Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




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New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




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The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




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As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These Aussie teens have launched a landmark climate case against the government. Win or lose, it’ll make a difference



Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan.
Equity Generation Lawyers

Laura Schuijers, University of Melbourne

On Tuesday, eight young Australians aged 13-17 filed a class action seeking an injunction to prevent federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving a new coal project expansion.

They are bringing their case to the Federal Court. They argue if Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion in New South Wales is approved, it will contribute to climate change which endangers their future.




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Saying the environment minister owes the young plaintiffs a duty of care is a novel approach. In their view, signing off on a new coal project will breach that duty. Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful.

Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.

What is the case about?

The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning it will expand a mine that has already been approved, increasing its coal production by about 25%, and emissions by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.

Like many mining proposals, this one has been divisive. Farmers worry about competing for water, and the local community has expressed concern over the environmental record of the coal company.

Yet in August, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the proposal, finding the expansion is in the public interest, given the forecast jobs and revenue. It has not yet received federal approval.

What are the teenagers arguing?

The young plaintiffs are not bringing their case under environmental law, which would be the traditional way to launch a legal challenge objecting to a coal mine.

Environmental law invites government decision-makers to balance competing concerns — such as economic benefits versus environmental impact — with no clear stipulation as to how much weight to give each relevant factor.

There is limited recourse to argue a decision is wrong because the positive and negative impacts were not given particular priority by a minister. This means decision-making on major projects is largely within the political realm.

Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing the environment minister shouldn’t approve the coal proposal because doing so would breach a duty of care owed by the minister to protect them from the harmful impacts of climate change. This includes more frequent extreme weather events, and destruction of the natural systems that support human life.

The case has parallels with a landmark Dutch case, where it was successfully argued in 2019 that the Dutch Government breached its duty of care to its citizens through inadequate action on climate change.




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For the Australian case to succeed, the Court will first need to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.

Then, the plaintiffs would need to establish that the duty would be breached by the environment minister signing off on the coal project.

Will it succeed?

Establishing both these things is likely to be very difficult in our legal context. From past cases, we know Australian courts have been reluctant to find a causal link between climate change and individual projects, even large mines. However, this link was found in a NSW case last year.

The court is likely to look closely at the particular relationship between the minister and the vulnerable young people, who will be strongly impacted by climate change but have no voting rights. It will consider whether they represent a particular class of individuals, in relation to which the minister has a responsibility.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers recently highlighted a case that potentially paves the way to support this idea. In 2016, the Federal Court found the immigration minister Peter Dutton owed a duty of care to a vulnerable refugee with a history of trauma, who was detained on Nauru.

One thing in the current case’s favour is that, similar to the Dutch case, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. If they were, the difficulty for the courts to determine what future obligation the government might have to pay out young people would, almost undoubtedly, prohibit success.

What’s also interesting about this case, unlike the Dutch case or the famous Juliana case that was recently quashed in the US, is that it’s not asking the government for broad-scale policy action on climate change. It’s only concerned with one coal mine approval. This is a more straightforward remedy which a court could be more willing to grant.

Beating the odds

If the case successfully established a duty and that it was breached, this would open up the possibility future coal approval decisions would also breach the duty — somewhat of a Pandora’s box.

Although we will have to wait and see what the Court says, the suit will draw attention to the government’s climate policies, whether or not it succeeds.

If the case succeeds, it might compel the government to stop approving any coal mines that would significantly contribute to climate change. If it doesn’t, it will remind us that it’s up to the government to respond to the threats climate change poses, rather than the courts.

Either way, the teenagers in this case are part of a growing number of people willing to find creative avenues to pursue action, even if it means taking a long shot. And beating the odds is exactly how the law tends to evolve.




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The Conversation


Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



Shutterstock

Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
Shutterstock

Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




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The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




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Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




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The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

45,000 renewables jobs are Australia’s for the taking – but how many will go to coal workers?



Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, University of Technology Sydney

As the global renewables transition accelerates, the future for coal regions has become a big worry. This raises an important question: can renewables create the right jobs in the right places to employ former coal workers?

According to our new research, the answer in many cases is “yes”. Renewable energy jobs provide a good match for existing coal jobs across a range of blue and white-collar occupations, including construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, site administrators and mechanical technicians.

But about one-third of coal workers, such as drillers and machine operators, cannot simply switch over to renewables jobs. So as our economy pivots to renewables, planning and investment is needed to help coal regions survive.

Some renewables jobs could be filled by coal workers.
Tim Wimbourne/AAP

Renewables jobs: a snapshot

Our research, commissioned by the Clean Energy Council, is the first large-scale survey of renewable energy employment in Australia.

We surveyed more than 450 Australian renewable energy businesses, covering large scale wind, solar and hydro, rooftop solar and batteries. We wanted to find out how many people were employed, and in what jobs.




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We then projected employment until 2035 using three scenarios for the future of the electricity market, developed by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Our results suggest renewable energy can be a major source of jobs in the next 15 years. But the trajectories are very different depending on government COVID-19 stimulus measures and wider energy policy.

Policy crossroads

We found the renewable energy sector currently employs about 26,000 people. Temporary construction and installation jobs now comprise 75% of the renewable energy labour market, but as the sector grows, this will change (more on that later).

Australia’s renewable energy target was reached last year, and has not been replaced. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia this caused renewables investment to fall by 50% last year compared to 2018. Under a “central” scenario where these policies continued, 11,000 renewable jobs would be lost by 2022.

Under the right policies, there could be an average of 35,000 renewables jobs annually in Australia until 2035.
Michael Buholzer/Reuters

We then examined a “step change” scenario where Australian policy settings were in line with meeting the Paris climate agreement. This would create a jobs boom: renewable energy employment would grow to 45,000 by 2025 and average around 35,000 jobs each year to 2035. Up to two-thirds are in regional areas.

Under all scenarios, job growth is strongest in rooftop solar and wind. Most are in the construction and installation phase, comprising both ongoing and project-based jobs in trades, as well as technicians and labourers. But by 2035, as many as half of renewable energy jobs could be ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance.




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Renewable energy jobs will be higher than our projections. We excluded employment areas such as building electricity transmission networks, bioenergy, professional services, renewable hydrogen, growth in minerals needed for renewable energy, and jobs in heavy industry such as “green” steel.

Renewables vs coal jobs

All up, coal mining in Australia employs about 40,000 people. As mentioned above, renewable energy jobs could grow to 45,000 by 2025 – and more once other sectors are included.

Australia’s renewable energy industry already employs considerably more people than the 10,500 working in the domestic coal sector – mostly thermal coal mining and power generation.

About 75% of coal mined in Australia is exported. About 24,000 people work in thermal coal mining for both domestic use and export – slightly fewer than the current renewable energy workforce.

Employment in renewable energy and coal.
Author supplied

New renewables jobs in coal regions

Around two-thirds of renewable energy jobs could be created in regional areas. These would be distributed more widely than coal sector jobs.

The leading coal mining states, NSW and Queensland, have the biggest share of renewable energy jobs under all scenarios.

AEMO has identified “renewable energy zones” where most large-scale renewable energy is expected to be located. In both NSW and Queensland, some of these zones overlap with the coal workforce. In NSW, the Central West zone could also create employment in the Hunter region. In general, though, many renewable energy jobs will be located in other regions and the capital cities.




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In terms of occupations, there is overlap between coal and renewable energy. These include construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, mechanical trades, office managers and contract administrators and drivers.

The timing and location of these renewables jobs will influence whether they can be a source of alternative jobs for coal workers. Re-training of coal workers would also be required.

But there is no direct job overlap for the semi-skilled machine operators such as drillers, which account for more than one-third of the coal workforce.

