Not Good UN Climate Assessment Of Australia Has Much To Do With Production And Export Of Legacy Fossil Fuels.

Originally published on on July 19, 2021

Australia is well known for its fossil energies. It’s the number 1 coal exporter in the world, and the number 1 exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world.

Australia has been termed the Lucky Country, based on its great deposits of mineral wealth. Of course, its golden beaches and warm climate are hard to beat too – at least up to about 1980 when the global temperature decided to accelerate.

Since then Australia has played with fire, so to speak, with unprecedented wildfires starting in October of 2019, and serious episodes of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. Some report that a third of the reef has been deadened.

So what’s the UN problem with Australia?

As first reported by Renew Economy, the UN has evaluated 193 countries for progress toward meeting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – all items worthy of improving in any country.

Six key SDGs are quality education, universal health coverage, clean energy and industry, sustainable agriculture, sustainable urban infrastructure, and universal access to digital technologies.

For the entire 17 SDGs, Australia scored well and landed 35th out of 165 OEDC countries which means it landed in the top 21% of the countries assessed. Australia scored well on education, public health, and economic performance. Finland, Sweden and Denmark, scored the highest based on all 17 SDGs.

For one energy SDG called affordable and clean energy, Australia came in 48th — still not too bad.

Figure 1. Chart of Australia’s ratings for 17 SDGs.  Source: UN Sustainable Development Report, 2021.

But on the climate action goal (SDG 13), Australia was ranked last, scoring only 10 out of 100. This goal includes progress in (1) emissions from fossil fuel use, (2) emissions embedded in imports and exports, (3) creating a price on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Two reasons for the low ranking are, first, Australia ranks in the top 10 countries in fossil fuel use per capita – for example, they are slow on the uptake of electric cars and trucks. Second, Australia exports high levels of GHG emissions per capita (meaning coal and natural gas), with only two countries ahead of them: Qatar and Norway.

Norway has a curious mix: they have by far the highest uptake of electric vehicles in the world, because their in-country use of renewables (hydropower) is the highest in the world. But what’s exported from Norway are large volumes of oil and gas that are packed with carbon that burns to CO2, the primary GHG.

Legacy energies.

Australia is well known for its fossil energies (Figure 2). It’s the number 1 coal exporter in the world ($33 billion value in 2020). Thriving coal mines lie along the eastern seaboard of Australia – from Queensland down to Victoria.

Australia is the number 1 exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world ($31 billion value in 2020), with Qatar a close second. US is third now but catching up fast and forecast to exceed Australia by 2024.

Two enormous gas resources exist within Australia. The first is the Northwest Shelf where the traditional geology is sandstone. The second is eastern Australia where coalbed methane, also called coal seam gas, sails off to southeast Asia and China and Japan – with only expensive leftover gas available to be used state-wide.

Figure 2. Energy production and consumption in 2019 in Australia versus US (quadrillion Btu).    Source: EIA.

The primary energy legacies in Australia are coal and natural gas which are a huge export and source of revenue for the country. Their gift to the country, and to nations that coal and LNG have been exported to, is cheap and reliable energy that has and continues to lift industry and populations around the world to a higher economic level.

But here’s the rub. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is directly related to energy consumption. Developed countries that have risen to higher GDPs per capita are often countries that have higher GHG per capita, indicative of burning fossil fuels that are responsible for 75% of global GHG emissions.

Take the US and Australia. Two countries vastly different in population, but both have the same GDP per capita and GHG per capita. At $50,000 their GDP per capita lies only behind Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, UAE and Kuwait.

But some have called this a deal with the devil. To raise the GDP for its people, a country spends its treasure and manpower to develop coal mines or drill wells into oil and gas deposits.

But then global warming emerged, attributed largely to fossil fuels, and in the past five years extreme weather events have shown up too often, and have been attributed to global warming. If you have lived in or through one of these events, or lost your home or perhaps even some of your family or friends have died, it has become very real.

The fact is that Australia and the US are both emitting 17 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2018, and Canada is only slightly less. Only six small countries exceed this level of GHG emissions per capita, and four of these lie in the Middle East.

Winding down the energy legacy.

It’s really hard for a country to wind down an energy legacy that’s been so successful. And it’s quite personal for fossil energy companies, especially those in the US that have made the shale revolution such a success. But the transition has started — the snowball of wind, solar, and big-batteries is moving – even though it will take decades.

Government policy has to be a part, setting goals like electrification of cars and net-zero carbon emissions across the whole economy by 2050. Australia has not made this commitment.

Fossil energy companies will need to divest and reinvest in renewables. This is happening in Europe, where there are a growing list of examples, such as the French-based oil and gas major Total renaming itself TotalEnergies, according to one report.  

This company is planning to reduce its oil and gas products with staged targets up until 2030. The strategy is to fund the company’s transition to renewables by using revenues from their fossil fuel assets. They argue that global demand for oil will decrease — but only after 2030.

The report also said that this lies in contrast with the International Energy Agency (IEA) who insist that new projects in fossil energy must stop this year, 2021, if the world is to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. But if new oil and gas projects were halted, global oil and gas production would drop by 4-5% per year, and oil prices would rise.

Individual states can point the way. South Australia, a very small state, has the highest percentage of renewable electricity in the world (60%), as well as one of the largest big-batteries in the world to store and stabilize electric power. This occurred in a country ruled by conservatives with many wary of climate change.

In 2019, Texas, a very large state, would have been the 6th biggest oil and gas producer if it were its own country. What’s not well known is it would also have been the 5th largest producer of wind energy. This was initiated when the state was governed by Rick Perry and many conservatives who were dubious about the claims of climate change.

In both states, new money for renewable energies is coming in at a rapid clip, and this offers to many people a taste of optimism during a debilitating period of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods that dominate the evening news.

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