August 20th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
The COVID-19 virus has brought commerce to a halt in many places. Governments around the world are now making plans for how to recover from the economic body blow delivered by the virus. Some, particularly the European Union, see this as an opportunity to push for more renewable energy and increased efficiencies in the built environment. Its view seems to be that it is better to use the enormous sums needed to jumpstart the economy again to build a low carbon economy than to just go back to the way things were before the pandemic hit. They must have read our recent article If COVID-19 Was A Quiz, Global Warming Will Be The Final Exam.
If we have learned anything from climate science, it is that humanity must stop burning fossil fuels. Full stop. There is no other way to keep the Earth from heating to the point where humans can no longer survive on its surface. There may be a few pods of people floating around in orbit above the Earth as suggested by the Disney movie WALL-E, or a new human colony on Mars, but here on Earth, life as we know it will be impossible because our species has adapted to living in certain temperature range. While evolution suggests our race could eventually adapt to a higher temperature range, such changes take tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years to occur.
But the climate emergency will be upon us in a matter of a few centuries at best. In fact, we may not have even that much time left. We know there once were dinosaurs, then they were gone in a relatively short period of time, geologically speaking. Are we so vain as to think the same cannot happen to us?
It’s All About Power
Since the Industrial Revolution began, human civilization has been totally dependent on power — power for mills, power for transportation, power to heat homes and office buildings. The problem is, since the discovery of oil, coal, and natural gas, all that power has had an undesirable consequence — emissions that raise the average temperature of the world around us and make us sick, emissions that pollute the very Earth that sustains us. The only source of power that does not threaten out existence is electricity, but only if it can be made from sources that do not befoul the environment or make our world hotter. That means hydro, solar, or wind. Maybe a little bit of tidal or wave energy. Any other source for electricity is a noose around our necks, slowly, slowly getting tighter with every passing day. Perhaps the best explanation about the importance of power is contained in the first minute of this clip from the movie Apollo 13.
Natural Gas Promotion
In January of this year, the American Petroleum Institute began an advertising campaign that claims natural gas will be a key energy source for the future, one that will help the world lower total carbon emissions. Reuters asked some climate scientists about that claim. Their response? Nope. While it is true natural gas burns cleaner than coal and has fewer secondary pollutants, it is still a fossil fuel and still spews carbon dioxide emissions into the air. The API says carbon capture can take care of those emissions, but the truth is, that technology is in its infancy. At the present time, the cost of capturing carbon is much too high to be economically viable.
The scientists say emissions must be reduced to net zero by 2050, which leaves far less room for use of fossil fuels of any kind. Emissions globally need to fall by about 7.6% a year between now and 2030 to meet the 1.5° C target agreed to by the world’s nations in Paris in 2015. Last year, US emissions fell by about 2.9% according to the International Energy Agency. In other words, progress has been made, but not nearly enough to address the problem in any sort of serious fashion.
Pep Canadell, a senior research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s acclaimed climate science organization, tells Reuters natural gas emissions are rising fast, particularly in the United States, and are “quickly becoming one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges to address climate change.” Last November, researchers for the United Nations found the world was on course to produce 70% more natural gas in 2030 than would be compatible with the 1.5° C goal. “Most of the new gas production isn’t supplanting coal — it’s supplementing it. It’s answering demand for new energy,” a Stanford professor tells Reuters. Jackson chairs the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists that tracks greenhouse gas emissions.
A Bridge Fuel?
The marketing mantra adopted by the natural gas industry is that it is a “bridge fuel to the future.” In other words, it may not be a great solution, but until renewables reach the point where they can compete head-to-head in terms of cost and reliability, it’s the best available choice. But climate scientists are concerned that plans to massively expand the industry mean using natural gas as a “bridge” could end up locking the world into a high carbon fast warming future.
Global Energy Monitor claims the oil and gas industry plans to spend $1.3 trillion to build a global infrastructure for liquefied natural gas, with most of these investments planned in North America. If those plans come to fruition, the climate impact of those projects — including the effects of methane leaks — would exceed that of all coal-fired power plants under construction or in pre-construction planning worldwide, it says.
Australia Looks To Expand Natural Gas Infrastructure
We heard recently from John, a CleanTechnica reader in Australia. He sent us a story in The Guardian about a recommendation from a business task force advising the National COVID-19 Coordinating Commission, which is advising the Morrison maladministration how to reinvigorate the country’s economy after the damage done by the coronavirus. According to a leaked copy of the task force report, the commission is recommending a massive expansion of Australia’s natural gas industry, including an enormous increase in its pipeline infrastructure — all paid for by the taxpayers, of course.
It will come as no surprise that the head of the task force is Andrew Liveris, a former Dow Chemical executive and currently a member of the board of directors of Saudi Aramco and Worley. The report makes no mention of renewables or climate change, preferring to extol the virtues of gas, saying it is “key to driving down electricity cost and improving investment in globally competitive advanced industry.” This despite a study in his own country showing that every dollar invested in renewable energy will create 3 times as many jobs as a dollar invested in fossil fuels. For people in the fossil fuel industry, the answer to every problem is more fossil fuels.
Scott Morrison and his emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor are proponents of making natural gas the new basis of Australia’s economy, even though enough sunlight falls on the country every day to meet the world’s energy needs for a year. It is probably no coincidence the head of the NCCC is Nev Power, a former Fortescue Metals chief and current board member of natural gas company Strike Energy.
Emma Herd, chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, which represents investors with $2 trillion in assets, tells The Guardian the proposals put forth by the task force could expose Australia to future economic shocks and risk wasting billions in public and private sector investments as global markets move to cut emissions. “With the commission now making recommendations for decades long economic, energy and industry policy, it must be required to integrate Australia’s long term climate change commitments under the Paris agreement and consider all net-zero emissions options for recovery. With the flow of international capital increasingly swinging to renewable energy, greener industry and electrified transport, all options to capitalize on this potential investment must be fully explored,” she says.
Grid Operator Disagrees
Contrary to the fulminations coming from Canberra, the Australian Energy Market Operator this week delivered a report on integrating renewable energy into the system. According to The Guardian, it says Australia’s power grid could run on 75% renewable energy within 5 years. That’s the sort of news — from people who presumably know what they are talking about as opposed to government functionaries who say what they are told to say by their financial backers — that fossil fuel advocates don’t want to hear.
AEMO head Audrey Zibelman says the technical capacity is already available, but markets and regulations will need to be adjusted to make that happen. There were no “insurmountable reasons,” Zibelman says, why the grid cannot handle higher levels of renewables, which it will need to do in order for Australia to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accords. In order to “firm up” the grid and adjust for the variability of renewable energy, Zibelman mentions pumped hydro, grid-scale storage batteries, and “demand side participation” — offering energy users incentives to scale down consumption when required.
“If you continue to do what you have always done, you will continue to get the results you have always gotten,” is a popular saying. Praying at the altar of fossil fuels will get us more of the same. If we are to have any hope of bequeathing a sustainable planet to our heirs, we must end our reliance on fossil fuels. Today would be a good time to begin.
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