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Pro-gas Australian Labor Govt wants Coal to Gas transition by Carbon Tax - but Gas burning worse GHG-wise

by Open-Publishing - Saturday 16 April 2011
1 comment

Energy Environment Australia Gideon Polya

Australia has a shocking record of climate change inaction coupled with an unenviable position as a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. However the anti-science, pro-fossil fuel Australian Labor Government headed by pro-war, pro-Zionist, pro-neocon America, pro-coal, pro-gas PM Julia Gillard survives as a Minority Government due to alliance with 1 Green MP and 2 rural independent MPs.

After much prevarication the neocon Australian Labor Government has proposed a comprehensively disastrous and counterproductive Carbon-Tax-ETS-Ignore Agriculture (CTETSIA) plan for “tackling climate change” but which in reality will couple effective climate change inaction with crippling of carbon-intensive industries such as the steel industry.

Extraordinarily, Gillard Labor claims that the Carbon Tax will promote a coal burning to gas burning transition, ignoring the Awful Truth that gas burning is worse than coal burning greenhouse gas (GHG)-wise.

Methane (CH4) is a major greenhouse gas (GHG) that on a 100 year time scale has a relative global warming potential (GWP) that is 25 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2). However a re-assessment by US scientists that takes atmospheric aerosol responses to CH4 into account has found that on a 20 year time scale CH4 (the major constituent of natural gas) is 105 times worse than CO2 as a GHG (as compared to 79 without considering aerosol effects). Further, recent data from the US EPA indicates that the industrial leakage of CH4 in the US is 3.3%. Using this information it can be readily estimated that gas burning for power can be much dirtier GHG-wise than coal burning. [1].

Australia is described as Downunder by people in the Northern Hemisphere and I joke to young Northern Hemisphere folk that we Aussies are upside-down. However the horrible reality is that Australians routinely turn the truth upside-down in the interests of rapacious greed. Thus in the debate over action on man-made climate change only 50% of Australians believe in what an overwhelming international scientists regard as a major, Planet-threatening reality.

Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter and a major exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG) but the simple expedient of roughly halving Australia’s GHG pollution by banning coal and LNG exports is completely off the national agenda. Australia’s annual per capita GHG pollution is 30 tonnes CO2-equivalent per person per year (54 if its exported GHG is included) as compared to 0.9 for Bangladesh and Pakistan but “do nothing” Australians seriously argue that since Australia’s population is only 0.3% of the world’s population, anything Australia does to decrease GHG pollution would be insignificant.

While top climate scientist Professor Schellnhuber says that high per capita GHG polluters like Australia must get to zero CO2 emissions by 2020, Australia offers a GHG pollution that is “5% off 2000 level by 2020”. And while top scientists call for an urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to 300 parts per million (ppm) from the current dangerous and damaging 392 ppm (increasing at 2.4 ppm per year), Australia is committed to increasing its Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution to nearly 150% of 2000 level by 2020.

And now, in another extraordinary absurdity, the Australian Government variously declares that “gas is clean” or “gas is cleaner” and wants a Carbon Tax strategy that it believes will hasten a coal burning to gas burning transition, ignoring the latest science that says that gas burning for power can be much dirtier GHG-wise than coal burning. And, of course, while the devil is in the detail, the anti-science, spin-driven Australian Labor Government won’t reveal what its Carbon Price will be (plausible guesses range from $10-$30 per tonne Carbon).

According to Professor Kevin Anderson and colleagues at the prestigious Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK (2011): “The idea that we need “transitional“ fossil fuels is itself open to question. For example, in the International Energy Agency scenario that outlines a path for 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, fuel switching coupled with power generation efficiency, only accounts for 5% of the required reductions (IEA, 2010). If globally, we are able to achieve the considerable reductions in carbon emissions that are required then it is energy efficiency, [hypothetical] carbon capture and storage, renewable energy etc that will make the difference... given the radical reduction in emissions required within two decades, it [UK shale gas] would risk being a major distraction from transitioning to a genuine zero-carbon grid. Given the investment in infrastructure required to exploit these resources there is the danger of locking the UK into years of shale gas use, leaving unproven carbon capture and storage as the only option for lower carbon electricity (and even this would permit only 60-80% capture rate). Consequently, this investment would be better made in real zero-carbon technologies that would provide more effective long-term options for decarbonizing electricity." [2].