Renewable Energy Zones and coal mining employment in Queensland.
Author supplied
Renewable energy zones and coal mining employment in NSW.
Author supplied

Planning for the decline

Renewable energy can meaningfully help in the transition for coal regions. But it won’t replace all lost coal jobs, and planning and investment is needed to avoid social and economic harm.

Coal regions need industry development plans and investment to diversify their economies to other industries, including renewables. Almost half our coal workers are aged under 40, so Australia will not be able to follow Germany and Spain’s lead by relying on early retirement schemes.

At some point, demand for our coal exports will collapse – be it due to the falling cost of renewables, or policies to address climate change. If we don’t start preparing now, the consequences for coal communities will be dire.The Conversation

Some coal workers can be retrained to work in renewables, but others cannot.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If we could design JobKeeper within weeks, we can exit coal by 2030. Here’s how to do it



Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

As we emerge from the lockdown phase of the pandemic, there are many lessons to learn. One is that when given credible warning of an existential threat, it is better to act early and risk doing too much than to delay acting and face a much bigger and harder to solve problem when the warnings turn out to be correct.

While the pandemic will pass, one way or another, the problem of global heating, and its many consequences, is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, and those of our children and grandchildren.

Already the world has had decades of warnings, and has done little to heed them.

To hold the increase in global temperatures to 2⁰C, the world needs to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 25% over the next decades, and cut them to zero by 2050.




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Current commitments are inadequate to achieve this.

In Australia’s case, the unjustified use of “carryover credits” means the government is actually proposing an increase in emissions over the next decade, with even larger increases likely in the future.

Quite simply, there is no way of prevent catastrophic climate change unless we stop burning coal to generate electricity, and do it sooner rather than later.

We need to switch 20-25,000 jobs

As of 2020, coal-fired electricity generation is the only major use of carbon-based fuels for which we have a well-developed and affordable alternatives.

For most other uses of carbon-based fuels, alternatives rely on using electricity, as in the case of electric vehicles and “green” hydrogen.

These alternatives are helpful only if the electricity that powers them is coal-free.




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But in Australia, any move to break with thermal coal runs up against the claim that jobs in coal mining and coal-fired power are essential for workers and for communities.

It is a claim I examine in a new report published by the Australia Institute entitled Getting off coal: Economic and social policies to manage the phase-out of thermal coal in Australia.

It finds that a transition from thermal coal mining could be managed fairly, without significant job losses and while protecting coal-dependent regions.

25,000 is not a big number

Contrary to widespread perceptions, thermal coal mining is not a major employer, and most workers in the industry are not miners in the ordinary understanding of the term.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey, in February 2020 coal mining employed about 43 300 people, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012.

Since Australia’s coal output is roughly evenly divided between coking and thermal coal, it seems likely that about 20-25,000 are employed producing the thermal coal that is used for heating and electricity generation.

This compares with a Bureau of Statistics estimate of about 26,850 in renewable energy. A successful transition to a decarbonised electricity sector would require at least a doubling of the current growth rate of renewables, implying more than 26 000 new jobs.

Many of the jobs are transferable

Many of the people employed in coal mining in February 2020 were not miners in the ordinary sense of the term. About 14% worked in white collar (managerial, professional and clerical) jobs.

A large portion of the remainder, such as carpenters, truck drivers and labourers, worked in trades not tied to mining.

The exception is the category known as Drillers, Miners and Shot Firers, which accounts for about 20% of total mining employment. If the same proportion applies in coal mining, there would be around 5,000 specialist drillers, miners and shot firers in producing thermal coal.

A transition program for these workers could be funded for less than the government’s recently announced HomeBuilder.

The wages high, but the conditions are bad

Advocates of coal mining point out that coal mining generally pays higher wages than other industries, including the renewable energy industry. This partly reflects high levels of unionisation, which could be encouraged more broadly.

More significant is probably its reliance on socially destructive fly-in, fly-out working arrangements, which necessitate high wages to offset family separations.

