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Australia is either Green genius or Kyoto-criminal depending on fires and forests: Tom Quirk

Posted By Joanne Nova On November 5, 2013 @ 8:07 pm In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

Tom Quirk has taken look at the numbers for the Australian Government’s direct action plan (someone had to do it). Not surprisingly in a vast nation with hardly any people, the numbers that matter are the ones about “land-use” — which means anthropogenic changes to farms and forests.  Electricity is our largest emitter of CO2, but without shutting down the nation there are no easy gains to be had. Demand is inelastic.  Cuts are expensive. Renewables are pathetic. Ditto for industry and agriculture. Whether we meet our targets and whether there is P-A-I-N all depends on whether we count the CO2 molecules that come and go from agricultural land and managed forests.

The big question then is do we pretend those CO2 molecules coming and going from plants, soils, lakes and animals are irrelevant? (Greenpeace and the EU seem to think that’s a good plan). It’s a make or break thing in the carbon accounting world. But if carbon is causing global warming, surely all CO2 molecules are equally to blame. However only net emissions caused by humans (and which wouldn’t have been emitted naturally) count towards the national tallies and targets.

If we are to save 5% from our 2000 emissions, the figure to aim for is either 5% less than 500Mt of CO2 (if we ignore “land use” changes) or 5% less than 550Mt (if we count the CO2 involved in “land-use”).  If we ignore the CO2 in land-use, things are tough for Australia. We start at 500Mt, are at 552Mt now, and are headed for 594Mt by 2020 instead of 475Mt. We need to find savings of about 120Mt — a huge 20% of net emission levels. Instead, if we include CO2 in land-use, we start at 550Mt, are at (who knows) 511Mt and are aiming for 525Mt, which is pretty close to where we are headed (subject to accounting methods). And if we included fire and oceans all bets would be off, but we don’t because they are not “anthropogenic”.*

Bizarrely, fire is an Act of God, so it doesn’t count at all in natural forests (natural forest and “natural” fires are not included in Kyoto agreements). That leads to a perverse incentive where in a managed forest, Governments might want to grow a crop of trees then burn them catastrophically. The CO2 going in gets taken off the tally, and the CO2 going out is invisible. As it happens, most of the carbon in the trees and debris goes up in smoke but about 1% becomes charcoal, which is stored in  the soil for thousands of years because it is chemically and physically inert — permanently sequestered by humans. This is of course a joke and not seriously considered anywhere, but the perverse incentive exists under carbon accounting rules.

Quirk notes that the numbers on land use are highly variable. In 2011, for some reason (perhaps an accounting change) the land use changes wiped out nearly half the entire emissions from all the cars, planes, trains, trucks and buses in Australia. I didn’t hear the Greens celebrate.

I have long said that attaching monetary value to a basic molecule of life is stupid, and I’ll say it again. These numbers prove my point. We can’t account for it, most of the players can’t pay (because they are gum trees), the loop-holes are bigger than the loops, and we have to defy chemistry and treat identical molecules of CO2 as if they are not the same.

Does Greenpeace want more Green? It doesn’t seem so.  — Jo

 

 

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The Australian ¡®Direct Action¡± plan to reduce CO2 emissions

With the looming demise of the carbon tax, imposed not to reduce emissions but to prolong the life of a minority government, we are faced with an alternative of ¡°Direct Action¡± to meet our Kyoto target of 2020 CO2 emissions being 5% less than that in 2000. This approach may be unique amongst developed countries as its success will depend on how much CO2 can be absorbed by modifying farming and forestry in the very large land mass of Australia, ¡°adjustments¡± made to the accounting protocols for CO2 emissions, and the use of uncertainties in measurements.

The Australian anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases as estimated by the Department of the Environment and Climate Change are given by sector and total in Table 1 along with estimates for the year 2020 based on the performance of each sector from 2002 to 2012. The estimates of fugitive emissions and agriculture largely depend on estimates of methane emissions[1] that have large uncertainties. Similarly there are large uncertainties for land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). Table 1 also shows the average annual changes in emissions and the projected amounts for 2020 based on the average annual increases.

