Climate change: Australia’s position is unconscionable for a wealthy country
By David Shearman
“There is no planet B” says President Macron in an electrifying speech to Congress, yet for most of us climate change is of much less concern than the cost of living, taxes, schools and health services.
As a slow creeping threat, “unlikely to affect me much anyway”, climate change is easy to dismiss and therefore is never high on the election stakes where it is easy for our leaders to say they are doing everything they should — which they are not.
So as a doctor, why am I distressed by the announcement that gas resources in NT are to be developed and fracked?
After all, the NT government indicates it can be managed safely, will occur in sparsely populated regions, will bring jobs and profits for shareholders and restitution for languishing state and federal budgets?
The Adani coal mine has signalled to the world more than any spoken word that the Australian Government does not understand or care about climate change.
Development of Northern Territories huge gas reserves will produce even more emissions than Adani, with a measurable increase in world and domestic emissions.
Australia has no treaty obligation to reduce the export of gas.
Gas mining on hold in many countries
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported recently that the Earth’s greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels had increased by 1.4 per cent in 2017 after three years of flat emissions. The goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change are in jeopardy.
In Australia in 2017, emissions increased by 0.8 per cent, the third yearly consecutive increase.
The IEA report indicates that natural gas demand in the world, which includes unconventional gas, is increasing rapidly and now supplies 22 per cent of total energy. If other gas developments proceed in WA, Australia is likely to be the world’s greatest exporter of gas as well as of coal.
Recognising the threats from climate change, many countries have decided on “no new coal mines” or delayed or stopped also have delayed or stopped unconventional gas mining on either local health or emission concerns.
Health and the rising level of greenhouse emissions
To the World Health Organisation, climate change is the greatest health threat of this century, a view recognised by the statements of the Australian Medical Association.
It is responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide from storm, flood, fire, drought and hunger and a range of other causes including infections.
Deaths are projected to rise to 250,000 by 2030.
Many doctors find Australia’s position unconscionable for a wealthy country.
We are trading more wealth for lives lost, mainly those living in less developed, poorer countries, those least able to care for themselves.
The desperate pleas for emission reduction by our neighbours in the Pacific Island States under threat or existing inundation are ignored.
Australia absolves itself by indicating it will fulfil its fair share of emission reduction under the Paris Agreement, but even that is in doubt and ignores the fact that wealthy technological nations are positioned to offer leadership and have the capacity to carry greater responsibility to do more against climate change.
These attitudes stem from a failure to recognise our collective responsibility to act, for we all share the same atmosphere and finite resource of freshwater, biodiversity and productive land which are currently threatened by increasing climate change.
As we burn carbon we also burn whatever hope our children and grandchildren will have of having a safe climate in the future. Our legacy to them will rather be an increasingly dangerous and unstable climate.
NT contribution to Australia’s emissions
The gases that leak from gas exploration, mining and sealing of wells are called fugitive emissions; add leaks during transport, loading, distribution and then the burning of gas and you have the full life cycle emissions.
What is fracking?
• Fracking is used to extract gases, such as coal seam, tight and shale gas by pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into rock, fracturing it to release trapped gasses
• There are concerns the chemicals could contaminate groundwater supplies and threaten agricultural industries
Recent science indicates that with leakage rates as little as 3 per cent, emissions from gas are no better than coal fired power stations.
Fugitive measurements in Australian gas fields are poorly regulated and are currently unknown.
In the US, emissions from unconventional gas mining range from 2 per cent to 17 per cent.
The NT government report acknowledges the problem and hopes piously “that the NT and Australian governments seek to ensure that there is no net increase in the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions emitted in Australia from any onshore shale gas produced in the NT”.
This hope remains unfulfilled in any Australian gas field.
The development of NT gas will inevitably cause an increase in Australia’s domestic emissions, as it did in Queensland.
France banned fracking in 2011. President Macron brings “Planet B” to Australia soon.
Dr David Shearman is the honorary secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University.
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