The methane bomb sitting under climate plans

The parties’ climate positions are now staked out. At one extreme are the Greens, whose emissions targets are no more than what science advises. At the other are Coalition targets “built on practical action, not empty symbolism”. Their words, not mine.

Somewhere in the middle is Labor. Losing three elections on the trot has shaken its self-belief. Regrettably, if understandably, it has resolved to avoid offending any cohort which might make the difference in next year’s election. 

Labor’s 2030 emissions target of 43 per cent below the 2005 level was at the top end of options put to the Labor caucus last week. But the last advice from our own Climate Change Authority, way back in 2015 before it was totally sidelined by government, was that Australia’s 2030 target to avoid warming above 2C should be a 45 to 65 per cent cut.

The 2015 Paris warming target of no higher than 1.5C calls for national emissions to be cut by 75 per cent by 2030. Against that, Labor’s 43 per cent target will not change the widespread view that we are a climate policy laggard.

That said, the “Powering Australia” plan announced on Friday by leader Anthony Albanese and shadow climate minister Chris Bowen is a solid base for a ramped-up abatement effort as 2030 gets ever closer.

Labor plans to invest $20 billion to rebuild the electricity grid drawing on locally-supplied materials and labour, and $100 million to support 10,000 new energy apprenticeships. It aims to discount the cost of electric vehicles by various tax changes, to facilitate rooftop solar through a solar banks program, and to install 400 community batteries around Australia.

The most significant measure is an augmented safeguards mechanism that will apply to 215 big emitters (more than 100,000 tonnes a year) including power stations and mines, which will be required to cut their emissions so as to reach net zero by 2050. The Turnbull government set up this mechanism in 2016, but did not enforce it.

Labor’s proposed “national reconstruction fund” will operate in a similar way to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, investing $3 billion in renewable and other critical low-emission technology including waste reduction and management of methane emissions from agriculture. Therein lies a whole other story.

Though short-lived and far less abundant than carbon dioxide, methane’s warming capacity is about 80 times higher. Half of the world’s accelerating methane emissions result from human activities. Waste in landfill accounts for a fifth of that; the remainder is from animal agriculture and fossil fuel extraction, in about equal amounts.

At the Glasgow summit, over 100 countries including the US, the UK and EU nations, pledged to cut methane by 30 per cent by 2030. Australia joined India, China, Iran, Russia and others in opting out. Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce declared that if we had signed up farmers may as well shoot their cattle. 

Joyce conveniently ignored the methane that escapes from coal, gas and oil deposits when they are tapped, and from gas pipelines. Last week the ABC’s Steve Cannane reported on two separate assessments of satellite observations, by a London geospatial group and a Dutch scientific team, which found those “fugitive emissions” to be far higher than anyone thinks.

Looking at six Bowen Basin mines, the Dutch study found that annual escapes from one mine alone were a fifth of total emissions from all 73 Australian surface coal mines. “Not credible,” said the mine’s operator, Glencore. It’s hard not to agree – if they mean the total estimate for all mines.

The London group found that methane leaks from Bowen Basin as a whole amounted to around 1.5 million tonnes a year – three times official figures. The discrepancy equates roughly to total emissions from a medium-sized European country like Austria.

New-generation satellite technology can now accurately measure methane emitted at ground level. As the new technology is applied, we can reasonably expect Australian emissions figures to shift, possibly by a lot, and probably in the wrong direction.

The high level of uncertainty around methane emissions very likely informed the Morrison government decision to avoid that commitment to a 30 per cent cut. If real emissions turned out to be much higher, that would have been too much like hard work.

As the various target years loom ever closer, and the gathering and reporting of data gets more accurate, the ability of governments everywhere to control the narrative will decline. Whoever wins the next election must follow the Covid rule: drop any pretence and commit to following the science.

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