Environment Analysis

Not fit for purpose: Australia needs independent Climate Change Authority

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The Climate Change Authority (CCA) has demonstrated so little authority since the Coalition tried and failed to destroy it in 2013. 

It is like a ship coming out of a dry dock, having been refurbished with a new crew.

This crew, it would seem, is a result of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s and the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor’s determination to develop more gas, come what may.

The new Chair of the CCA Board is Grant King, a former CEO of Origin Energy and a board member of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA), which is the key body supporting the oil and gas industry.

Another new board member of the CCA is Susie Smith, a former Santos executive and head of The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, which is a lobby group for industry whose members include the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Aluminium Council, and the aforementioned APPEA.

It claims to be:

“The voice of oil and gas.”

The former Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, has to a large extent travelled with the government on its “gas-led” recovery plan, arguing that gas will be essential for “firming” renewable energy supply.

This argument has some merit, demonstrated nicely in the South Australian electricity market where renewable energy often runs at over 70 per cent but gas is the main support when renewable sources are low.

However,  large and small-scale battery storage is replacing some of this dependency on gas and more storage is in the pipeline.

The problem with Finkel’s view is that “firming” is not what the Government and industry are aiming for. Lobbying by the industry and large subsidies from the Federal Government is intended to massively expand gas exploration and extraction in Australia.

In August last year, a group of 25 leading climate scientists wrote to Finkel to express their concern that support for gas as a transition fuel over decades was:

'... not consistent with a safe climate nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.'

A media release from the Government last year described government support for opening up five new gas basins, starting with Beetaloo, North Bowen, and Galilee Basins, pipeline developments under a national gas infrastructure plan, and a gas hub at Wallumbilla.

Already one of the largest exporters of LNG in the world, further expansion of gas extraction will blow any chance of Australia meeting its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Tim Forcey, a chemical engineer with 30 years of experience in the petrochemicals industry, gave evidence before a Northern Territory inquiry in 2017 that fracking the McArthur Basin alone could release four to five times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the Adani coal mine proposal.

At a time when the United States is taking big steps to decarbonise the U.S. economy, the European Union is proposing a carbon border adjustment tariff and our major trading partners are setting net zero emissions targets, 2050 for Japan and South Korea and 2060 for China, Australia is plunging ahead with major fossil fuel projects.

Yet the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has modelled gas demand out to 2040 and in every scenario, they envisage demand for gas declining.

In its budget submission last year, the Australian Industry Group called for the government to provide grants to rapidly scale up existing technologies such as heat pumps, electric induction furnaces and energy demand management. These are technologies that reduce the need for gas.

This fossil fuel frenzy is dressed up as a public good and therefore must have money thrown at it. The climate crisis deepens with every year that passes. Report follows report, documenting the growing toll in extreme weather, rising seas, species extinction, bushfires, floods, sea-level rise, declining agricultural yields, and the growing number of climate refugees.

Australia’s vulnerability has been on show in recent years with cyclone following flood following fire following drought, in a country with both an abundance of fossil fuels and the capacity, if not the will, to rapidly reduce emissions.

Health groups such as Doctors for the Environment Australia, the Climate and Health Alliance, the Australian Medical Association and all the major medical colleges have declared climate change a health emergency, which is already contributing to life-threatening illness.

Although a La Nina weather system has provided, besides heavy rains and flooding, a cooler summer and some respite from bushfires, we can be sure that extreme heat of the sort that set the country on fire, stretched emergency services and strained hospital emergency departments will be back.

Bushfire smoke will again add to the burden of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

The gas-fired recovery is being sold to Australians on the false promises that it will reduce emissions; that carbon capture and storage will fix rising emissions; and that large amounts of gas are essential for economic recovery.

In the land of mates and favours, we desperately need an independent climate change commission, as proposed by Independent MP Zali Steggall

The CCA now has little, if any, credibility, let alone authority.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.


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