March 20, 2021

Let’s consider all facts in the emissions debate: APPEA in the media

Note: This article was originally published in The Australian on Friday 19 March 2021.

It’s not surprising that a combination of complex science, highly complicated markets, fast-moving international economic conditions and vocal interest groups has seen a polarised, binary and, at times, illogical debate about the role of gas in our future energy mix. Sadly, in this binary debate we may fail to understand that what is completely factual, is not always factually complete.

The factually complete argument would, in Australia, tell us that reliable energy is immediately available to us because we have a range of energy sources available. We can access renewables as easily as installing solar panels on our home, and turn on our gas heater or our gas cooktop in seconds. We can smelt steel and aluminium and ensure the provision of base-load power with fuels like natural gas that make the uptake of renewable energy possible. Technology is a real option with established projects, a well-capitalised industry, strong policy frameworks, skilled labour, and existing infrastructure.

The factually complete argument would also recognise that we are part of a global community in which different nations are at different points in their energy journey. More than 2.6 billion people live without adequate energy security, where cooking with dung or wood is the norm and there is inadequate access to clean cooking fuel or reliable electricity. Without reliable electricity it is very difficult to keep lights on so children can study, or keep refrigerators running to preserve food or medicines.

For each advancement we make in reducing emissions through technology here, equally as important is every home and town in our neighbouring countries that we can shift away from dangerous and high emissions fuels and to whom we can bring energy security, which in turn brings economic security and geopolitical stability. The Australian government estimates that our exports of liquefied natural gas help reduce emissions in importing countries by about 170 million tonnes each year — the equivalent of almost one-third of Australia’s total annual emissions.

In Vietnam 46 gigawatts of new coal-fired electricity is either planned or under construction. But what if Vietnam could have greater access to natural gas in the form of LNG imports? Coal to gas switching globally could result in 5 gigatonnes of emissions reduction. Offset against 2.1 gigatonnes of emissions from LNG production and the overall net benefit globally would be 2.9 gigatonnes of emissions reduction within the next five years or so.

It is completely factual that under a net zero by 2050 scenario there could be up to 1.2 billion electric vehicles on the road. Recognising there is the equivalent of about 7000 lithium-ion batteries in each Tesla Model S, this means we will need 8.4 trillion batteries. The factually complete analysis should recognise that less than 5 per cent of these batteries are currently recycled and the key ingredients in every lithium-ion battery are mined from the earth, with the energy for that mining sourced almost universally from oil and natural gas because of the energy efficiency it provides.

When Tesla built (what was then) the world’s largest battery in South Australia in 2017 it created capacity to deliver 100 megawatts of stored electricity into the grid. The battery proposed for Yallourn will deliver about 360 megawatts. Both are crucial in helping to provide grid stability and security. But we need to also understand the Tesla battery can provide about six minutes of electricity to the state, while the Yallourn battery will provide about four hours of capacity.

This is absolutely crucial and technology will continue to see further improvements, but let’s not forget that blackouts in SA, Texas, or many other places have on occasion run for days, not hours. We risk our own wellbeing if we close our minds and our logic to ensuring we have access to the full range of energy sources available to us.

The factually complete approach is therefore to recognise that reducing emissions from the energy we consume is the end game — it is neither practical nor emotionally or economically responsible to eliminate fuels such as natural gas or oil. We should be focused on cleaning up energy, not getting rid of it.

The lack of sophistication and understanding in arguments surrounding emissions reduction and energy security risk are undermining the speed of the transition already well under way. We have a responsibility — economically, environmentally and morally — to move away from the single, ethical binary arguments which, while passionately argued, do little to actually take us forward.

We should not and do not need to make a choice between industry development and emissions reduction. Policy makers must recognise that Australian industry is innovative and responsive, supporting industry to develop its own solutions, and not forcing solutions upon us that will increase risk, decrease investment, actually slow emissions reduction and impact energy security.