What do these and other climate scientist experts say has to be done?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) (2010): “Current energy and CO2 trends run directly counter to the repeated warnings sent by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which concludes that reductions of at least 50% in global CO2 emissions compared to 2000 levels will need to be achieved by 2050 to limit the long-term global average temperature rise to between 2.0oC and 2.4oC. Recent studies suggest that climate change is occurring even faster than previously suspected and that even the “50% by 2050” goal may be inadequate to prevent dangerous climate change.” [3].

The UK Committee on Climate Change, independent advisers to the UK Government on tackling and preparing for climate (2010): “An indicative 2030 target to reduce emissions by 60% relative to 1990 levels (46% relative to 2009 levels) … the cost of meeting the Domestic Action and Global Offer budgets is under 1% of GDP … Our analysis suggests the need to decarbonize the power sector through the 2020s by adding 30-40GW of low-carbon plant. This would reduce average emissions [90%] from 500g CO2/kWh [0.5 tCO2/MWh] to ”50g CO2/kWh [0.05 tCO2/MWh] by 2030…A carbon price underpin that reached at least 27 pounds/tCO2 (i.e. 30 euros per tonne) []A$160/tC] in 2020 and rising through the 2092s would provide appropriate signals.” [4].

Based on a CH4 GHG contribution 25 times bigger than that of CO2 on a 100 year time scale, eminent climate scientist Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber CBE (Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research [PIK], Germany) has estimated that for a 67% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise (the EU target; would you board a plane if it had a 33% chance of crashing?) the World has to cease CO2 emissions by 2050. “All men are created equal” means that all human beings must be allotted equal shares of CO2 pollution until 2050. This in turn means that high annual per capita GHG pollution countries such as the US and Australia must reach zero CO2 emissions by 2020 while low per capita emitters (e.g. India and Burkina Faso) can increase their emissions until finally reaching zero emissions by 2050. [5].

Similarly, based on CH4 being 25 times worse than CO2 as a GHG on a 100 year time scale, Dr Vicky Pope (Head of Climate Change Advice, UK Met Office Hadley Centre) has stated: “Latest climate projections from the Met Office Hadley Centre show the possible range of temperature rises, depending on what action is taken to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions. Even with large and early cuts in emissions, the indications are that temperatures are likely to rise to around 2 °C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. If action is delayed or not quick enough, there is a large risk of much bigger increases in temperature, with some severe impacts. In a worst-case scenario, where no action is taken to check the rise in Greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures would most likely rise by more than 5 °C by the end of the century. This would lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts. In the most optimistic scenario, action to reduce emissions would need to start in 2010 and reach a rapid and sustained rate of decline of 3 per cent every year. Even then there would still only be a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rises below around 2°C. This contrasts sharply with current trends, where the world’s overall emissions are currently increasing at 1 per cent every year.” [6].

On the same greatly under-estimated assumption, Professor Kevin Anderson and Dr Alice Bows (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK): “According to the analysis conducted in this paper, stabilizing at 450 ppmv [carbon dioxide equivalent = CO2 -e, atmospheric concentration measured in parts per million by volume] requires, at least, global energy related emissions to peak by 2015, rapidly decline at 6-8% per year between 2020 and 2040, and for full decarbonization sometime soon after 2050 …Unless economic growth can be reconciled with unprecedented rates of decarbonization (in excess of 6% per year), it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilization at or below 650 ppmv CO2 -e ... Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emissions trends and a commitment to “limiting average global temperature increases to below 4 oC above pre-industrial levels”, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.” [7].

And, of course, having reached zero emissions there is then the daunting task of drawing down atmospheric CO2 to 300 ppm (by renewable energy-driven biochar production, re-afforestation and renewable energy-driven CO2 sequestration as carbonate salts) to reverse 2 centuries of profligate carbon burning that has resulted in an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 392 ppm. However Australia is set on a course of continued, profligate carbon burning and GHG pollution until the World forces it to stop.

Focussing on gas-fired burning for power, the remorselessly anti-science Australian Government is (a) wrong (not surprisingly) on the desirability of a transition from dirty coal to gas that is even dirtier GHG-wise and (b) may well be wrong on the Carbon Price needed to do this.

