Fossil fuel misinformation may sideline one of the most important climate change reports ever released


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Christian Downie, Australian National UniversityThis week’s landmark report on the state of the climate paints a sobering picture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, without deep and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the world is very likely headed for climate catastrophe.

In November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the latest round of United Nations climate talks. It’s the most crucial round of climate negotiations since those which led to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The question is: will governments around the world now listen to the climate science? Or will misinformation campaigns backed by vested interests continue to delay action?

If we’re to avert a climate disaster, we must not underestimate the power of climate misinformation campaigns to undermine the IPCC findings and ensure governments continue to ignore the science.

Person in crowd holds sign
Science must be at the heart of policy-making if climate change is to be addressed.
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A history of heeding the science

Scrutiny of Australia’s climate policies will be particularly harsh at the Glasgow meeting, given the Morrison government’s failure to implement substantive policies to reduce emissions. We can expect renewed international pressure on Australia to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and set out a national plan to decarbonise the economy this decade.

For those who believe in the power of science, the failure of world leaders to act urgently is frustrating, to say the least.

We have acted on the concerns of scientists in the past. In fact, it was scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen who put climate change on the agenda back in 1988, triggering international negotiations.

Scientific concern over the growing hole in the ozone layer prompted the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to curb the use of ozone-depleting substances.

And of course, scientific advice is guiding the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many reasons why the calls of climate scientists are not being heeded at present. But one factor has been particularly successful in delaying climate action: scientific misinformation campaigns.

These campaigns damage public understanding of science, erode trust in research findings, and undermine evidence-based policy.




Read more:
A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial


Earth from space
Governments heeded scientific warnings over the ozone hole – so why not climate change?
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Muddying the waters

Research has shown climate misinformation campaigns are often backed by corporate interests which stand to lose if the world transitions to a cleaner energy future.

Such a future could bring incredible benefits to Australia – a country with some of the world’s best solar and wind resources.

The campaigns have wrought untold damage to the public debate on climate science. These corporations have funded industry associations, think tanks and front groups (even including paid actors) to mobilise a counter movement to climate action.

Examples of the phenomenon abound. In the United States, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil reportedly knew of climate change 40 years ago, but funded climate deniers for decades.

Reports emerged last week that Facebook failed to prevent a climate misinformation campaign by the oil and gas industry during last year’s US presidential election.

The war against climate science has been waged in Australia, too. Researchers and journalists have described the lengths the oil, gas and coal industries have gone to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, and to kill off policies put in place to limit emissions.

Australian media companies such as News Corp have also been criticised for downplaying the significance of the climate crisis. Little wonder, then, that Australian news consumers are far more likely to believe climate change is “not at all” serious compared to news users in other countries.




Read more:
With the release of a terrifying IPCC report, Australia must face its wilful political blindness on climate


man holding sign reading 'Tell the Truth'
News Corp has been accused of underplaying the seriousness of climate change.
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Calling out misinformation

The latest IPCC report was five years in the making. It involved 234 leading scientists from more than 60 countries, who rigorously assessed more than 14,000 research papers to produce their synthesis. The result is the most authoritative, reliable report on the state of Earth’s climate since the last IPCC report of its kind in 2013.

But as the history of climate action has shown, incontrovertible science is not enough to shift the needle – in large part due to climate misinformation which deceives the public and weakens pressure on governments to act.

We must call out attempts by those who seek to delay climate action in the name of profit – and then counter those attempts. As the IPCC has shown this week, further delay equals catastrophe.




Read more:
We have the vaccine for climate disinformation – let’s use it


The Conversation


Christian Downie, Associate professor, Australian National University

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

International Energy Agency warns against new fossil fuel projects. Guess what Australia did next?


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Samantha Hepburn, Deakin UniversityEven if every country meets its current climate targets, Earth’s temperature will still rise by a dangerous 2.1℃ this century, according to sobering findings from a new International Energy Agency report.

The IEA found the route to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was “narrow and extremely challenging”, and electricity grids in developed economies such as Australia must be zero emissions by 2053. The IEA was abundantly clear: no new fossil fuel projects should be approved.

