Garbage in, Garbage out


The Coalition and Labor still not serious about credibly confronting the challenge of global climate change

By Chris Johansen, Green Issue Co-editor

Having familiarity over the years with crop and agricultural systems modelling I was interested to learn that the Federal Government had developed a plan to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, based on modelling. This was the Federal Government’s “Plan to Deliver Net Zero”, backed up by the full report of “Australia’s Long-term Emissions Reduction Plan” and “Modelling and Analysis” supplement. I acknowledge that my previous assessment of this government’s bona fides was at a low level but, nevertheless, I entered into reading these documents with as dispassionate intent as I could muster.

 However, an initial reading made patently clear what the objectives of this endeavour were, namely:

  • To recruit the Federal National Party to agree to making a public announcement that Australia accepts a net zero target by 2050;
  • To convince the international community and the Australian electorate that the Australian Federal Government is acting on climate change;
  • To protect Australia’s fossil fuel industries, to ensure continued political donations and favorable public advertising from that sector and provide revolving door job opportunities between politics and those industries.

In other words, I quickly concluded it was a set of political statements rather than a science-based development of a plan to seriously reduce GHGs. It immediately reminded me of that modelling term ‒ GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Modelling normally involves feeding quantifiable data into the model and determining what output emerges. But if dodgy data are fed into a model then the output is likely to be even more dodgy. This “Plan” seems to have reversed this process – starting with the desired political output and then working backwards to see what data might lead to that.

There are so many dubious claims that it is difficult to know where to start, and where to finish (this “Plan” documentation runs to hundreds of pages and hundreds more could be written debunking it). So, I will only comment on the major flaws in each of the areas where emissions reductions between 2005 and 2050 are claimed.

Firstly, a 20% emissions reduction is claimed for the period 2005 to 2020. This is mainly attributable to including the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) component in the calculation. Much of the LULUCF contribution is attributable to land clearing that did not occur, without much clarity on whether it was intended to be cleared in the first place. And there are other dubious assumptions in LULUCF calculations, not elaborated here. But if LULUCF is excluded from Australia’s emissions during 2005-2020, then emissions are actually rising. Factors slowing the rate of rise were household, private industry and state government initiatives in installing renewable energy, largely opposed by the federal government. The Coalition has been banging on about “when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow” to discredit solar and wind power for at least the last 15 years.

This claimed 20% reduction over the previous 15 years is used to model what will happen over the next 30 years (2030-2050). I have been able to deduce the mathematical model they have used, which is:

Y = 2X

where, Y = the emissions reduction over 30 years and X = the emissions reduction over 15 years.

[Albert Einstein, eat your heart out with your puny E = mc2]

By feeding in X = 20% they get Y = 40%. But, if the correct data are fed into this model, i.e. X = <0%, the correct answer is Y = <<0%.

The “Plan” incorporates a further 15% reduction attributable to “Global Technology Trends”. What this means is unclear from any of the three publications cited above. As best as can be interpreted it appears to mean emissions reductions that would occur without any action by the Australian Government, such as increased energy efficiency of products purchased in Australia. Global transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is perhaps included here, but the Federal Government has long argued that adoption of EVs destroys weekends, among other shortcomings, as compared to fossil fuel powered vehicles. Thus this 15% figure remains nebulous, seemingly plucked from the air.

A further 10-20% emissions reduction is attributed to “international and domestic offsets”. To date, offsets have been used to justify continued, and even increased, GHG emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. With reafforestation, it takes decades for the trees to sequester the nominated quantity of GHGs to offset – we no longer have decades. As the climate changes, the predicted growth pattern of those trees is no longer predictable, due to changing hydrological and temperature conditions, increasing threat of fire and emerging pests and diseases. Further, many international offset schemes have been shown to be dodgy and local ones can best be described as brave in their assumptions, if not rorts. Not that revegetation should not be encouraged but it should not be used an as excuse for ongoing GHG emissions. It should be considered separate to efforts in GHG emissions reduction yet an important, but imprecise, contributor to net GHG balance.

As part of the offset approach the “Plan” goes gung ho on sequestering soil carbon in agriculture. Having been measuring soil carbon in various parts of the world for half a century I can testify as to the unfeasibility of this. Spatial variability and ephemerality of soil carbon are spanners in the works here. And, as temperatures rise, the chance of soil carbon wafting into the atmosphere increases. I can attest that it is rather difficult to monitor time trends in soil carbon on a small experimental plot, let alone extrapolation to broad-acre levels, or even national levels.

But even with the above-mentioned spurious assumptions the “Plan” still does not get to “net zero by 2050” without invoking a further 15% reduction to “further technology breakthroughs”.  Intellectually, it is rather difficult to attribute a given quantum of emissions reduction to technologies yet to be developed. However, the “Plan” does mention feed supplements to reduce methane emissions from ruminants and low emissions cement. Actually, these technologies exist so their contribution depends on their rate of uptake. As most ruminants in Australia are free grazing it would be difficult to provide them with supplementary feeds that would reduce methane emissions, such as seaweed (i.e. Asparagopsis). And producing enough seaweed to make any difference would necessarily be deleterious to ocean ecology, particularly the C sequestering role of that seaweed when growing in situ.