Thus Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Greg Combet interviewed by Tony Jones, ABC TV Lateline (2011) made it clear that the Australian Government wants a coal to gas transition driven by a Carbon Tax.: “There’s no doubt that the next generation of electricity suppliers is also going to include a contribution or a greater contribution of baseload electricity from natural gas. It’s a cleaner energy source. The emissions from natural gas being used as a fuel to generate electricity are about half of a black coal-fired electricity generator… What we’re really talking about is bringing on baseload gas-fired electricity generation, and of course there are already well advanced plans, including development permits and the like that are necessary that will allow those investments to be committed. And once a carbon price is in place, of course that’s not for the Government to determine the timing of those investments. It’ll be an issue for the marketplace. But projects are there awaiting investment commitments to be made. A carbon price will provide the certainty for those investors to make their decisions, organise their finance, commit the investments and get the baseload gas generation underway. So, it’s got to be part of the mix. And the major policy shift that is necessary is in fact the introduction of a carbon price because it makes cleaner energy sources like natural gas and like renewable energy cheaper relative to the current price of coal-fired electricity.” [8].

Indeed Minister Combet in his recent Carbon Tax announcement to the National Press Club (April 2011) stated: “This brings me to my third point: that a carbon price will cut pollution and drive investment into cleaner energy like natural gas, solar and wind power. Under our carbon price for the first time over a sustained period, Australia’s net carbon pollution will go down, not up. Our carbon price will mean our economy will grow and pollution will not. Some of the types of changes a carbon price can deliver are promoting more low emissions gas-fired or renewable electricity generation instead of high emissions coal-fired electricity generation…converting coal-fired boilers to gas-fired boilers in manufacturing plants, commercial buildings and hospitals.”[9, 10].

Minister Combet’s colleague Energy Minister Martin Ferguson has been similarly explicit in his support for a coal to gas transition in launching the Australian Energy Resources Assessment (AERA), which examines Australia’s identified and potential energy resources (2010): “The two big findings are the extraordinary potential of coal seam gas and unconventional gas resources, and for the first time, we can see just how extensive Australia’s renewable [sic] energy resources are… Sustainable energy security requires a vast expansion of Australia’s infrastructure. The share of coal in our domestic mix is expected to fall, from three-quarters today to less than half in 2030. At the same time, the proportion of energy from gas and wind will rise. Gas, for instance, will be used in more than one third of Australia’s electrical generation.” [11].

For a detailed compendium of quotes of Australian Labor Government Ministers incorrectly asserting that “gas is clean” or that “gas is cleaner than coal” see “Gas is dirty energy & may be dirtier than coal - Oz Labor’s "gas is clean energy" means Put Labor Last”, Bellaciao, 10 June 2010: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article19894 . [12].

However the premise that a Carbon Tax may promote a coal to gas transition is incorrect in the detail and unfortunately the endlessly dishonest Australian Government won’t release the detail.
Thus energy economists Paul Simshauser and Phillip Wild (2009): “From 1984 gas-fired power generation had been gradually increasing its share of the electricity market in Western Australia (WA) starting at 1 per cent and rising to about 50 per cent by 2008. Had it continued on this trajectory, the WA power system would have made great advances in terms of cost and environmental efficiencies given the looming commencement of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in Australia from 2011. However, more recently the cost of natural gas has increased from $3/GJ to $7/GJ following the sudden collapse of the East Spar gas field in the North West Shelf. In this article, we analyse the impact of the gas price increase and demonstrate that despite being the most environmentally efficient conventional technology, natural gas combined cycle plant has been squeezed out of the market which in turn will increase forward electricity price risks to WA consumers through greater exposure to CO2 pricing in the long run.” [13].

More explicitly, Tony Jones, ABC TV interviewer interviewing Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Greg Combet on Carbon Tax and gas-fired power (2011): “In their submission to you, the Domestic Gas Alliance says that even a $30-a-tonne carbon price will have no impact, no impact in shifting energy use from coal to gas other than to increase energy prices. You’d be aware of this submission, so what’s your response to it?... But these are the people who want you to shift to natural gas fire. They say that even at $7 wholesale gas prices, natural gas would only be competitive with coal for new baseload power if the carbon price was $90 per tonne. That’ll never happen.” [8].