The report couldn’t come at a worse time for the Morrison government. This week, it announced A$600 million for a major new gas-fired power plant at Kurri Kurri in New South Wales, claiming it was needed to shore up electricity supplies.

The IEA’s findings cast serious doubt on this decision, and put even more pressure on Australia ahead of crucial international climate talks in Glasgow in November. So let’s take a look at the report in more detail, and see how Australia measures up.

What the report said

The IEA report sets out a comprehensive roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The good news is this is still achievable. But it’ll take a lot money and enormous effort.

There must be what the report describes as a “total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies”. Put simply, the world’s energy economy must be grounded in solar and wind — not coal, gas and oil.

The report works from a basic principle: even if the climate pledges countries have made under the Paris agreement are fully achieved, there will still be 22 billion tonnes of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2050.

This is well short of net zero.

So the IEA set out more than 400 milestones to achieve the global energy transformation. And these absolutely must be complied with if we’re to stop catastrophic global warming and limit temperature rise to 1.5℃.

The milestones include:

Massive investment in electricity networks

Enormous amounts of money are needed to shift away from fossil fuels and meet the global electricity demand doubling over the next 30 years. Existing networks took 130 years to build — we need to build the same again in about one-sixth the time. This includes investing in hydrogen and bio-energy (energy made from organic material), which the report calls a “pillar of decarbonisation”.




Read more:
The 1.5℃ global warming limit is not impossible – but without political action it soon will be


Transport

Electric vehicles need to rapidly expand to 65% of the global fleet by 2030, and 100% by 2050. This will require an enormous increase in public electric vehicle charging units and hydrogen refuelling units. To facilitate this shift, petrol and diesel will be phased out. Many countries around the world, including the United Kingdom and Japan, have already introduced a ban on new fossil fuel cars by 2030.

Building and industry

We need to urgently retrofit homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient. Steel, cement and chemical industries, primary emitters, must shift to carbon capture and sequestration and hydrogen.

Electric vehicle
Petrol and diesel will need to be phased out by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
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But the biggest take-home message for Australia is there must be no new development in fossil fuel beyond 2021.

No new fossil fuel development

The report states:

Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.

Global demand for oil peaked in 2019, and has declined since then, largely due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Under the roadmap, this decline will continue and reach 75% by 2050. Any growth in demand during this period will be met by growing emergent markets in renewables, green hydrogen and bio-energy.

And of course, the report states no new coal plants should be financially supported unless equipped with carbon capture and sequestration. Inefficient coal plants must be phased out by 2030.

Gas plant
The federal government just announced over a half billion dollars for a new gas-fired power plant in NSW.
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If the roadmap is followed, renewable energy will overtake coal by 2026, and oil and gas by 2030.

For this to happen, annual additions of 630 gigawatts of solar and 390 gigawatts of wind power will be required by 2030. This means the world needs to install the equivalent of “the world’s largest solar park roughly every day”, according to the report.

Australia, are you listening?

Australia’s gas-fired recovery plans are directly inconsistent with the IEA roadmap. The government has argued expanding fossil fuel supply is critical for energy security.

Not only did the federal government just announce over a half a billion dollars for a new gas-fired power plant in NSW, it’s also spending a further $173 million to develop the Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory, another gas reserve.




Read more:
Paying Australia’s coal-fired power stations to stay open longer is bad for consumers and the planet


Experts, advisers and Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott have all disagreed with these moves. They argue, in line with the IEA report, that cheaper, cleaner alternatives to gas generation, such as wind and solar, can easily provide the dispatchable power required.

The government’s stubborn fossil fuel funding will make it more difficult than it already is to stop global warming beyond 1.5℃.

Australia must immediately stop investing in new fossil fuel projects. While this may be a difficult transition to accept given the enormous scope of gas reserves in Australia, there’s no point spending vast amounts of money on new infrastructure to extract a resource that will be commercially unviable in a decade.

