Floundering around in the fossil fuel swamp

Spring is sprung. Birds are twittering, little animals coupling, buds bursting into colour. And we’re in deep trouble.

It’s too early to assess the climate policies of the Albanese government, but two recent sets of statistics are a warning that a very rocky road lies ahead.

First, far from energy policies driving a downward trend in carbon emissions, the opposite is happening: they’re rising faster than ever. Latest government figures, for the year to June, show emissions up by over four million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

This is disturbing. During the pandemic Australian emissions went down and reached a low point in 2021, but then began to rise. Even factoring in highly contentious land carbon data, our current trend means that in 2030 we’ll be about where we were before Covid.

This year’s abatement would have to be almost 18 per cent higher per quarter than it was a year ago if Australia is to reach its target of a 43 per cent cut by 2030. That task, the responsibility of energy and climate change minister Chris Bowen, is now that much harder.

The second warning comes from weather stats for the winter just past. The Bureau of Meteorology’s analysis is not out yet, but it’s fairly certain that last winter was the warmest in 114 years of national records. 

The winter temperature for every capital except Perth ranked either second or third highest on record. In Hobart, last winter was the warmest in its long record (141 years) with a mean temperature of 10.4C – nearly 2C above average. The anomaly for Adelaide was nearly a degree above its 136-year average. Those levels of anomaly would be unbelievable in the absence of greenhouse warming.

None of this will surprise anyone who’s been keeping track of global data. Record-breaking heat across the Northern Hemisphere has sparked the worst fire season on record in Canada, parts of the Mediterranean, and on Maui, Hawaii, where a whole town vanished in smoke. 

A massive increase in global ocean heat to levels never seen before has spawned an early start to the US hurricane season and, in our own part of the world, led to a record low blanket of winter sea ice around Antarctica and what looks set to be the shortest ski season ever. 

Warm seas around our island state will influence our spring and summer weather. That’s on top of a forming El Niño in the Pacific and a positive Indian Ocean dipole – a triple whammy that sets us up for warm, dry months ahead. Australia as a whole can expect a drier and warmer spring than normal.

So here we are: heat in atmosphere and ocean contributing to what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls “global boiling”, and our rising carbon emissions only making that worse. Something surely has to give.

One thing Australia could do to make a long-term difference to global emissions is end our expanding gas, oil and coal extraction, and the export of these fossil fuels to a world eager to pay top dollar for energy. Both the UN and the International Energy Agency have begged Australia to stop expanding operations, but to no avail.

Over 100 new coal and gas projects, well subsidised by federal money, are now in the approval pipeline. Total emissions from the fuels extracted in these projects would add 1.7 billion tonnes a year to global emissions – more than double Australia’s annual fossil fuel emissions.

On the last day of August the government approved an extension to a coal mine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin – until 2073! As the Climate Council reports, this is the fourth lifeline granted by this government to a fossil fuel project – all done under outdated environment legislation that still takes no account of climate change.

The reason for the failure of Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, environment minister Tanya Plibersek, and the Labor government as a whole to stop or slow the extraction and burning of fossil carbon – or even to talk about it – was highlighted by the US petrochemical giant Exxon Mobil just last week. 

The company projects that greenhouse emissions, while declining, will remain high well into this century, while efforts to keep global warming below 2C will fail. Oil and gas, it says, will remain a mainstay of world energy as “a reliable and lower-emissions source of fuel for electricity generation, hydrogen production, and heating”.

All credible science says this path leads to certain climate disaster, but that’s the one we’re on. As long as that deadly nexus remains, and government continues to accede to fossil fuel industry demands, those emissions targets are an impossible dream.

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