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) that has released a report detailing how Australia could implement 100% renewable energy by 2020 (2011): “There have been many calls from those in the climate change debate for “a rising price on carbon which is high enough to stimulate renewable energy”. This is a flawed strategy . Due to the nature of technology and the electricity market, we would require in excess of $70.tonne even for wind power, the lowest cost renewable, to compete in the electricity market without requiring Renewable Energy Certificates from the LRET, For baseload technologies such as concentrating solar thermal (CST), the game changer we need to replace coal and gas, you would need in excess of $200 /tonne for initial plants… A low carbon price of $10-20/tonne is somewhat useful, as it will still create a disincentive to build new coal-fired power stations, and will ensure that coal is more likely to be displaced by renewable than gas. However, a carbon price which is greater than $25/tonne will ensure a mass rollout of gas-fired power stations, while renewables are left out in the cold... BZE’s recommendation on a carbon price is that calling for a high price will inevitably lead to a large switch to gas, with minimal benefits to renewable energy. The focus should be on making the case for a carbon-pricing plus framework that elevates “direct incentives” such as Feed-in-Tariffs in the debate. The carbon price alone is only a complementary measure. The carbon price “debate” has already been won, the next step is to call for policies that work, as opposed to policies that delay.” [14, 15].

Will McGoldrick, policy and research manger for the Australian Climate Institute stated (2011): “’The reality is that the majority of the investment in clean energy in the short term, particularly the next decade, is being driven by the renewable energy target [RET]. We’ve modelled a stronger carbon price, but in the short term you can get away with a lower target as long as you’ve still got the RET. Obviously if you want more investment, you need other measures. To an extent it’s not the starting price that matters - more important is the price pathway out to 2020, when we need to see it reaching at least $60 …With a strong carbon price you will see some coal shut down and gas being built, and you get more jobs than you have today - that’s the point we are trying to make. The role the carbon price plays is in shifting the existing industry from coal to gas.’’ [16].

Climate Institute chief John Connor in arguing that an initial carbon price even in the $25 to $30 range would be enough to make gas a more attractive proposition to power producers than coal: ’’We’re saying don’t get so het up about the starting price.’’ [16].

Of course, the proposed Australian Carbon Tax is but one part of pro-coal, pro-gas Gillard Labor’s disgraceful and dishonest Carbon Tax-ETS-Ignore Agriculture (CTETSIA) plan that will ensure climate change inaction by (1) promoting a coal to gas transition (despite gas burning being worse GHG-wise than coal burning), (2) scuppering science-mandated 100% renewable energy by 2020, (3) introducing an empirically ineffective, disastrously counterproductive and fundamentally fraudulent Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and (4) ignoring agriculture (which is responsible for over 50% of GHG pollution). [17].

Australia is one of the worst culprits in both GHG pollution and climate change inaction but the anti-science dishonesty in Australia mirrors that in the other Western Lobbyocracies and Murdochracies.

The Australian Labor Government is committed to a counterproductive Carbon Tax that is intended, on its own admission, to enable an utterly counterproductive transition from coal burning to gas burning for power, notwithstanding the Awful Truth that gas burning is worse GHG-wise than coal burning.

What can decent people do as the climate criminals take us inexorably to global climate catastrophe? Decent people must (a) inform everyone they can and (b) urge Sanctions, Boycotts, Green Tariffs, International Court of Justice litigation and International Criminal Court prosecutions against all politicians, people, corporations and countries complicit in the worsening Climate Genocide that is set to kill about 10 billion people this century. [18].

[1]. Gideon Polya, “3.3% Methane (CH4) leakage & CH4 105 times worse than CO2 as a GHG => gas dirtier than coal GHG-wise”, Bellaciao, 20 March 2011: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?ar... .

[2]. Ruth Wood, Paul Gilbert, Maria Sharmina, Kevin Anderson, Anthony Footitt, Steven Glynn, Fiona Nicholls, “Shale gas: a provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts”, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, January 2011: http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/sites/defa... .

[3]. International Energy Agency (IEA) (2010), Energy Technology Perspectives 2010: Key Graphs, Executive Summary: http://www.iea.org/techno/etp/etp10... .

[4]. Committee on Climate Change, Fourth Carbon Budget, 2010, Executive Summary: http://www.theccc.org.uk/reports/fo... .

[5]. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, “Terra quasi-incognita: beyond the 2 degree C line”, < 4 Degrees & Beyond, International Climate Conference, 26-30 September 2009, Oxford University , UK : http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/4degrees/pp... .