An indication that the wages earned by workers in the mining industry represent
compensation for poor conditions can be derived from evidence on workforce turnover.

The mining industry is characterised by annual turnover of 20% to 30%, substantially higher than that for the labour market as a whole.

And much of the employment isn’t local

Largely because of fly-in, fly-out, the number of communities that depend on coal as the primary source of their local employment is small.

Moreover, in many cases, these communities, such as those of the Bowen Basin, are well endowed with solar and wind resources.

With appropriate planning (instead of the current chaos in electricity policy) these communities could be given priority in the development of utility-scale solar and wind generation, along with the necessary transmission links.

The result might be be a net gain in local employment.




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On Monday the Minerals Council of Australia announced a Climate Action Plan, proclaiming the need for action to reduce the risks of human-induced climate change and expressing support for “world-wide decarbonisation”.

What it did not do was suggest that the 25,000 or so Australians who work in coal mining could be switched to other industries.

That has been the conventional wisdom for some time – that a switch of 25,000 jobs from one industry to another would be too much for Australia to handle.

Yet when the coronavirus hit, we shut down industries employing three million Australians overnight, and dealt with the economic consequences impressively.

We have demonstrated our capacity to do the same for the much more dangerous, if less immediate, risk of catastrophic climate change.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently



AAP/Lukas Coch

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Because we are rich in coal and gas, Australia has been plagued with two decades of wars over climate policy. The wars have claimed three prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. They have also, in the words of journalist Alan Kohler,

ruined Australia’s ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything.

The response to the pandemic shows that consensus and effective, evidence-based policy are not impossible for Australia’s politicians. Faced with a crisis of life and death, they can put aside ideology and stare down vested interests.

The optimists among us hope they can do this with the life and death crises humanity is facing as the planet heats, and that the terrible fires last summer will have convinced our leaders climate change is real, and effective action urgent. So far, the calls for urgent action are louder from business than from political leaders. Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, has linked restoring growth after the pandemic to the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The federal government, by contrast, is championing gas as a “transition fuel” between coal and renewables. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked chair of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission, Nev Power, has strong links to the gas industry.

Calling gas a “transition fuel” at least admits the need for a transition. But gas also contributes to the planet’s heating, and the federal government has no plausible plan to meet Australia’s Paris target, nor to ramp it up, which must be done for a safe future.




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The grip that coal and gas has on our political elites goes back to the 1960s, when minerals replaced wool as the mainstay of our commodity exports. Iron ore and coal led the way.

About the same time, mining’s social licence was being challenged by Indigenous Australians, who objected to mining on their traditional lands, and by environmentalists concerned about mining’s destructive impact on natural habitats. The miners’ response was a concerted public relations campaign to align their interests with the national interest by convincing Australians their prosperity depended on mining and should not be curtailed.

In this, the miners have been spectacularly successful. First, in the 1980s, they stymied the implementation of the Hawke Labor government’s plan for uniform land rights legislation, which would include protection of sacred sites, the right to royalties and a veto over mining on Indigenous land.

In Australia, unlike other common law countries, the Crown owns the minerals, so the veto would have given Indigenous owners more rights than freehold owners. Miners launched a furious public campaign centred on the argument that Indigenous Australians should not have special rights.

A decade later, after the High Court determined in the Mabo and Wik judgements that forms of native title had survived European settlement, the miners fought again to make sure the resulting legislation did not include any veto over mining; and it didn’t.

Second, they have delayed effective government action on climate change. At the end of the century, as pressure mounted for a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, Australia’s coal producers organised to prevent the federal government from signing international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Their core argument was that mining underpinned Australia’s wealth, but they also spread scepticism about climate change amongst conservative elites, turning it into an identity marker for the Australian right.

Under John Howard, fossil fuel advocates gained extraordinary access to government decision-making on climate and energy policy. This access was not given to environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) or climate scientists. So much for balance.

