The gas-led recovery repudiates Australia’s IPCC commitments   

Sep 1, 2021
Adani protest coal climate change

In promoting gas, the government is rejecting our IPCC commitments to achieve carbon neutrality and inviting others to follow suit. It is looney and dangerous stuff.

Recent utterances by federal ministers and our prime minister border on outright repudiation of our Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) commitments to achieve carbon neutrality and an invitation for others to follow suit.

Resources and Water Minister Keith Pitt’s statement on Radio National (26/08) is a case in point. Fran Kelly asked the minister why, if the latest IPCC report states the world has to immediately stop further investment in gas to reach carbon neutrality, the government was promoting a gas-led recovery and actively investing in further gas exploration. The answer was unbelievably disingenuous: firstly, was a reference to our only producing around 1% of global emissions. The deliberate implication here is that we make no real difference to the global effort. Adding insult to injury Pitt opined that this meant we could therefore elevate the priority of looking after our own economic wellbeing — and rightfully downgrade our IPCC commitments.

This is logically looney and dangerous stuff. The carefully misleading spin deliberately encourages Australians to get into bed with the government’s de facto sidelining of our multilateral commitments for reducing GHG emissions. In effect, Pitt and other ministers are advocating that we, and presumably any other signatories to the IPCC agreement with relatively minor emissions, can sit on the sidelines, ignore our nationally determined contributions to reducing GHG emission — and let others do the heavy lifting. In doing so we risk seriously eroding the multilateral consensus on which the IPCC agreement critically relies at a time when there are increasingly desperate efforts to strengthen it to avoid the almost inevitable exceeding of 1.5 degrees. For Australia, this opportunistic spurning of multilateralism has wider consequences. As a small/medium power multilateralism is a critically important instrument in achieving our foreign economic and political goals (have we learnt nothing from our foolish unilateral call for an investigation into China’s role in the Covid outbreak?). Our track record as a reliable multilateralists needs to be carefully nurtured.

The second assumption is equally absurd. Putting Australia’s economic interest first is of course a government’s fiduciary responsibility. Somehow the Morrison government sees this in terms of promoting a gas-led recovery thus ensuring Australians do not have higher electricity prices and an untoward rise in the CPI. But even this narrow near-term metric has lost logic: it is renewables which are now holding down and in many cases lowering electricity prices. It is the ageing coal fired power plants which now threaten rising power prices.

Somehow the government sees no responsibility for a cost-benefit analysis of Australia’s exposure to global warming. The lack of responsibility is not simply one of transferring the cost burden to future generations or even the next election cycle. Past estimates put the cost to Australia of climate change at around $35 billion over the previous decade. Recent estimates put the cost of property damage and other economic losses from the 2019 bushfires alone at around $100 billion. But these sums are a fraction of the generational handover of costs. There are the built-in future costs flowing from the already built-in future temperature rise and then the lack of insurance against the likely further temperature rises, the consequent risk of igniting tipping points and a runaway global warming scenario. Let’s remind the government: the cost of climate change impacts is estimated by the Climate Council to reach $100 billion a year by 2038. Deloitte’s Access Economics says the cost of inaction would ultimately produce a 6% contraction in the economy — $3.4 trillion — and the loss of nearly a million jobs. Globally the cost is put at $140-300 billion per year by 2030 and $280-500 billion per year by 2050.

Clearly such costs weigh lightly on the prime minister. Witness the recent deft public berating of China for not pulling its GHG reduction weight as a reason for not committing to a 2050 deadline. This is rogue diplomacy. The assault on China flies in the face of a central protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.  This was based on the recognition (by Australia when we signed the convention) that the developed world  (defined in the agreement as Annex 1 countries) ‘owned’ a majority of the CO2 already in the atmosphere through its past industrialisation. Developing countries were therefore not required to reduce GHG at the same rate as those countries which had already benefited from the accelerated spewing out CO2 over the past century. China was and still is a non-annex 1 country.  While, arguably, China could transition out of this category, historically as a latecomer to industrialisation, it rightly has not been obliged to reduce emissions as quickly as fully industrialised countries. Australia is however committed to the obligation to effect a higher rate of GHG reduction than developing countries.

There are those – which presumably includes our government – who argue that China’s  ‘before 2060’ target could be accelerated and that, importantly, it should stop financing its own and other country’s coal-fired power plants. But the least effective way to persuade China is for one of the richest countries in the world and one which has all but the highest per capita emissions globally,  to publicly disavow its own GHG reduction obligations. Moreover,  such an ill-advised criticism of China – not taken up by our major category 1 colleagues – can hardly do anything to promote what surely should be our wider foreign policy goals.  – that is, not to unnecessarily inflame our relations with China at a time when they are at a historically low ebb.

Finally, the tawdry tale of Empire Energy’s untendered $21 million ‘gift’ for gas exploration hides a more worrying issue.  The gas led recovery is a handmaiden to the global energy multinational’s campaign to ensure their extensive gas reserves do not become stranded assets (Santos, for example, is being taken to court over its clean energy claim for gas in its annual report). The problem is that current research clearly shows that when upstream emissions are counted, carbon capture and storage does not solve gas’s emissions problems.  Research also indicates that such is the fall in renewable energy prices and battery storage that CCS will simply not be an economic alternative. Nevertheless, joining the government’s sidelining of this science has been the ALP whose marginal electoral angst has driven it to promotion of the non sequitur “environmentally sustainable gas development”.

A critically important global tug of war is therefore underway over whether renewables will be the means to meet decadal GHG reduction goals or whether gas with CCS will be used. The key issue for the gas lobby to obfuscate is that the use of gas with CCS – and most importantly in the necessary massive scaling up of hydrogen production – is shown to be no better and likely worse than simply burning natural gas. In Australia’s case, a gas led recovery would put paid to any hope of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 which by some reckoning (Rhonda Boyle, P and I August 26) is already all but unachievable.

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