Australia is ignoring the economic and environmental imperatives of transitioning to a low carbon framework. This is reckless, and unfair to other countries. We have the resource capacity and economic strength to transition our energy sector, unlike many developing countries. But we choose not to.

A national embarrassment

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, says the next round of international climate talks in Scotland is the “last best chance the world has” to avoid a climate crisis.

But Australia’s investment in new gas development stands in stark contrast to the increasingly ambitious energy commitments of other developed countries. We shouldn’t come empty-handed, with no new targets, to yet another international climate summit.




Read more:
Spot the difference: as world leaders rose to the occasion at the Biden climate summit, Morrison faltered


US President Joe Biden has vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% compared with 2005 levels. He has banned new oil and gas leases on federal land, removed fossil fuel subsidies and plans to double wind capacity by 2030.

Likewise, the European Commission seeks to stop funding oil and gas projects. Denmark recently implemented a ban on future gas extraction in the North Sea. And Spain has done the same.

Australia is ignoring its global responsibilities. As a result, we’ll be hit hard by the so-called “Carbon Border Adjustment” policies from the US and European Union, which tax imported goods according to their carbon footprint.

Ultimately, our actions will leave us economically and environmentally isolated in a rapidly emerging new energy world order.




Read more:
The EU is considering carbon tariffs on Australian exports. Is that legal?


The Conversation


Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Fossil fuel emissions hit record high after unexpected growth: Global Carbon Budget 2017


Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, CSIRO

Global greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels and industry are on track to grow by 2% in 2017, reaching a new record high of 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, released today.

The rise follows a remarkable three-year period during which global CO₂ emissions barely grew, despite strong global economic growth.

But this year’s figures suggest that the keenly anticipated global peak in emissions – after which greenhouse emissions would ultimately begin to decline – has yet to arrive.


Read more: Fossil fuel emissions have stalled: Global Carbon Budget 2016


The Global Carbon Budget, now in its 12th year, brings together scientists and climate data from around the world to develop the most complete picture available of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a series of three papers, the Global Carbon Project’s 2017 report card assesses changes in Earth’s sources and sinks of CO₂, both natural and human-induced. All excess CO₂ remaining in the atmosphere leads to global warming.

We believe society is unlikely to return to the high emissions growth rates of recent decades, given continued improvements in energy efficiency and rapid growth in low-carbon energies. Nevertheless, our results are a reminder that there is no room for complacency if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which calls for temperatures to be stabilised at “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”. This requires net zero global emissions soon after 2050.

After a brief plateau, 2017’s emissions are forecast to hit a new high.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

National trends

The most significant factor in the resumption of global emissions growth is the projected 3.5% increase in China’s emissions. This is the result of higher energy demand, particularly from the industrial sector, along with a decline in hydro power use because of below-average rainfall. China’s coal consumption grew by 3%, while oil (5%) and gas (12%) continued rising. The 2017 growth may result from economic stimulus from the Chinese government, and may not continue in the years ahead.

The United States and Europe, the second and third top emitters, continued their decade-long decline in emissions, but at a reduced pace in 2017.

For the US, the slowdown comes from a decline in the use of natural gas because of higher prices, with the loss of its market share taken by renewables and to a lesser extent coal. Importantly, 2017 will be the first time in five years that US coal consumption is projected to rise slightly (by about 0.5%).

The EU has now had three years (including 2017) with little or no decline in emissions, as declines in coal consumption have been offset by growth in oil and gas.

Unexpectedly, India’s CO₂ emissions will grow only about 2% this year, compared with an average 6% per year over the past decade. This reduced growth rate is likely to be short-lived, as it was linked to reduced exports, lower consumer demand, and a temporary fall in currency circulation attributable to demonetisation late in 2016.

Trends for the biggest emitters, and everyone else.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

Yet despite this year’s uptick, economies are now decarbonising with a momentum that was difficult to imagine just a decade ago. There are now 22 countries, for example, for which CO₂ emissions have declined over the past decade while their economies have continued to grow.