Table 1 Australian CO2 equivalent emissions in millions of tonnes

Year Stationary energy Trans-port Fugitiveemissions Industrialprocesses Agri-culture Waste

Total net

Emissions

(excluding

 LULUCF)

Land use change and forestry

Total net

Emissions

(including

 LULUCF)

Elect-

ricity

Other

2000

500.0

550.0

 

2002

186.4

79.5

76.2

34.4

28.0

91.1

13.9

509.5

70.8

580.3

2003

186.5

82.4

78.9

34.2

29.4

89.9

13.2

514.5

44.2

558.7

2004

196.6

84.5

80.9

35.3

29.1

89.7

13.0

529.1

49.6

578.7

2005

195.5

85.9

81.0

36.0

29.5

89.5

12.7

530.1

74.3

604.4

2006

201.8

86.8

82.0

38.2

30.0

88.3

12.8

539.9

69.0

608.9

2007

202.5

88.3

84.4

40.4

31.1

86.6

13.1

546.4

58.4

604.8

2008

208.2

89.7

85.4

40.1

32.0

85.4

13.3

554.1

31.9

586.0

2009

204.9

87.6

85.0

40.0

29.1

82.7

13.4

542.7

17.7

560.4

2010

199.6

94.6

86.1

42.3

33.2

82.9

13.1

551.8

28.3

580.1

2011

200.1

93.5

89.0

38.9

32.9

86.0

12.8

553.2

-40.3

511.9

2012

190.8

94.2

91.5

42.3

32.3

88.0

12.8

551.9

Average annual increases in emissions from 2002 to 2012 in Mt CO2-e per year

 

Mt CO2

per yr

1.01

1.40

1.31

0.81

0.45

-0.62

-0.04

4.31

-8.54

-3.68

Projected annual emissions for 2020 based on the average annual increases

 

2020

210.6

106.2

100.7

48.9

36.4

79.2

12.5

594.5

-74.9

527.8

 

The target for the year 2020 is emissions 5% below the level in 2000. This is either a reduction to 475 Mt or 525 Mt CO2-e with and without the land use changes. This requires a reduction of 120 Mt CO2-e without land use changes from the projected 2020 total emissions of 595 Mt of CO2-e. It is not possible to get an estimate of land use changes owing to the erratic variations of the annual values (see values shaded green in Table 1).

Some 66% of emissions come from stationary energy and transport. Table 1 shows annual increases in these sectors. The Australian population may grow by 10% from 2012 to 2020 (ABS models of population growth) and it is unlikely that stationary energy use or transport use of fossil fuels will fall significantly.

The Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme with 20% of electricity from renewables by 2020 would give about a 40 Mt reduction in the electricity contribution to CO2 emissions. However the present impact of this scheme is uncertain as the decline in electricity use after 2008 and hence emissions may be partly due to a drop in economic activity or the carbon tax that started in July 2012.  Since the growth in electricity demand has fallen since the RET was set, there are already calls for reducing the target and the success or failure of the scheme is not determinable at this time.

The effect of the RET if fully met still leaves a balance of 80 Mt to be found from other activities. This cannot be found from reductions in any combinations of the remaining emission sectors except perhaps in land use changes (see Table 1).

The net emission changes in land use, land use change and forestry vary quite markedly from year to year. In addition they vary quite markedly by the year in which they are reported. The components of this are shown in Table 2 and are taken from the website of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat…

Table 2 Emissions from land use, land use change and forestry

 

Estimated emissions in Mt CO2-e

Land use

1990

reported in 2009

1990

reported in 2012

2011

reported in 2012

Deforestation

132.2

Forest land

-47.3

-45.6

-102.1

Cropland

-0.3

33.3

16.1

Grassland

89.1

123.2

48.6

Other

-4.4

-2.9

Total

173.6

106.6

-40.3

 

The changes in forestry are said to be the shift from harvesting in old growth forests to the use of plantations. What is remarkable is the variation of this contribution as this shift has been taking place over many years. What it may well illustrate is the use of uncertainties in measurement to yield a favourable result. There have also been changes in accounting rules. As an example trees felled in forests were treated as immediately converted to CO2 but now accounting may be delayed until the CO2 from the wood actually enters the atmosphere! [Note from Jo -- David Evans --carbon modeler, says that our Kyoto accounting program has allowed for slow decay for as long as he can remember, around 2000 onwards.]  Bush fires are treated as ¡°acts of God¡± but as He or She is not anthropogenic (an interesting philosophical question), these emissions are no longer included.