The power of the fossil fuel lobby was weaker after Howard lost the 2007 election. Later, it was unable to prevent the Gillard government from implementing a price on carbon and establishing a series of agencies to advance action on climate change.

But with Tony Abbott as prime minister, the industry’s power was back. Scepticism about climate science spread to science and expertise generally, undermining the federal government’s commitment to innovation and research. The fossil fuel lobby is not solely to blame for the Coalition’s philistinism under Abbott, but it bears some responsibility for its self-interested spreading of climate scepticism.




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The mining lobby’s third success has been to capture the National Party and turn it into the party of coal and coal seam gas, even when extracting these destroys the good agricultural land on which our food security depends. This is an astonishing achievement.

In March 2019, on Network 10’s The Project, Waleed Aly asked Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict?

Off the top of his head, McCormack could not name one. Mining has so successfully aligned itself with perceptions of the national interest that the National Party now champions the jobs of miners more energetically than the livelihoods of the farmers it once regarded as the heart of the nation.

The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that governments are our risk managers of last resort. Ours, both state and federal, have been prepared to inflict massive economic pain on businesses and individuals to protect our health, and we are grateful.

As we face the much larger but more slow-moving crisis of the heating planet, governments must stare down the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, for all our sakes, even if this inflicts on them some economic pain.

If they can do it for the pandemic, they can do it for climate change.

Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is out today.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Yes, carbon emissions fell during COVID-19. But it’s the shift away from coal that really matters



Flickr/David Clarke

Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Australian National University

Much has been made of the COVID-19 lockdown cutting global carbon emissions. Energy use has fallen over recent months as the pandemic keeps millions of people confined to their homes, and businesses closed in many countries. Projections suggest global emissions could be around 5% lower in 2020 than last year.

What about Australia? Here we’ve seen sizeable reductions in electricity sector emissions, but mostly from the sustained expansion in solar and wind power rather than the lockdown.

That is good news. It means our electricity sector emissions will not bounce back once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, as they might in other parts of the world.

But on the other hand, a prolonged recession could cloud the outlook for new investments in the power sector, including renewables.

What’s clear right now is this: COVID-19 restrictions matter far less to Australia’s power sector emissions this year than the shift away from coal and towards renewables.

A recession would dampen investment in new power projects, including renewables.
AAP

Small fall in electricity demand

We examined Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) in the seven weeks from March 16 (when national restrictions came into force) to May 4 this year. We compared the results to the same period in 2019.

The NEM covers all states and territories except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Total electricity demand was 3% lower during the first seven weeks of the lockdown, compared with the same period in 2019. About 2% of this was due to an actual fall in electricity use. The rest was due to extra rooftop solar panels installed since May 2019 which lowered demand on the grid.




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Some of the 2% reduction may be due to cooler weather this autumn, leading to lower air conditioning use.

So while COVID-19 restrictions have hammered the economy in recent weeks, they haven’t had a big effect on electricity use. Most industrial and business power use has continued uninterrupted. Most office buildings have not fully shut down, although many people are working from home and use more electricity there.

A hefty drop in emissions

Despite the modest fall in electricity demand in the first seven weeks of lockdown, emissions fell substantially – by 8.5%. Comparing the first quarter of 2020 and 2019, emissions fell by 7%.

This is primarily because more renewable energy is now supplying the grid. Output from solar farms increased by 55% and from wind parks by 19% compared with the first quarter of 2019, reflecting massive amounts of new installed capacity coming online. Output from hydroelectricity increased by 18%, likely reflecting higher rainfall.

More renewables supply combined with falling demand means less output from fossil fuel power plants. Coal plant output fell 9% compared to the same period in 2019, entirely due to lower output by black coal plants in New South Wales and Queensland. Gas fired power output fell by 8%.

Electricity prices plunge

Meanwhile, wholesale prices in the NEM have fallen dramatically. The average price was 60% lower in the seven weeks since March 16 compared with the same period in 2019. A marked reduction in prices was evident from November 2019.