The other “further technology breakthrough” that the “Plan” heavily relies on is carbon capture and storage (CCS). This technique, of pumping CO2 back into the ground, has been around for 50+ years; US oil drillers use it to force more oil out of depleting reservoirs but without a concern whether the CO2 stays in the ground or seeps back into the atmosphere. Pumping CO2 underground for the sole purpose of sequestering carbon, rather than forcing extraction of more fossil fuels, simply adds to the cost of any fossil fuel operation, further reducing its already declining economic competitiveness with renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry touts it but is reluctant to actually implement it. For example, a requirement for the Chevron Gorgon gas project off NW WA was that it use CCS to sequester 80% its CO2 emissions (i.e. CO2 mixed with the methane being extracted). This project has essentially failed through either “technical difficulties” claimed by Chevron and/or reluctance to spend enough money to make it work. And the WA and Federal Governments appear to be offering them free “get out of jail” cards.

The “Plan” does acknowledge that hydrogen is likely to replace natural gas as a fuel over time and tries to get in on the act. However, they tout “clean hydrogen”, manufactured from splitting hydrogen from methane and using CCS to bury the resultant CO2 by-product. This is also a furphy due to ongoing uncertainty as to whether burial reservoirs are indeed leak proof, the extra cost of installing CCS and the likely low demand for “clean hydrogen” as compared with “green hydrogen” (made using renewable energy to split water in a hydrolysis reaction). It is an attempt to keep the natural gas (i.e. methane) industry alive.

Another possibility under “further technology breakthroughs” is direct carbon capture from the air and its safe burial. However, such technology is in its infancy, is very expensive and unlikely to be deployed on a large enough scale before 2050 to make any dent in global CO2 levels.

The “Plan” only refers to Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions, i.e. those emissions released within Australia. Scope 3 emissions – emissions produced when exported Australian coal and gas are burnt in importing countries – are not discussed. The Australian Government uses the classic drug dealers’ defence – “I am not responsible for what happens to the dangerous goods I sell”. Australia’s Scope 3 emissions now exceed its Scope 1 and 2 emissions and State and Federal Governments are going gung ho on further expansion of coal and LNG exports. And they have the temerity to argue that they are helping to lower global GHG emissions because Australian coal is cleaner than that in recipient countries and LNG has a lower emissions intensity than coal (but only of you ignore fugitive emissions of methane).

At this stage I can only conclude that the “Plan” is nothing more than greenwash to permit the present government to continue its laissez faire approach to climate. If implemented the steady rise in truly assessed Scope 1 and 2 emissions would continue and Scope 3 emissions would explode. In the electricity sector emissions will continue to fall simply because renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy (i.e. simple economics). Emissions in the transport sector are unlikely to change much over time due to the slow uptake of EVs and Australia becoming a dumping ground for high emitting petrol and diesel vehicles because of lax emissions standards. The agriculture and land use sector have a long way to go before sequestration will match emissions, if credible accounting methods are to be used.

OK, that’s the Coalition strategy but what about Labor? Labor’s strategy for the upcoming Federal election appears to be, for most election issues, to position itself as a bit more progressive than the Coalition. But as the Coalition is well towards the conservative end of the political spectrum, that puts both camps well into right-wing, conservative territory. Labor’s current climate policy is embedded in a document entitled “Powering Australia”. It focusses on how a Labor Government would stimulate and facilitate uptake of renewable energy, much of which will occur anyway as renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy and through state government initiatives. But it does not have much to say about how existing fossil fuel based energy sources will be phased down, let alone phased out.

Although in “Powering Australia” the Coalition is mocked for not wanting “climate change” mentioned in official documents (P. 50), Labor is also avoiding the issue by embedding climate change within a renewable energy policy but ignoring other aspects. Like the Coalition, they totally avoid discussion on Scope 3 emissions, via ever-expanding coal and LNG exports. Of course, like the Coalition, Labor also wants to ensure continued political donations and favorable public advertising from fossil fuel industries and keep open the revolving door job opportunities between politics and those industries. Labor also has little to say on adaptation to inevitable climate disasters coming down the track.

Labor has also back-tracked on its emissions reduction target for 2005-2030 – from 45% in 2019 to 43% now. In 2015 the science suggested that a 50% reduction by 2030 was the bare minimum for a 2°C aspiration. Now, the prognosis for the onset of climate change has worsened and the need is to stay below 1.5°C; so something much more than a 50% reduction by 2030 is needed to stay in touch with the science.

Hardly a surprising conclusion that I draw but, among sizeable Australian political parties, it seems that The Greens are the only ones whose policies reasonably align with the actual science of climate change. That is, net zero by 2035 would be a prerequisite to avoiding irreversible tipping points and catastrophic climate change. And this assumes the rest of the world adopts drastic climate action over the coming decade. When Scope 3 emissions are accounted for Australia is a major historic and current GHG emitter on a global scale, both in terms of per capita and total emissions. And Australia is among those countries that will be most adversely affected with the advance of climate change. Therefore, it is very much in Australia’s medium and longer term interest to take meaningful action on climate change, setting an example to other major GHG polluting countries in the hope that global emissions can be curtailed.

Header photo: Processes in building a mathematical model (in Danish) Klavsf CC

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]