The Coalition Direct Action Plan as detailed before the election of the Abbott Government had two main programmes:

  1. An Emission Reduction Fund to bring emissions down by 140 Mt CO2-e by 2020 thus meeting the target of emissions 5% below that in 2000. This fund, capped at about $3 billion, would ¡°buy¡± reductions by paying companies to produce fewer emissions.  This fund might assist old power stations to be modified to reduce CO2 emissions such as the conversion of brown coal burning stations to using gas. An expensive exercise in rebuilding boilers and using more expensive gas. An example is to compare the short run marginal cost of brown coal burning Hazelwood at $6 per MWh to Newport, with gas fired boilers at $40 per MWh. So changing fuel source is not the answer if you do not want to add to the cost of generating electricity and Australia needs to keep the advantage of low cost electricity. Innovations will not be easy to find and will take time to develop and demonstrate. How they might be implemented without adding to costs is the key and unanswered question.

The other area of activity that might yield some reduction in emissions is farming and forestry. Landcare Australia, spending a modest $6 to $8 million per year, has achieved some notable demonstrations of how returning carbon to the soil can increase crop yields as well as removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Chapter 22 of the Garnaut Report discusses some of the possibilities and opportunities for absorbing CO2 emissions through changes in land use.

Perhaps the greatest example of land recovery is the experience of the Dust Bowl in the United States and Canadian prairies in the 1930s. Extensive plowing of the virgin topsoil displaced the deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds but applying dry-land farming methods gave rise to a recovery.

There is also a promise to plant 20 million trees in public spaces with no estimate of the resulting reduction of emissions. The higher levels of atmospheric CO2 should enhance tree growth, just as the forests in the far northern hemisphere have been growing at about 1% a year for the last 40 years.

The fund will spend its $3 billion over the next 3 to 4 years.

  1. Direct action on renewable energy is a promise of more subsidies for solar, tidal and geothermal installations. There is $100 million a year for domestic solar panels, $100 million a year for Solar Towns and Schools and $50 million a year for Geothermal and Tidal Towns. (And don¡¯t worry about sea level rises.) This does not help innovation where the driving force is either meeting a present need at a lower cost or meeting an unmet need which is not the case for electricity.

There may be a real benefit from the Direct Action plan if, in addressing farming of grassland and cropland, there is a significant rise in farm productivity from better use of soils and carbon as a fertiliser. This would thus pay for itself and would be a true innovation.

Any moderation of CO2 emissions will take a considerable time to have an appreciable impact, quite apart from the delays in auditing the claims of CO2 emission reduction.

However forestry changes resulting from accounting changes might deliver the desired reduction of our emissions to 5% less than the year 2000 emissions.

Greenpeace, the major transnational franchisee on climate, has become so upset by this possibility, calling it ¡°Australia¡¯s carbon scam¡± that they commissioned an analysis from the ANU Centre for Climate Law and Policy[2].The report discusses how, with suitable drafting of the emissions reporting protocol for land use, land use change and forestry, Australia might not need to take any active steps to reduce emissions but simply shelter behind the accounting rules that would allow the reductions of emissions to the agreed 2020 target.

The conclusion is that the policies of Direct Action will have little or no effect on our direct emissions of CO2. However the policies offer a double benefit from the Kyoto protocol escape clauses sheltering the direct emissions and the improvement of agricultural yields giving real economic benefits, a very significant achievement in itself.

The Kyoto protocol changes were proposed by Labor before the election of the Abbott Government. So the outgoing government may have bequeathed a great benefit to the new government and to the country.

 


[1] In the new 2013 IPCC Summary for Policymakers the projections to 2100 for atmospheric methane are kept at the present level and will have no additional effect except for one scary and unjustifiable scenario where methane has more than doubled by 2100. This is no doubt to keep the maximum temperature and sea level rises in play ¨C see: http://www.henrythornton.com/article.asp?article_id=6620

[2] http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/en/news/climate/lulucf-australia-s-carbon-sca/

 *Except for arson and army mistakes.

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