Why? One reason is that prices for natural gas are much lower and hence gas-fired power stations can make lower bids for electricity. Gas prices fell through much of 2019, and dropped further in the first quarter of 2020, associated with the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Gas plants often set the prices for everyone in the market, so this has a big effect on the market overall.




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Also, coal and hydropower plants lowered their bids in this more competitive environment.

The outlook for wholesale prices remains flat. Gas prices seem unlikely to rebound soon. More wind and solar power will come into the market and there is no underlying growth trend in electricity demand.

Relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions is unlikely to make a big difference. What may drive prices up once again is the next large coal plant closure. The last one to close was Victoria’s Hazelwood plant in 2017.

What does this mean for coal and renewables?

Low wholesale electricity prices are good for consumers – in particular industry, where the wholesale price is a bigger proportion of the total charges for electricity supply. On the flip side, they mean less money for power generators.

Across the National Electricity Market, revenue for generators was about A$160 million per week lower during the first seven weeks of lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

This revenue fall makes coal plants less profitable, and makes life uncomfortable for plants with relatively high costs for fuel and maintenance. It’s likely to push older plants closer to closure.




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Lower prices also make investment in new renewable power less attractive. In recent years, average wholesale prices were well above the typical lifetime average costs of producing electricity from newly built solar and wind parks. There is also uncertainty around how prices will be set in power markets in the future, and how congestion of power transmission lines will be managed.

Nevertheless, the longer term prospects for renewables in Australia remain very good. Solar and wind power are the cheapest of all new generation technologies producing power, and solar power is expected to become even cheaper. A new coal-fired power plant, if one was ever built, would have far higher costs per megawatt hour. Costs for a nuclear plant would be higher still.

A drop in revenue during COVID-19 is bad news for coal-fired power generators.
Wikimedia

The way forward

The numbers show Australia does not need a painful recession to drive carbon emissions down. It needs sustained investment in new, clean technology.

The better the Australian economy recovers, the more private businesses will invest in new energy supply. But if the world falls into a deep and lasting recession, and the Australian economy with it, then the prospects for private investment in new power plants will suffer.

In that case, governments may be well advised to invest public funds in clean energy, more so than they have in the past.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Research Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia listened to the science on coronavirus. Imagine if we did the same for coal mining



Dan Peled/AAP

Matthew Currell, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Flinders University

Australia’s relative success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is largely due governments taking expert advice on a complex problem. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of decisions on projects that threaten the environment – most notably, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

Our research published today in Nature Sustainability documents how state and federal governments repeatedly ignored independent scientific advice when assessing and approving the Adani mine’s groundwater plans.

We interrogated scientific evidence available to governments and Adani over almost a decade. Our analysis shows governments failed to compel Adani to fully investigate the environmental risks posed by its water plans, despite concerns raised by scientists.

There is also evidence the government approval decisions were influenced by the political climate and pressure exerted by members of government.

Our findings come as the Morrison government conducts a ten-yearly review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It is critical these laws – Australia’s most important environmental legislation – are reformed to put rigorous, independent science at the core.

Advice ignored

In mid-2019, the federal and Queensland governments approved groundwater management plans for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. It granted the company unlimited access to groundwater in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

We and other experts warned the mine threatens to damage aquifers, rivers and ecosystems – in particular, the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. This system contains more than 150 wetlands which support rare plant communities found nowhere else on earth.

The springs are of major cultural significance to the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

We analysed the full suite of evidence on the groundwater plans from agencies and scientists with expertise in hydro-geology. The evidence, provided to state and federal environment ministers, spanned almost a decade and included at least six independent scientific reviews.

The evidence highlighted major shortcomings, and gaps in knowledge and data.




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For example in 2013, the federal government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) said key geological characteristics in Adani’s groundwater model were not consistent with available field data.