Concerns have been raised in the past about countries simply moving their emissions outside their borders. But since 2007, the total emissions outsourced by countries with emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol (that is, developed countries, including the US) has declined.

This suggests that the downward trends in emissions of the past decade are driven by real changes to economies and energy systems, and not just to offshoring emissions.

Other countries, such as Russia, Mexico, Japan, and Australia have shown more recent signs of slowdowns, flat growth, and somewhat volatile emissions trajectories as they pursue a range of different climate and energy policies in recent years.

Still, the pressure is on. In 101 countries, representing 50% of global CO₂ emissions, emissions increased as economies grew. Many of these countries will be pursuing economic development for years to come.

Contrasting fortunes among some of the world’s biggest economies.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, Author provided

A peek into the future

During the three-year emissions “plateau” – and specifically in 2015-16 – the accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere grew at a record high that had not previously been observed in the half-century for which measurements exist.

It is well known that during El Niño years such as 2015-16, when global temperatures are higher, the capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to take up CO₂ (the “land sink”) diminishes, and atmospheric CO₂ growth increases as a result.

The El Niño boosted temperatures by roughly a further 0.2℃. Combined with record high levels of fossil fuel emissions, the atmospheric CO₂ concentration grew at a record rate of nearly 3 parts per million per year.

This event illustrates the sensitivity of natural systems to global warming. Although a hot El Niño might not be the same as a sustained warmer climate, it nevertheless serves as a warning of the global warming in store, and underscores the importance of continuing to monitor changes in the Earth system.

The effect of the strong 2015-16 El Niño on the growth of atmospheric CO₂ can clearly be seen.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, based on Peters et al., Nature Climate Change 2017, Author provided

No room for complacency

There is no doubt that progress has been made in decoupling economic activity from CO₂ emissions. A number of central and northern European countries and the US have shown how it is indeed possible to grow an economy while reducing emissions.

Other positive signs from our analysis include the 14% per year growth of global renewable energy (largely solar and wind) – albeit from a low base – and the fact that global coal consumption is still below its 2014 peak.


Read more: World greenhouse gas levels made unprecedented leap in 2016


These trends, and the resolute commitment of many countries to make the Paris Agreement a success, suggest that CO₂ emissions may not return to the high-growth rates experienced in the 2000s. However, an actual decline in global emissions might still be beyond our immediate reach, especially given projections for stronger economic growth in 2018.

The ConversationTo stabilise our climate at well below 2℃ of global warming, the elusive peak in global emissions needs to be reached as soon as possible, before quickly setting into motion the great decline in emissions needed to reach zero net emissions by around 2050.

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, globalcarbonproject.org, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Antarctic ice reveals that fossil fuel extraction leaks more methane than thought



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The analysis of large amounts of ice from Antarctica’s Taylor Valley has helped scientists to tease apart the natural and human-made sources of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

Hinrich Schaefer, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

The fossil fuel industry is a larger contributor to atmospheric methane levels than previously thought, according to our research which shows that natural seepage of this potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas reservoirs is more modest than had been assumed.

In our research, published in Nature today, our international team studied Antarctic ice dating back to the last time the planet warmed rapidly, roughly 11,000 years ago.

Katja Riedel and Hinrich Schaefer discuss NIWA’s ice coring work at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.

We found that natural seepage of methane from oil and gas fields is much lower than anticipated, implying that leakage caused by fossil fuel extraction has a larger role in today’s emissions of this greenhouse gas.

However, we also found that vast stores of methane in permafrost and undersea gas hydrates did not release large amounts of their contents during the rapid warming at the end of the most recent ice age, relieving fears of a catastrophic methane release in response to the current warming.

The ice is processed in a large melter before samples are shipped back to New Zealand.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

A greenhouse gas history

Methane levels started to increase with the industrial revolution and are now 2.5 times higher than they ever were naturally. They have caused one-third of the observed increase in global average temperatures relative to pre-industrial times.

If we are to reduce methane emissions, we need to understand where it comes from. Quantifying different sources is notoriously tricky, but it is especially hard when natural and human-driven emissions happen at the same time, through similar processes.


