Can Australian gas help the world navigate the climate crisis? Or is it just more hot air?

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Is Australia’s multibillion dollar gas industry going to help the region and the world decarbonise, as its supporters and the industry claims?

Neat soundbites that gas is less dirty than coal, or factoids suggesting liquefied natural gas exports are pushing out those of more polluting coal, are plentiful and slip easily from the tongue, but are almost always bereft of detail.

The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, was asked last week about the future of one mega-project already approved in his state – Woodside’s $12bn Scarborough LNG development.

On climate change, McGowan said opposing gas sets up a “conundrum” and that “if we don’t provide gas, well, other countries put in more coal”.

Related: Amid the rubble of election defeat, are claims of a dying net zero agenda credible? | Temperature Check

He told reporters that burning coal generated “two or three times the emissions” of gas.

The new resources minister, Madeleine King, in comments reported in The West Australian on Thursday, said countries such as Japan, Korea and China were “demanding our gas for their path to net zero” and LNG projects would help countries “reduce their reliance on other fossil fuels that are higher carbon emitters”.

“Australia’s gas industry is part of a decarbonising world – and it’s urgent,” she said.

There are two huge problems with this, and both should be good reasons for politicians and commentators to hold back with their LNG truisms.

One is the array of questions you need to answer before you can compare the climate impacts of gas to coal, not only in terms of emissions but also the effect that supplying LNG has on the uptake of renewable energy.

Another is that although claims of LNG being significantly less dirty than coal have been made for more than a decade, there is practically no evidence to back this up. There is, however, plenty of analysis showing LNG is only marginally less bad for the climate than coal – some commissioned by the gas industry itself.

Dimitri Lafleur is a carbon analyst at Global Carbon Insights, a research group funded by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. He says statements like those made by McGowan are always “incomplete”.

“Purely on a unit of energy basis, the combustion of gas is 60% of coal emissions. But then you have to look at the quality of the gas, the quality of the coal,” he says, noting you also have to consider what the gas is being used for.

Calculations often ignore the impact of fugitive emissions – the loss of the potent greenhouse gas methane that can leak anywhere along the LNG supply chain – or the emissions from the vast amounts of energy used to liquefy the gas and then regasify the product it at its final destination (the biggest consumer of Australian gas is actually the country’s own LNG industry).

“You need to have all of that in your calculations. It’s misleading to always come back to this idea that gas is only 60% or 50% of the emissions of coal,” Lafleur says.

Mark McGowan
Mark McGowan supports gas as a ‘transition fuel’. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Temperature Check asked McGowan’s office for the basis of his statement that other countries would revert to coal if they were not sold gas, or that gas was less dirty.

The questions were not answered, but a statement said: “The Premier reiterates his support of gas as a transition fuel noting there is strong demand from trading partners looking for lower-emissions energy sources.”

In 2019, Woodside actually commissioned CSIRO to “test the assumption through modelling scenarios that an increase in LNG in Asia will lead to a reduction in GHG emissions and support deployment of renewable electricity generation”.

What was the conclusion? Unsurprisingly, the answer was nuanced, as it should be, but it contrasted with the simplistic claims often made about LNG.

“Gas can assist [greenhouse gas] emissions mitigation during the period when carbon prices or equivalent signals are strong enough to force high renewable electricity generation shares,” it said.

“Until the carbon price reaches that strength, increased gas supply’s impact on emissions reduction is either negative or neutral.

“Also, after renewables have reached a high share, additional gas supply has nothing further to contribute to emission reduction.”

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Australia’s two biggest LNG customers, according to the Office of the Chief Economist, are China and Japan.

Analysis carried out a decade ago by engineering firm WorleyParsons (now known as Worley) looked at the emissions of Australian LNG if it was exported to China and burned in power stations.

The least dirty LNG produced from conventional wells burned in the most efficient gas plants generated 0.65 tonnes of CO2 per megawatt hour. LNG from coal seams (the basis for Queensland’s LNG export industry) was dirtier, at 0.73 tonnes per megawatt hour. This is compared to black coal, which generated 0.78 tonnes per megawatt hour in the most efficient power stations and 1.03 tonnes in the dirtiest.

But crucially the WorleyParsons study noted that when LNG was exported for electricity its greenhouse gas profile was at least 22 times dirtier than wind and 13 times dirtier than nuclear power.

Climate class action

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has promised an “end to the climate wars”. But the newly endorsed opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has signalled he wants to extend this particular cultural battleground to children’s classrooms.

The Sky News host and News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt told Dutton this week that kids were crying with fear over the climate crisis, even though dams were filling, crops were getting bigger and they had “never been less likely to die in a climate catastrophe”.

“Are you going to be the voice that says, look at the science, it’s not the climate crisis a lot of people are saying,” Bolt asked, not mentioning the unprecedented bushfires, floods, sea level rises or the basic physics of the greenhouse effect.

Dutton said: “If it was limited to just environmental issues or climate change then it would be bad enough.

“The extremism of some of the teachers and the language that they use and the approach that they take … But it’s across a broad range of public policy areas.”

Dutton said he wanted to “shine a light” on the issue and teachers should be able to “stick to the facts”, claiming “many teachers out there are incredibly frustrated by what’s taking place”.

Prof Amy Cutter-Mackenzie, the dean of Southern Cross University’s faculty of education and an expert in environmental education, says Dutton’s words don’t ring true.

“That is not a perspective I am hearing. In fact, I have not heard that from anyone in the educational community,” she tells Temperature Check.

“Children are so far beyond whether climate change is human induced or not.

“The suggestion teachers are scaremongering with the curriculum is utterly false. It’s not about scaremongering. It’s about understanding the world.”

Going nuclear

In the Australian newspaper, commentator Claire Lehmann was out advocating for “small modular nuclear reactors”. This sounds neat and tidy but the phrase covers a vast array of theoretical approaches and designs to build small nuclear power plants.

The World Nuclear Association lists only five small reactors currently operating.

In her advocacy, Lehmann claimed that while many environmentalists were opposed to nuclear power, they ignored that solar panels could “leak toxic heavy metals” and that wind turbines were responsible for “killing large numbers” of native birds.

Related: Coalition scrapped recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats in one of its final acts

The number of birds that die from flying into windows, or being eaten by cats, dwarfs the small number that die when they fly into turbine blades.

But Lehmann’s complaints about the potential for solar panels to leak while advocating for nuclear energy was unfortunately timed.

She wasn’t to know that just days later a study would appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that any future development and deployment of small modular reactors would “increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal by factors of 2 to 30”, depending on the design.

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