Expert evidence from court-appointed hydro-geology witnesses in the Land Court of Queensland reiterated this concern and raised new questions over whether the source aquifer for the Doongmabulla Springs had been incorrectly identified.

Subsequent joint reviews by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February and June 2019 found Adani had failed to conclusively resolve these issues. The agencies also identified further flaws in Adani’s modelling, including interaction between groundwater and the Carmichael River that was again not consistent with field evidence.

The CSIRO and Geoscience Australia concluded the model was “not suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

Moses 3 Lagoon in the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. Source: Land Services of Coast and Country Inc (2014)

Governments under pressure

The federal government received the reviews from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February 2019. It did not publicly release them until then-environment minister Melissa Price announced approval of the groundwater plans on April 8. This was effectively the final federal approval the mine needed to proceed.

Media reports at the time suggested Price had been pressured by members of her government to issue approval before the election. What’s more, her department reportedly pushed the CSIRO to endorse Adani’s plans in just hours, and in the absence of critical information.

Within 48 hours of Adani’s approval being announced, the government called a federal election.




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The Coalition was returned to power at the election. Federal Labor suffered heavy losses in regional Queensland – a result many claimed was due to their lukewarm support for the Adani mine.

The Queensland Labor government was also required to sign off on the groundwater plans. Following the federal election result, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk directed that the assessment be completed quickly. The state approved the plans within four weeks.

This was despite being provided a scientific analysis by authors of this article and others, outlining key remaining scientific deficiencies in the groundwater plans.

Once-in-a-decade chance

Our analysis exposes flaws in how evidence informs major government decisions. It also shows why reform of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is so urgent.

The laws are currently under review. Many reputable organisations and scholars have proposed ways the legislation can better protect the environment, increase its independence from government and put science at the core.

Independent scientific committees, such as the federal IESC, are commissioned by governments to advise on mining proposals. We suggest such committees be granted greater powers to request specific data and studies from mining companies to address knowledge gaps before advice is issued.

Alternatively – or in addition – a new independent national commission should be established to oversee environmental impact assessments conducted by mining and other development proponents.

This commission should be empowered to interrogate and resolve key scientific uncertainties, free from political interference. Its recommendations to government should take into account a wide range of expert advice and public feedback.

Doongmabulla Springs, a desert oasis scientists say is at risk from the Adani mine.
Flickr

This would not only improve the evidence base for decisions, but may also speed up assessments – ensuring more effective resolution of uncertainties that often lead to protracted conflict and debate about a mine’s impacts.

Such reform is urgently needed. Australia is suffering unprecedented water stress, environmental harm and declining trust in government.

Australian governments listened to the science when it needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19. The same approach is needed if we’re to preserve the places we love and the ecosystems we depend on.




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An Adani spokesperson provided the following response to the claims raised by the authors:

Adani’s Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems Management Plan (GDEMP) was finalised and approved by both the Australian and Queensland governments almost 12 months ago, bringing to an end more than eight years of heavily scrutinised planning and approvals processes.

The approvals were confirmation that the GDEMP complies with all regulatory conditions, following an almost two-year process of rigorous scientific inquiry, review and approvals. This included relevant independent reviews by Australia’s pre-eminent scientific organisations CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.

There are more than 270 conditions within the mine approvals to protect the natural environment and more than 100 of those relate to groundwater.

We’re now getting on with construction of the Carmichael Mine and Rail project, having awarded more than $750 million in contracts to the benefit of regional Queenslanders.

We remain on track to create more than 1,500 direct jobs during the construction and ramp up of our project and some further 6,750 indirect jobs. At a time when our country is facing some of its toughest challenges, we’re determined to deliver on our commitments of jobs and opportunities.The Conversation

Matthew Currell, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Professor of Hydrogeology, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Senior lecturer in hydrogeology, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


Ian Overton, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.




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Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available.
Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.




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The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.




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The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.The Conversation

Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



Shutterstock

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




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As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




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Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




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Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




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Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




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Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




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And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.