As a young adult living in WA I am dismayed to see the vast gulf between the latest climate science and observations, and the decisions being made by our State Government. Certainly, 2012 was a year of extreme climate events: the Arctic sea ice reached a new record low summer melt; the Greenland ice sheet experienced an unprecedented melt with 97% of its surface thawing over four days in July; temperature records tumbled around the world; and prominently, the USA suffered wildfires, drought and super-storm Sandy.
Here in Australia, we just experienced a January with seven consecutive days of national-average maximum temperatures above 39°C. This smashes the previous record of four days in 1972. Perth experienced a record eight heat waves last summer, while Perth metro recorded its 12th driest year on record and the driest July in 137 years, with just 34.6 mm.
Contrast this to the decisions being made in WA. The Barnett government removed all CO2 emission requirements for the Wheatstone and Browse basin projects, the impact will be equivalent to the emissions of 650,000 homes. These two LNG projects alone will increase WA’s emissions by more than 60%! And that’s not even taking into account the emissions caused by burning the fuel – that’s just from processing it.
Add to this, plans to develop unconventional onshore gas through hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’). In November, the government signed an agreement to facilitate the exploration of the Canning Basin in the Kimberley, which is estimated to be the fifth largest reserve in the world. The development of that field could mean over 100,000 fracking wells across the Kimberley, not only adding to our climate woes, but potentially polluting water and degrading some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes.
Along with the decision to refurbish Muja power station, which we recently learnt has experienced a cost blow out of over $100 million. Instead of locking in another 30 years of coal, how much renewable energy could have been built for a quarter of a billion dollars? Not to mention the demolition of the state Climate Change Unit and the release, after four years, of a State Climate Change Policy that has been described by prominent Australian scientist Ian Lowe as a ‘ten page picture book’.
Internationally, world governments have agreed that we must stay below a 2°C ‘guardrail’ of warming to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Although we should note that, given the impacts we are now seeing with only 0.8°C of warming, most scientists now consider even 2°C unsafe.
A key question that faces us is: how much CO2 can we emit before 2050 to stay below 2°C?
Scientific studies have attempted to answer this question, with results suggesting that we can emit a further 550 Giga tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GT CO2), if we are to give ourselves an 80% chance of staying below 2°C. With business-as-usual – that is, on our current emissions path – we’re likely to have used that up by 2026, nearly 25 years ahead of schedule. This is why both the World Bank and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released reports late last year saying we’re heading for 4°C plus of warming. A catastrophic future to say the least.
If that’s not scary enough, there’s another important question to ask: how much CO2 is contained within the currently known reserves of oil, coal and gas? The answer is that there are over 2795 GT of CO2 equivalent in known reserves. More than five times what we can ‘safely’ release!
This has massive implications for fossil fuel companies like Chevron and Woodside. What if 80% of your product could never be burnt? Ever. The world’s second largest bank, HSBC, just released a report suggesting oil and gas multinationals could lose 60% of their market value, if we strive to limit climate change, as we must. Hence a recent campaign in the USA by 350.org to get public institutions, especially universities, to divest shares in fossil fuel companies.
It doesn’t much matter that gas emits less CO2 at the point of combustion than coal, as the International Energy Agency has noted that overall emissions associated with a “golden age of gas” would still result in exceeding our greenhouse gas budget in much the same way. All emissions count, and all emissions will push us closer to the edge of tipping points, where natural feedback loops take matters out of our hands.
Given these numbers, the implications for our current direction are huge. The decisions being made in WA have global consequences. So, what about the leaders of our state? Will they break the climate silence of this state election campaign? Will we hear discussion of these numbers? And most important, will there be meaningful action after the election? I hope so, our future depends on it.