into the network would be like having the smelter function as a giant battery.

Australia is not the only country looking at new industry based on renewables. We need to get a move on. Dubai already supplies BMW with “green” aluminium, smelted using solar power. (They may run their smelter on gas power at night.)

Steel based on renewable energy is a much bigger prize. It is favoured by Garnaut and Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute. It will happen, but I am cautious about the difficulty of making a new process competitive with long-established steelmaking based on fossil fuels.

Hybrit, a joint venture of three major companies in Sweden, has made the first steel entirely without carbon. It went to Volvo for its trucks. They reduce iron ore to crude iron in a furnace using “green” hydrogen rather than coal or gas and then feed it to a renewable-powered electric furnace for refining. The Swedish companies are realistic in saying it will take years to achieve competitive costs (although credits for carbon not emitted will help along the way). I saw several thermal metallurgical processes during my years as a consultant. They are not easy to operate well. Zero-carbon steel will come, but it is not a matter of plug and play. Some will remember that CRA (now Rio Tinto) and BHP both wrote off billion-dollar sums in failed gas-powered steelmaking projects a decade or so ago. Both had strong joint venture partners with skills in the field.

It would be far better for Australia to put money into preparing for a green steel industry than wasting more on carbon capture and storage. Morrison has committed nearly $300 million more to this during the campaign, on top of several billions of taxpayer money over the years since the Howard era. CCS has been in use for decades, mainly to push more oil out of declining oil fields. Capturing and burying every tonne of the CO₂ is not important here. However, it has not worked as a means of making power stations based on coal or gas “clean”.

The biggest CCS project in the world is at the Gorgon gas venture in Western Australia. Chevron and its co-venturers Exxon and Shell have spent $3 billion on it. It has fallen millions of tonnes short in the amount of CO₂ it captures and buries. As Bruce Robertson said in RenewEconomy, if they can’t do it, who can?

Why are we splashing money into CCS? It is not the way to build the new industries Garnaut talks about. It is to appease the gods of fossil fuels and to maintain an illusion that we can go on as we have done, whistling and ignoring the cause of climate change.

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