Read more: Detecting methane leaks with infrared cameras: they’re fast, but are they effective


The most important of these cases is natural methane seepage from oil and gas fields, also known as geologic emissions, which often occurs alongside leakage from production wells and pipelines.

The total is reasonably well known, but where is the split between natural and industrial?

To make matters worse, human-caused climate change could destabilise permafrost or ice-like sediments called gas hydrates (or clathrates), both of which have the potential to release more methane than any human activity and reinforce climate change. This scenario has been hypothesised for past warming events (the “clathrate gun”) and for future runaway climate change (the so-called “Arctic methane bomb”). But how likely are these events?

Antarctic ice traps tiny bubbles of air, which represents a sample of ancient atmospheres.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

The time capsule

To find answers, we needed a time capsule. This is provided by tiny air bubbles enclosed in polar ice, which preserve ancient atmospheres. By using radiocarbon (14C) dating to determine the age of methane from the end of the last ice age, we can work out how much methane comes from contemporary processes, like wetland production, and how much is from previously stored methane. During the time the methane is stored in permafrost, sediments or gas fields, the 14C decays away so that these sources emit methane that is radiocarbon-free.

In the absence of strong environmental change and industrial fossil fuel production, all radiocarbon-free methane in samples from, say, 12,000 years ago will be from geologic emissions. From that baseline, we can then see if additional radiocarbon-free methane is released from permafrost or hydrates during rapid warming, which occurred around 11,500 years ago while methane levels shot up.

Tracking methane in ice

The problem is that there is not much air in an ice sample, very little methane in that air, and a tiny fraction of that methane contains a radiocarbon (14C) atom. There is no hope of doing the measurements on traditional ice cores.

Our team therefore went to Taylor Glacier, in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Here, topography, glacier flow and wind force ancient ice layers to the surface. This provides virtually unlimited sample material that spans the end of the last ice age.

A tonne of ice yielded only a drop of methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

For a single measurement, we drilled a tonne of ice (equivalent to a cube with one-metre sides) and melted it in the field to liberate the enclosed air. From the gas-tight melter, the air was transferred to vacuum flasks and shipped to New Zealand. In the laboratory, we extracted the pure methane out of these 100-litre air samples, to obtain a volume the size of a water drop.

Only every trillionth of the methane molecules contains a 14C atom. Our collaborators in Australia were able to measure exactly how big that minute fraction is in each sample and if it changed during the studied period.

Low seepage, no gun, no bomb

Because radiocarbon decays at a known rate, the amount of 14C gives a radiocarbon age. In all our samples the radiocarbon date was consistent with the sample age.

Radiocarbon-free methane emissions did not increase the radiocarbon age. They must have been very low in pre-industrial times, even during a rapid warming event. The latter indicates that there was no clathrate gun or Arctic methane bomb going off.

So, while today’s conditions differ from the ice-covered world 12,000 years ago, our findings implicate that permafrost and gas hydrates are not too likely to release large amounts of methane in future warming. That is good news.

Wetlands must have been responsible for the increase in methane at the end of the ice age. They have a lesser capacity for emissions than the immense permafrost and clathrate stores.

Geologic emissions are likely to be lower today than in the ice age, partly because we have since drained shallow gas fields that are most prone to natural seepage. Yet, our highest estimates are only about half of the lower margin estimated for today. The total assessment (natural plus industrial) for fossil-fuel methane emissions has recently been increased.

In addition, we now find that a larger part of that must come from industrial activities, raising the latter to one third of all methane sources globally. For comparison, the last IPCC report put them at 17%.

The ConversationMeasurements in modern air suggest that the rise in methane levels over the last years is dominated by agricultural emissions, which must therefore be mitigated. Our new research shows that the impact of fossil fuel use on the historic methane rise is larger than assumed. In order to mitigate climate change, methane emissions from oil, gas and coal production must be cut sharply.

Hinrich Schaefer, Research Scientist Trace Gases, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.