Australia needs help from the US to defuse the ‘gas bomb’

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A recent UN report states that reducing human-caused methane emissions is a most cost-effective strategy to rapidly reduce the rate of global warming and limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.S. may succeed in reducing methane. Australia has no intention of doing so.

Currently, the world is threatened by a metaphorical “gas bomb” and lack of action by the U.S., Australia and a few other countries could light the fuse and explode any hope of curbing world greenhouse emissions before 2030 — so essential if zero emissions targets are to be delivered by 2050 or preferably before. Indeed a leaked forthcoming IPCC report is expected to indicate that greenhouse emissions must peak within four years with coal and gas-fired power plants closing in the next decade to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Methane has 86 times the forcing ability of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide and will act to increase world temperature over the next two to three decades whereas carbon dioxide acts over centuries.

More than half of global methane emissions are produced by humans with fossil fuels accounting for 35 percent, agriculture 40 percent and waste 20 percent.

The initial encouraging national response by many countries to the Herculean tasks set by the IPCC is becoming clouded by prevarications and overt unwillingness to take the obvious initial step, stop more drilling for gas. Australia is devoted to retaining the world gold medal as the leading exporter of gas and the industry proudly states “The Australian government estimates our exports have the potential to lower emissions in LNG-importing countries by about 170 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents a year, by providing an alternative to higher-emissions fuels.”

But when you consider that Australian and U.S. research shows unequivocally that the leakage of methane at various points in the production cycle makes the emission profile the same as, or even greater, than coal — the industry framing is misleading

Recently, United States deputy climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said Australia should be considering a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2030, currently 26 to 28 percent. This has been rejected.

It is difficult to see this current target achieved by Australia without stopping new gas development, reducing production from existing wells and arresting their leakage of methane.

Currently, Australia has a post-COVID-19 policy of “a gas led recovery” which is pursued and subsidized with fervor under the guise of the needs of the local market whereas the development of five huge new gas basins is for export.

Consequently, it is of deep concern that under President Biden, the U.S. Interior Department has approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands. Leadership to other countries including Australia will require painful curtailment despite the U.S. perception that it cannot manage without the concomitant production of oil from these drills.

Equally important is the reduction of fugitive emissions and leaks from existing wells and during distribution and storage. This has been a difficult task with thousands of wells requiring supervision although leakage can now be detected by specialized cameras on aircraft which paves the way for regulation.

In addition, the U.S. government could now lead on the localization of worldwide methane leakage with the development of satellite imaging. The publication of such data for all countries at the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow would apply pressure to many countries and certainly to Australia.

A review of numerous scientific studies over the past decade has shown that communities living within and near to U.S. gas fields suffer a range of health problems, such as asthma exacerbations, sinus conditions and migraines, skin rashes, fatigue and headaches and hospitalizations for heart failure and heart attacks, neurological, respiratory, immune system diseases and some cancers.  There are observations of higher frequencies of low birth weight, extreme pre-term delivery, higher risk births and some birth defects, in pregnancies spent closer (around 2 or 3 km) to gas drilling activities, compared to pregnancies spent further away, or in the same area before commencement of gas production.

These findings are complex and difficult to prove but certainly merit the use of the precautionary principle in determining the future safety of fracking for gas production.

These U.S. findings have been raised repeatedly by communities in Australia opposing the development of gas fields and have been disregarded. However, proponents of development point out that the U.S. would have acted on their own research findings had they been of consequence. Once again U.S. leadership would impact other nations. Australian government links to the fossil fuel industry have prevented any such research.

The expected outcomes of the climate change crisis are beyond the comprehension of many. Scientists display the most foreboding and anxiety because of their understanding. Many choose to be childless. Most politicians in democracies remain at the other end of the anxiety scale, mostly worrying about giving their voters everlasting prosperity through economic growth. Climate change is now the ultimate threat to democracy unless our leaders act courageously to protect their citizens.

The overarching problem today is not Afghanistan, Russia, China, cyberattacks or even COVID-19, for these pale to insignificance compared to the predicted outcomes of the recent IPCC report.

The U.S. must avoid increasing oil and gas production at all costs for this will demonstrate leadership to others. The World War II Emergency Shipbuilding Program could be re-enacted as the emergency electric vehicle program to move faster than current promises of 40 percent by 2030.

The importance to Australia? Action by the U.S. will increase public understanding of this issue and pressure will grow on our government when our close ally acts with leadership. Biden must lead this initiative — the rest of the world is watching.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Tags Climate change CO2 David Shearman emissions Global warming Greenhouse gas IPCC Joe Biden Methane
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