Don’t believe the hype on natural gas. It’s a fossil fuel just like coal | Fiona Stanley, Graeme Pearman & Richard Yin | Opinion

Australia is currently aggressively developing its natural gas resource. By the end of 2018, it is likely to overtake Qatar as the world’s largest liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter.

Western Australia is leading the way on developing gas with the premier, Mark McGowan, calling for the state to be a global LNG hub. Recently businessman Andrew Forrest announced a radical plan to create a “virtual gas pipeline” linking WA gas to the east while Chevron over the weekend committed to the second stage of its multi-billion dollar Gorgon project expansion.

The scale of the developments in WA is enormous: a recent report states that the total global emissions from all of WA’s gas reserves (conventional and unconventional) is equivalent to 36.4bn tonnes of C02, that is eight times more than the planned Adani coal mine would produce in its lifetime.

The domestic carbon footprint from exploiting WA’s unconventional gas reserves, currently subject to a fracking inquiry, would be three times the amount Australia could emit if it were to comply with the Paris Agreement.

Chevron’s Wheatstone project, one of four LNG facilities currently operating in WA’s northwest, is set to release 10.4m tonnes of CO2 annually, a staggering 12% of the state’s total emissions. Yet currently there is no requirement for the company to offset these emissions.

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Gas has been promoted as a “bridging” fuel in the transition to a zero-carbon economy, due to its greater flexibility and lower emissions when compared to coal. However, it is still a fossil fuel with significant greenhouse gas emissions on combustion. Furthermore, any advantage it has over coal is lost with even small rates of leakage, as methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. There are limits to gas use if we are to keep to a global carbon budget that restricts warming to less than 2°C as agreed to in Paris.

The continuing growth of the gas sector contributes significantly to Australia’s rising domestic emissions. So, what would happen if we continue to develop our gas resources without consideration of emissions from this industry? What would this mean for the health of our nation?

With the current 1°C of warming above pre-industrial levels Australia is already experiencing severe climatic impacts. Increasing heat and rainfall extremes, bushfires and storms have already directly affected the health of many Australians both physically and psychologically. Those most vulnerable in our communities – children, older Australians and the economically disadvantaged – are already disproportionately affected.In the longer term are the agricultural and socioeconomic consequences of reduced rainfall and droughts on food production and changing patterns of infectious diseases such as dengue and Ross River virus.

Further warming will undermine many of the global health gains secured over the last century. The impacts of climate change will unfairly affect people in developing nations, the poorest in those countries, those least able to cope and those least responsible for the problem.

The good news is that WA and most parts of Australia have an abundance of renewable resources, notably wind and solar, critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel required in battery technology, a technically advanced workforce able to progress renewable-based hydrogen and the potential to export electricity to Indonesia and other neighbouring countries.

If we want our children to have a healthy and sustainable future and do our fair share in addressing climate change, we need government and business to see beyond the short term. We need to begin now to transition to an economy that harnesses our renewable resources and prepares us for zero-carbon future. Most importantly we need government to provide a coherent policy framework for Australia to meet its Paris Agreement and urgently reduce our rising emissions.

  • Fiona Stanley and Richard Yin are members of Doctors for the Environment Australia. Graeme Pearman is an adjunct senior research fellow at the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University