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The Folly of Investing in Natural Gas

20 July 2011

10 July 2011, declared Greens Senator Christine Milne, was the day “Australia turn[ed] its back on the fossil fuel age”. But the reports of the industry’s death were greatly exaggerated. On Monday night ABC’s Lateline Business reported that Santos and BHP Billiton are buying up natural gas assets in expectation of an enormous coming boom. This is empirical evidence of what I have been saying for months: the proposed carbon tax is not enough.

This is not unexpected, of course. Globally the fossil fuel industry has been campaigning hard for a transition to gas. In Australia the incumbent Labor Government have consistently taken the same line (at least, when they haven’t been rhapsodizing about the bright future of coal). The only reason why the policy announced on 10 July contains any support for renewables at all is because Labor had to negotiate with the Greens and independents.

The fashionable view of gas is as a transitional fuel on the world’s journey to a low-carbon or zero-carbon economy. But this is folly: the only realistic way to achieve the required rapid transition to a zero-carbon economy is to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. As a fossil fuel, gas is part of the problem, not the solution. A two-staged transition, from coal to gas then to renewables, would waste precious time.

Gas may reduce emissions in the short term (though even that is questionable – see below), but after that we’ll be left with a fleet of polluting gas power plants we don’t want. From the perspective of businesses, gas investments carry the political risk of eventually being shut down by a future society more rational than us. For humanity, the far worse risk is that we build a fleet of gas power plants and run them for their full lifetime of 25-40 years. A recent study by the International Energy Agency says relying on gas would lead to a CO2e level of 650 ppm, meaning 4°C global warming from fast feedbacks alone (and 4°C is surely enough to set off slow feedbacks causing far more warming after this century).

4°C might not sound like much, but global temperature has varied by only a few tenths of a degree in the relatively stable climate of the last 10,000 years in which human civilization developed. When the Earth was 5°C cooler 20,000 years ago, New York was covered by an ice sheet. It has not been 4°C warmer since Antarctica was ice-free 35 million years ago, around the time our ancestors split off from monkeys.

So what might 4°C of global warming mean? The continents warm faster than the global average. The record-breaking 2009 Victorian heatwave, which caused the unprecedentedly catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires, would be a cool day in the new climate. There would be widespread desertification; in southern Australia extreme drought would become the new norm by the end of the century. According to new CSIRO projections, Australia may have to import fruit, vegetables, and wheat after 2050. The poles warm most of all, bringing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets above freezing point and causing potentially metres of sea level rise per century. Eventually all the ice on the planet would melt, raising sea level by 70 metres. Melting ice is itself a large positive feedback which could double the fast-feedback warming.

Ross Garnaut warns “beyond two or three degrees the challenges and costs of climate change […] are likely to overwhelm any attempts at adaptation to reduce the costs”. My local council says we can adapt to a 4-degree-warmer world, but I’d rather not find out.

The effects of gas are actually worse than stated above, because the IEA didn’t account for “fugitive emissions”, all the methane that leaks out along the journey from the ground to the gas plant. The oft-heard talking point “gas is 50% cleaner than coal” ignores fugitive emissions. These emissions are difficult to measure, but one recent study concluded when they are taken into account, gas turns out to be more or less comparable to coal on a 100-year timescale, and far worse on a 20-year timescale. (The timescale is important because methane is many times more powerful a greenhouse gas but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide.) So whether you can call gas a low-carbon fuel in the first place is very questionable.

So why are businesses and governments so keen on gas? Gas is cheaper than renewables, but only because the market fails to take its climate costs into account, as a high carbon price would do. The costs of renewable energy technologies are coming down rapidly anyway.Gas is the cheapskate’s “clean” energy: it’s not really that clean, it’s just cheap.

It is not in Australia’s – or the world’s – interest to invest in gas. To avoid a nightmarish 4-degree-warmer world – let alone the 2-degree-warmer world that 194 countries in UNFCCC negotiations, including Australia, have agreed to prevent – we must invest in zero-carbon energy sources. Gas is at best a lower-carbon one.

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