Burn it all. That is the plan in Australia’s new Energy White Paper.
Released yesterday by Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, it talks about responding to climate change while planning the opposite.
It is true that the Energy White Paper plans to diversify energy production and includes initiatives for renewable energy but this is addition to burning all of our coal and gas reserves.
Our planet’s atmosphere does not care about our good intentions or a diversified energy mix. It simply responds to how much fossil carbon we dump into it. When we burn fossil fuels the carbon pollution we emit will continue to affect the atmosphere for thousands of years and is, effectively, irreversible.
If we are to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, we need to phase out emissions from fossil fuels rapidly.
If we are to leave treasures like the Great Barrier Reef for our children and grandkids, we need to leave most of our coal and gas in the ground unless extraction is conditional on 100% of emissions being captured and stored out of the atmosphere.
There is no indication at present that the Australian Government recognises this condition, instead opting for profoundly inadequate plans such as the carbon tax. The Energy White Paper continues this approach.
The 'no limits' approach
The Energy White Paper is based on a plan to dig up and sell all of Australia’s coal, coal seam gas and other fossil fuels over the next century. The White Paper deals with the 2012-2035 part of that plan with coal and gas exports growing strongly over that period (Figure 3.5).
No limits are placed on exports of coal or gas. Instead the Energy White Paper sees a rosy future of rapid expansion of exports:
Over the next two and a half decades, Australia’s energy production is projected to more than double, largely due to export growth. We are the world’s largest coal exporter and third-largest uranium producer, and in future years will be the world’s second-largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter.
Unlike uranium where exports are conditional on safe handling and disposal, coal and gas exports are not tied to a requirement that any part of the emissions from burning them are captured and stored.
The tooth fairy appears around 2040
Under the Energy White Paper, Australia plans to continue to rely heavily on coal for electricity generation for decades.
Some time around 2040 the carbon capture and storage (CCS) tooth fairy will appear and rapidly (and magically) decrease carbon pollution from coal (Figure 3.8).
A decade of major investment in CCS research suggests it will be commercially “unviable for 20 years”.
A recent CSIRO analysis suggests that installing the current most popular trial CCS technology on just half of Australia’s coal-fired power stations would cost $52 billion upfront and another $5 billion per year to operate. This is excluding the additional cost of transporting, storing, and monitoring the carbon pollution.
To put that in perspective, the total capital expenditure for the National Broadband Network is currently estimated to be $37.4 billion.
The litmus test for climate and energy policies
The litmus test that Australians should apply to our climate and energy policies is simple: will we leave the Great Barrier Reef for our children?
At present, the answer we are giving to this question is “no”.
It may be that it is too late to save the Great Barrier Reef and the myriad of life that depends on it. It may be that the human suffering that will flow from rapid climate change cannot be avoided. But it is better to fail trying than not to try at all.
The Energy White Paper will not leave a world in which the Great Barrier Reef exists and it should not be accepted. It was fitting that its launch featured an anti-coal protest. Bravo to the protesters. Let’s join them.
Dr Chris McGrath is a lawyer who teaches environmental regulation at The University of Queensland and environmental litigation at The Australian National University.