The true cost of Woodside’s climate bomb

Most informed people have long accepted the science that says human use of fossil fuels is destabilising Earth’s climate. Many who once said this was rubbish now seem to have caught on too.

The question now is not whether we should act, but how. Given science’s warning about the urgency of the situation and vanishing opportunities to stop dangerous warming, the spotlight has shifted to politicians, public servants and lawyers: those who create, administer and interpret the law of the land.

The defeat of a climate-aware federal government in 2013 left concerned citizens with no political support for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. So they turned instead to the courts.

There have been moments of hope, most notably a year ago when federal court justice Mordecai Bromberg found in favour of Anjali Sharma and seven other Melbourne children that the federal government owed future generations a duty of care over the natural environment we pass on to them. 

Without climate mitigation, he said, “Australia will be lost… The physical environment will be … devastatingly brutal… Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain. None of this will be the fault of nature itself [but]… the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.”

None of the three appeal judges who overturned Bromberg’s finding last March questioned his description of climate impact, but they broadly concluded that the matter in question was one of policy, to be determined by elected governments, not courts.

It’s clear that the legislation under scrutiny in all these cases, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, doesn’t fully address climate concerns. Other Australian cases are still in train and may yet yield some sanctions on coal, oil and gas extraction, but they can’t fix deficiencies of the Act.

The Sharma case was about a NSW coal project which may be abandoned anyway from want of financial support. Now the focus is on natural gas, specifically Woodside’s $16.5 billion Scarborough project whereby undersea gas is to be extracted and processed at a plant already built on the Pilbara coast.

Scarborough won approval early in the 2022 election campaign. Under caretaker convention the Morrison government’s environment minister Sussan Ley could not have approved it, but because it was offshore it could legally be approved by a joint Commonwealth-Western Australian authority, which is what happened.

If global gas prices remain high for a few more years, and if Woodside can begin shipping on schedule in 2026, its prospects look very rosy indeed. But standing in its way is the not insignificant matter of climate change.

The Scarborough gasfield contains over 350 billion cubic metres of methane, equal to two-thirds of all the methane emitted globally from human activities in 2019. And Woodside has an even bigger gas field, off Broome, in its longer-term plans.

Seeking a court injunction to halt the  scheme, the Australian Conservation Foundation says tapping Scarborough is equivalent to 15 new coal-fired power stations. Last year the International Energy Agency warned that to avoid a climate catastrophe we must from now stop extracting and using oil, coal and gas, and prohibit any new extraction. 

Both the WA government and WA-based resources minister Madeleine King are firmly behind Scarborough. That, plus Woodside’s massive financial commitment in a multi-decade scheme, is what new environment minister Tanya Plibersek is up against if she were to pursue a new Scarborough investigation.

But that is what needs to happen. The Albanese government has just signed up to a strengthened 2030 carbon reduction target of 43 per cent, while also indicating it may agree to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent over the same time frame. Both positions are starkly at odds with Woodside’s plans.

The government has already shown its support for Graeme Samuel’s 2019-20 root-and-branch review of the EPBC Act. In the wake of the failure of the Sharma case, it needs to go even further, spelling out responsibility to consider future climate impact and to cover all territory under Australian jurisdiction, including offshore gas basins.

A government as short of cash as this one might be tempted to let the venture go ahead and slap a windfall tax on its exported product, as many are advocating for existing gas operations. But revenue gained would be dwarfed by the damage Scarborough could do to the planet. Somehow, this government must find a way to stop it.

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This is Tasmania’s chance to reset

Back in 2008, parliament passed a law establishing the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, people with specialist knowledge able to help the government understand the science and its implications and come up with workable ideas.

The council’s useful work on emissions options more than justified its low cost. Yet newly installed environment minister Matthew Groom persuaded Parliament to abolish it in 2014, saying the government didn’t need it.

It did, actually. Abolishing the TCAC eliminated robust outside advice – the only external lever for influencing government to take climate action that made a difference. Without this, successive governments have put effective climate policy into the too-hard basket.

All leaders must by now be aware that managing climate change is no pushover, that they must understand the risks of not acting, and that drawing on good scientific and other expert advice, they must help people and communities move to places they’ve never been before.

Last year, at the end of a long-overdue statutory review of the Climate Change (State Action) Act, climate change minister Roger Jaensch came up with a bill to amend the Act. But responses to his draft showed up many deficiencies.

The bill was criticised for not conveying the need for urgent action, for failing to provide for parliamentary oversight and expert advice, for ignoring the need for social equity in the bumpy path to a carbon-free economy, and for failing to mandate consideration of climate change in strategic decisions.

There’s a sense of complacency about this bill, coming from a government that likes to boast that net emissions have been below zero in every year since 2015, with per capita emissions, in Jaensch’s words, “now the lowest in the country and some of the lowest in the world.” 

To the contrary, Tasmania is a laggard in this space. The leadership claim relies on credits from land use and forestry using imprecise, highly contested data. We have done little of substance to reduce existing emissions, mainly from transport, industry and agriculture.

Forest scientist Jen Sanger, who released a multi-year study on Tasmania’s forest carbon last week, has rightly called for forestry emissions data to be broken down so that everyone can get a better handle on what is really happening.

