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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Safeguard mechanisms and climate bombs

The UK Independent newspaper ran a remarkable line about the deal between the Greens and the Australian Government on the so-called Safeguard Mechanism. “Australia takes historic step towards making big polluters accountable for emissions”.

Leaving aside that the biggest polluter in Australia is entirely off the hook, meaning the cattle industry, the Safeguard Mechanism only affects 28% of Australia’s emissions. It shows a remarkable absence of ambition when tackling 28% of the problem gets you the “historic” tag.

All of Australia’s significant political parties, including the Greens, have a long record of supporting our biggest climate polluter, the cattle industry. The Greens distinguish themselves by not only supporting that biggest polluter but preferentially supporting the form of that industry that produces the most greenhouse gases per kilogram of product; namely extensive cattle grazing. Green opposition to factory farms is laudable, but their support of grazing and uncritical acceptance of methane reducing feed technologies shows a desperation to compromise on policy integrity in order to pander to those with a romantic view of traditional animal farming as some kind of warm and cuddly activity. Or perhaps they are just concerned for the job prospects for bowel cancer surgeons if we see a reduction in the primary cause of that cancer in Australia.

Methane reduction treatments have been a glint in the eye of cattle industry propagandists for as long as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been a glint in the eye of the coal industry. The Greens are rightly sceptical about the ability of CCS to solve coal’s emission problems, so why are they so quick to accept the claims of low methane cattle production? Here’s a 1982 paper with claims of 70% reduction in methane. Feeding something to cattle in feedlots may well be feasible, but methane produced during feedlotting in Australia is only about 6% of total cattle methane.

Everybody loves it when politicians talk tough about “Making the big polluters pay!”, but these 212 companies “only” produce about 136 million of our total of almost 500 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s where the 28% figure I used above comes from.

So clearly, dealing with “the big polluters” isn’t enough.

Back in 2018, Justice Rachel Pepper produced a remarkable report into fracking in the Northern Territory. You have probably heard the words “Beetaloo Basin” being kicked around the political footy field. Who remembers the oil crisis of the 1970s? And all the talk of peak oil 20 years ago? And when the US was worried about oil security? That all changed with the development of methods to pull oil and gas from shale. As a result, the US now has energy independence and has been able to largely bail out Europe by a massive increase in Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exports. The Beetaloo is gas rather than oil, but it’s a deposit on the scale of those US basins. It’s massive. Other possible gas or oil shales in the NT are numerous but many aren’t well explored or understood.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) quoted Adam Bandt as saying:

Beetaloo will be a climate bomb, and we have to stop it from going ahead,

The Pepper report compared gasfield methane to cattle methane;

"...that [fugitive] methane emissions from any new onshore shale gas field in the NT … would be similar to the methane emissions from … livestock in the NT"

What are fugitive emissions? Just a fancy word for leaks; from the ground as a result of disturbance, from wells and from pipes. Their size is endlessly debated because they are tough to measure. When we export gas, the leaks are the component of the emissions that end up on our greenhouse gas inventory as our responsibility. When you burn the gas, on the other hand as a customer, the result is CO2, which has about 100 times less warming impact (when you add in the indirect impacts) over a 20-year period than the gas if it leaks. So a 2-3 percent leak of natural gas (aka methane) has a climate more than the total impact from burning the other 97-98 percent. That’s why leaks are a really big deal!

Oh yes, I should point out that the comparison assumed a fairly small gas production figure, mostly domestic, not the really massive kind that Beetaloo is capable of supporting.

Also, keep in mind that the NT only has about 1.7 million of our 25 million cattle.

So, as climate bombs go, cattle are right up there Adam, despite you and your party’s astonishing persistence in ignoring the issue while claiming the climate high moral ground.

The emissions when the gas is used are over and above this, and the Pepper report recommends clearly that all of the emissions associated with any such gas field be offset, but offset in the country using the gas. Pepper’s recommendation that lifecycle emissions of any such gas projects be fully offset could be seen as a classic strategy of strangling the project with red tape while appearing to give measured support. Alternatively, you can view it as telling an industry which talks big on sequestration of carbon and preventing methane leaks to start walking the talk …or pay in offsets.

The problem for the Government is not that they love gas, I don't believe that. But unlike the Greens, they get it that you can't smash the old energy infrastructure until the new one is finished; which it isn't. It won't be finished until you can supply the evening peak electricity demand, including a bunch of electricity hungry EVs wanting to charge. The Greens are adept at stopping things, not starting them. They aren't builders, their idea of a complex project is planning the slogans for a campaign. They haven't yet worked out that in backing renewables, they have become partners with huge multinational miners; with companies like those in China who ruthlessly exploit minorities (not just Uyghurs) and are at the top of any league table of polluters. They are partners with all those companies carving up African resources. They are now partners with loggers and wood chippers feeding the biomass backup plants to firm up grids in Germany and the UK. They are now partners with the thousands of dams being built and planned, again to firm up wind and solar grids. They think by opposing ocean mining they are protecting the ocean, but fishing and offshore windfarms make ocean mining look positively benign.

The Greens haven't yet worked out that they are now on the wrong side. They haven't flipped to nuclear and still defend cattle farmers.

Regardless of the complexities of cleaning up electricity and other parts of our energy infrastructure, the situation with cattle (and sheep) is blindingly simple. Stop eating it. It causes bowel cancer anyway, thousands of cases annually, so it's not like it's good for anybody. In many of its commonly consumed forms, people can't actually tell the difference between real beef and current alternatives. Unlike gas, we have an alternative now; not in the future, we have sheep and cattle meat alternatives now. This is a climate bomb we don't need.

Regardless of your view on Pepper’s recommendations, I’ve never heard Bandt talk about cattle being a “climate bomb” or even a “climate firecracker”. He’s totally missing in action on Australia’s biggest climate driver.

Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to show the balls or ovaries required to put down their soy latte and step out into the dusty street at noon to face down the cowboys.

It isn’t just the cattle methane. That’s just one part of the double whammy. The other part is the land (aka wildlife habitat). Given the US explosion in research dollars, efforts to build machines to suck carbon out of the air will continue, but, seriously, we’ve known how to do that for a long time. It’s called reforestation. You could just plant things, but you don’t have to. You just have to get out of the way. It may be expensive by way of compensation, but it isn’t complicated. Land that was once cleared will reforest if you give it a chance. Removing cattle and improving human diets doesn’t just remove the source of the methane, but allows vegetation to do what it does better than any machine we have yet developed – draw down carbon.

The numbers are simple. We’ve cleared 100 million hectares since white arrival, with about 70 million now occupied by 80 million sheep and 25 million cattle. The decarbonisation potential of that 70 million hectares is pretty big.

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