News that the Finkel report on how to make the energy market secure is facing bitter opposition among the ranks of the Coalition doesn’t bode well.
The main bone of contention seems to be replacing the current renewable energy target with a clean energy target — possibly up to 42 percent of electricity production from renewable sources by 2030 — to cut carbon emissions in line with our commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
Yet even in its current state, the report by Australia’s Chief scientist Alan Finkel leaves Australians short.
The Finkel review states that the CET will “encourage new low emissions generation into the market in a technology neutral fashion” which would result in a combination of wind, solar and carbon capture and storage or wind, solar and gas.
Nowhere in the report are health or health costs considered, yet the source of our electricity is a critical health issue.
Rather than focusing on a transition from harmful fossil fuels, the Clean Energy Target scheme or CET leaves the door open to coal and gas, depending on where the benchmark is set. This is likely to be 0.7 tonnes CO2e per MWhr but the level may be at the whim of government.
There are “no prohibitions, just incentives” and hence no downside for coal, and gas may actually get “clean energy” credit. The modelling suggests coal will still be providing 25 percent of energy by 2050.
Setting aside for one moment that Australia’s emission reduction target of 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030 is extremely weak, and that reductions in the electricity sector are potentially the easiest way to reduce emissions, there is another compelling reason to reduce fossil fuel use other than climate change.
The World Health Organization has described air pollution as a global health emergency. Outdoor air pollution is responsible for more than three million deaths worldwide each year, and in Australia 3,000 premature deaths occur each year due to urban air pollution.
While much of this pollution is from cars, pollutants from coal fired power stations are known to travel large distances. The mix of fine particles, sulphur dioxide, and other pollutants contribute to the leading non-infectious causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease and cancer. Heavy metals such as mercury accumulate up the food chain and are detrimental to health and the biosphere.
Carbon capture and storage has not worked economically anywhere in the world. If the health harms of coal pollution were included in the reckoning it would be clear that new coal fired power stations can have no future in Australia. At best so called super-critical coal fired power stations can reduce emissions by 30 percent, a poor outcome considering the huge investment required.
The requirement of a three-year time frame for closure of a coal fired power station is perhaps recognition of the need for a planned transition, but should not be a reason to delay such closures as the urgency to lower emissions increases. There is no recognition in the report of renewable energy as a driver of employment and the economy. In the United States in 2016, renewable energy accounted for 806,000 jobs compared to coal with 160,000. Coal India, the world’s largest coal producer, has cut its work force by 32 percent since 2002.
The Finkel report states “there is no penalty for high emissions generation”. Gas is rewarded unless the benchmark is set below 0.6 tonnes per MWhr. But gas has a dirty secret. Although combustion of the gas to produce electricity produces less than half the emissions of brown coal, escaped methane, known as fugitive emissions, occur all along the gas supply chain.
Methane has a 72 times more powerful greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. Although there is ongoing research conducted by the CSIRO to quantify the escaped gas, the scale of this work is relatively modest compared with the extent of the gas mining operations.
Therefore, there is much uncertainty as to the extent of the problem. However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated 2.4 percent leakage for total natural gas production in 2009 in the US, and higher figures where fracturing is employed. Any advantage in terms of emissions is thus negated by the leakage.
There is growing evidence of the health harm done to communities where gas extraction takes place, particularly when fracking is employed. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, gas mining has been associated with myriad health effects including asthma, low birth weight babies, nasal and sinus problems and migraine headaches, and increased hospitalisations. Some of the compounds in holding ponds (“produced water”) contain heavy metals and carcinogenic compounds. Ground water contamination and impacts on farming communities can lead to social disharmony and depression.
If gas is to have any role at all in electricity generation it should be limited to providing peak power when demand exceeds supply, which occurs infrequently, or for ancillary services. If emissions are to be lowered gas should not stand in the way of more renewable energy, storage solutions, reform of the market, demand management and energy efficiency.
Globally there is action on climate change. Australia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of warming but also well placed to be a part of a global energy revolution. To lock in a second or third best option to control emissions and improve energy reliability and affordability in order to end Australia’s climate wars and appease a government philosophically opposed to renewable energy and tied to fossil fuels would be a great disservice to our children and grandchildren.
The harm done in the last 10 years cannot be undone. The next steps could not be more important. We cannot afford to be “agnostic” about where our energy comes from if we want a healthy future.
Dr. Graeme McLeay is an anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia
First published in Huffington Post on 15 June 2017