Sanger finds that native forest logging, far from being a carbon sink, is Tasmania’s largest polluter, with emissions from current logging and decaying residue from past operations adding up to over four million tonnes a year – well over double transport emissions.

Jen Sanger is not the first to contest official data and won’t be the last. Methodologies for measuring land and forest emissions are shifting to take account of new research findings, making the data something of a moving feast. 

When forest offsets are removed from state emissions figures, our claim to global leadership seems laughable. Without those offsets our per-capita emissions are 14.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, more than three times the global average of 4.5 tonnes a year. It is irresponsible, and foolish, to continue spouting this claim as if it’s gospel.

Premier Jeremy Rockliff would be right to say his government is only following the national example. Like Tasmania, Canberra has routinely claimed that Australia’s emissions have declined by 20 per cent since 2005. But that claim relies heavily on a discredited offset scheme, mainly focused on land clearing, which was described in March by its former long-serving chair as “a rort”.

The bill to amend Tasmania’s climate legislation was introduced to parliament last November. It has yet to be debated in either chamber and now appears unlikely to get a further airing until August. But the delay could be turned into a blessing if the government has the sense to take advantage of it. 

In the wake of last week’s National Cabinet meeting, Rockliff’s eyes should be well and truly open to the dire state of federal and state climate and energy policies. The energy emergency in eastern Australia is a direct result of years of neglect and complacency.

Now, with a new premier, a new federal government and a new national emissions target, the Rockliff government has a chance to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future, including incentives to move transport and industry to electric power and establishing wood harvesting regimes that protect the unrivalled ability of natural forest to store carbon.

The sense of urgency now infusing the national scene has to find its way into our state’s new climate laws. If a wholly revised, bold new climate change Act allows room to move to address the great challenges ahead, it will be Jeremy Rockliff’s crowning achievement.

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The continuing emergency of our time

A couple of weeks ago, climate change and energy minister Chris Bowen and assistant minister Jenny McAllister sat down with a group of retired fire and other emergency chiefs to get their heads around Australia’s disaster preparedness.

The spokesperson for Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins, contrasted that reception with the group’s experience three years earlier when it tried unsuccessfully to warn the former government that we were ill-prepared for a fiery summer.

But he didn’t feel relieved: “It’s taken a lot to get to this point. We’ve already lost so much, to the fires, and the floods. We’ve lost a decade to denial and delay. And now, drastic action must be taken.”

Mullins and his colleagues are straight talkers because in an emergency you must speak truth to power. After all that’s happened the ministers will surely understand that.

But it’s no longer possible for any government, no matter how competent, to meet every demand, because we are all living in an emergency, right here, right now.

Emergency takes many forms, depending where we live and where we fit in the scheme of things. No two people feel it the same way or with the same level of intensity, but it’s inescapable. Even if you’re not directly in the firing line, just a few minutes taking in today’s news will tell you much the same. A storm of issues is engulfing us, at home and globally.

Health and education systems are failing. Staff shortages have left schools, childcare, hospitals, ambulance services and aged care in crisis. Teachers, carers, doctors, nurses, paramedics are calling in sick or self-isolating with Covid. In the worst cases they are giving up, leaving jobs which for many have been their life’s vocation, because they’re exhausted.

The result is that people who need attention are not getting it. Ambulances are queuing at hospitals because there’s no-one to receive their patients. Old and sick people are suffering and dying from want of help. Parents are being run ragged and children are missing schooling. All involved feel stressed; some are traumatised.

A housing emergency is leaving large numbers of people sleeping in caravans or sheds (if they’re lucky) or cars or tents. Or in the worst case out in the open. Some have left their homes because they’ve been bashed or threatened with violence. Some can’t meet their rising rents. An unpayable mortgage isn’t yet on that list, but it may soon be.

Some people have seen their homes destroyed or made unliveable by fire, flood or storm. In the absence of outside help they are struggling to survive. Inevitably, some of them don’t.

Those lucky enough to have a home face cost-of-living pressures. High and rising petrol and gas prices are driving up the cost of heating, cooking and transporting ourselves and our families. For most of us this doesn’t yet rate as an emergency, but it’s heading that way.

As the world continues to struggle with undiminished Covid, developed countries are experiencing a sudden uptick in mental illness, affecting people of all ages but especially the young and those in what we used to consider the prime of their lives. Their needs are pushing demands on psychiatric services through the roof: an emergency in itself, by any measure.

The political saga triggered by Donald Trump’s attempted coup, coupled with the uniquely American gun crisis and the right-wing extremism that led to them both, gravely threaten US civil society and democracy, a threat thrown into sharper relief by the rise of tyranny in Russia and China. America’s emergency is ours, too.

These things are happening in wealthy nations ostensibly at peace, but the emergency is many times greater in nations at war, or in developing countries hit by internal strife, famine and other disasters. 

All of the above pales into insignificance alongside what climate change is capable of doing to us. With carbon dioxide levels now over 50 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times and rising as fast as ever, world emissions must be cut by well over 40 per cent by 2030 to avoid the worst.

The cascade of emergencies we face demands that politicians put aside egos and point-scoring and start listening, especially to experienced emergency hands like Greg Mullins. Then we might start to get somewhere.

• Jan Linehan, a gifted legal academic, a passionate champion for human rights and climate justice, a deep thinker and a good friend, died in Hobart last week after a short illness. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.

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