[6]. Dr Vicky Pope, “Met Office warn of “catastrophic” rise in temperature”, The Sunday Times, 19 December 2008: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ne... .

[7]. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”, Proc. Trans. Roy. Soc, A, 2008: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.... .

[8]. Greg Combet interviewed by Tony Jones, ABC TV Lateline, “Combet: Australia is not acting alone”, 13 April 2011: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/cont... .

[9]. Greg Combet, transcript of speech, in Tina Perinotto, “Carbon tax: Combet explains and borrows some legacy from John Howard”, The Fifth Estate, 13 April 2011: http://www.thefifthestate.com.au/ar... .

[10]. Greg Combet, “National Press Club address: tackling climate change is in the national interest”, Australian Labor, 13 April 2011: http://www.alp.org.au/federal-government/news/national-press-club-address--tackling-climate-chan/ .

[11]. Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, quoted in “Gas-fired generation in Australia sent to increase: Ferguson”, Gas Today, 3 march 2010: http://gastoday.com.au/news/gas-fired_generation_in_australia_set_to_increase_ferguson/012521/ .

[12]. Gideon Polya, “Gas is dirty energy & may be dirtier than coal - Oz Labor’s "gas is clean energy" means Put Labor Last”, Bellaciao, 10 June 2010: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?ar... .

[13]. Paul Simshauser and Phillip Wild, “The Western Australian power dilemma”, Australian economic papers, vol. 48, pp 342-369, 2009: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/... .

[14]. Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), “Carbon pricing – will it benefit renewable energy”, February 2011: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/151548... .

[15]. Jody Betzien, “Carbon price could delay real climate action”, Green Left Weekly, 20 March 2011: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/47065 .

[16]. Jo Chandler, “On the carbon row front line”, The Age, 5 March 2011: http://www.theage.com.au/environmen... .

[17]. Gideon Polya, “Detailed document exposing pro-gas Australia climate change inaction”, Countercurrents, 15 March 2011: http://www.countercurrents.org/poly... .

[18]. “Climate Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/climategenocide/ .

Forum posts

  • As a 5-decade career scientist and responsible citizen I have sent the following letter to media, MPs and other citizens of Australia that sets out how gas burning for power can be much worse than coal burning depending upon the degree of gas (mostly methane) leakage. So far the Silence has been Deafening in look-the-other-way Australia, a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution and fossil fuel exports.

    "Dear Sir,

    1 mole (16g) of methane (CH4) has 105 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) effect as 1 mole (44g) of carbon dioxide (CO2) and, accordingly, 1t leaked CH4 is equivalent to 105x44tCO2/16 = 288.8t CO2-equivalent.

    Burning 16t CH4 yields 44t CO2 and accordingly burning 1t CH4 yields 44/16 = 2.75t CO2. Burning 12t carbon (C; atomic weight 12) yields 44t CO2 and hence burning 1t C yields 44/12 = 3.7t CO2.

    Burning 100t CH4 (circa 85% of natural gas) yields 275t CO2 and about the same electrical power as burning 200t coal (C) which yields 200x3.7 = 740t CO2. However, based on the latest US EPA data the CH4 leakage in the US is 3.3% and hence using 100tCH4 for electrical power yields 1,218.9t CO2-equivalent.

    According to Professor Robert Howarth, fugitive emissions from CH4 leakage are 1.7-6.0% for conventional gas and 3.6-7.9% for shale gas (e.g. from “fracking”) and hence using 100t of conventional gas to generate electricity actually yields 761.3-1,991.3t CO2-equivalent and using shale gas actually yields 1,304.8-2,534.8t CO2-equivalent i.e. using gas for electrical power is much dirtier greenhouse gas-wise than burning coal.

    Labor’s Carbon Tax-based coal to gas transition strategy for “tackling climate change” is utterly wrong and counterproductive.

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr Gideon Polya

    PS. Some key scientific references:

    Drew T. Shindell, Greg Faluvegi, Dorothy M. Koch, Gavin A. Schmidt, Nadine Unger and Susanne E. Bauer, “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science 30 October 2009: Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/3... .

    Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, Anthony Ingraffen, “Methane and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations”, Climatic Change, May 2011: http://www.sustainablefuture.cornel... ."