Politics Analysis

Labor's backward Future Gas Strategy is a disgrace

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Labor's unveiling of a new gas policy reminiscent of that of the former Liberal Government amidst an ongoing climate crisis is a monumental failure, Dr Graeme McLeay writes.

FEDERAL LABOR'S Future Gas Strategy is at odds with other policies designed to lower emissions and expand renewable energy.

Many voters who backed Labor in the 2022 Election did so expecting real action on climate change, and Labor’s talk of gas to 2050 ‘and beyond’ felt like a betrayal — especially for young people, Indigenous communities and climate scientists.

Minister for Energy and Northern Australia Madeleine King described this month’s release of the Future Gas Strategy to open up new gas fields and continue our gas exports as “based on facts and data”. What facts? Whose data?

It is a fact that atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas, expressed as CO2 equivalent, are rising year on year and are now higher than at any period in human history. It is also a fact that climate change, driven by this rise of greenhouse gases, is accelerating and changing our world in unwelcome and unprecedented ways.

The expansion of the gas industry, despite a predicted fall in household use, will increase Australia’s emissions and will blow the carbon budget. The LNG export industry which accounts for 80% of the gas produced is responsible for 8% of Australia’s emissions and is the fastest-rising contribution to our total emissions.

Falls in emissions from the electricity sector have been offset by a large increase in stationary energy – excluding electricity – due mainly to the expansion of the LNG industry.

The biggest user of gas is the LNG industry itself because the extraction, transport and especially liquefaction of the gas requires a large amount of energy.

As number three in the world for the export of fossil fuels, Australia’s contribution is around 5% of the global total of greenhouse gas emissions, when exported gas is used.

Speaking on Radio National, Minister King spoke positively of the gas industry — talking up exploration, domestic demand, export and the dubious value of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

She was full of praise for Chevron’s troubled and delayed CCS project, which has sequestered 9 million tonnes of CO2 to date. To put that in perspective, Chevron’s total emissions are around 700 million tonnes annually.

This dubious and controversial experiment gives Chevron and other producers – notably Santos – the social license to expand extraction, while it is past time to be reducing exploration for more gas.

Climate scientist Professor Mark Howden, who spoke on Radio National the same day as the Minister, lamented the report, which revealed 77% of the world’s best climate scientists now believe warming will be 2.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels this century and 42% think more than 3 degrees warming is likely. These predictions factor in humanity’s failure to act with the urgency required.

There is no doubt that some of our leaders, like Chris Bowen, who spoke at the climate conference COP 28, understand the problem. That they have made a political calculation that bowing to the demands of the fossil fuel industry is less risky electorally than urgent action on climate change is unfortunate for us all, especially young people who are losing hope and growing cynical of politics.

The release of the gas policy came as an unwelcome echo of former Prime Minister Morrison’s ‘Gas Fired Recovery’. 

A report from the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG) – headed up by former Chief of Defence Admiral Chris Barrie and former head of the Australian Coal Association (ACAIan Dunlop – warns us that climate change is accelerating, already dangerous and (together with nuclear war) is the greatest threat to humanity.

They point to Australia’s particular vulnerability to this danger, to the toxic "climate wars" and to the priority given to preserving Australia’s fossil fuel industries. Federal Labor’s Future Gas Strategy is a prime example of this blindness, putting expanding gas production ahead of climate safety.

As the ASLCG argues:

'To prevent global catastrophe, governments must first admit there is a problem.'

Like its predecessors, Labor is yet to admit that subsidising fossil fuels is a problem.

The nexus between climate and human health has been recognised since Hippocrates. All major medical institutions now agree that climate change is the greatest threat to human health.

The Government, too, has recognised climate change as the greatest public health threat we face, yet this Budget fails to provide the funding needed for a National Health and Climate Strategy

Dr Kate Wylie of Doctors for the Environment Australia points to the multiple ways in which climate impacts our health, our communities and our life support systems, including food and water security.

Extreme heat is predicted to double the number of days over 35 degrees each year in most capital cities by the end of the century. In Perth, for example, modelling from a recent Government report predicted heat-related deaths will rise more than 60% by 2050 if temperatures continue to climb.

Extreme heat kills more Australians than any other climate disaster, leading to heat stroke, increased cardiovascular problems, increased mental illness, kidney disease and loss of productivity.

The devastating impacts of more frequent and severe bushfires include loss of property, livelihood and, indeed, life itself.

Bushfire smoke triggers asthma and exacerbates other respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Mental health impacts can linger for years as communities struggle with loss of health and livelihood.

The Government deserves credit for introducing the long overdue fuel efficiency standard, which was opposed by the Opposition but passed with the help of the crossbench. Besides the economic and climate benefits, there is a health dividend in cleaner air for everyone.

However, lingering doubts remain about their willingness to address the climate emergency as an emergency.

Far from being somebody else’s problem, climate change is here now, it is impacting our lives, it is destabilising geopolitics, it threatens our health and future, and it is both global and local.

It is incumbent on all of us to admit there is a problem and to face it urgently.

We cannot afford another lost decade of climate change denial and endless "climate wars" — the stakes are too high.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment, Australia. Married with two adult children, he writes on climate change and air quality.

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