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Australia’s Coal Reserves Alone Could Take Up 75 Percent Of What We Can Still Risk Burning

By Jeff Spross

"Australia’s Coal Reserves Alone Could Take Up 75 Percent Of What We Can Still Risk Burning"

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(Credit: IBTimes)

The coal that will likely be developed just in Australia could take up 75 percent of what the world can still burn while staying under two degrees Celsius of global warming. That’s according to the latest report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI).

This finding comes on the heels of CTI’s report that $6 trillion in fossil fuel investments worldwide could be wasted globally if carbon emissions are brought under the two degree target.

Building off additional work by the International Energy Agency, the CTI determined that for the world to have an 80 percent chance of staying under the two degree target until 2050, no more than 200 to 360 additional gigatons of carbon emissions can be produced by burning coal. The Australian coal reserves already owned by companies account for 51 gigatons, and the remaining goal reserves that the CTI expects to be exploited would add another 100 gigatons.

In short, the coal that Australia alone is expected to provide the world all could chew up as much as three-fourths of what we can still burn without driving ruinous climate change:

Just in 2012, the Australian economy invested $5.71 billion in Australian dollars to develop coal reserves that can’t be burned if we’re going to adhere to the two degree target. Globally, the investment in unburnable fossil fuels has reached $674 billion in U.S. dollars per year. Either that money goes to waste, or the climate will be catastrophically destabilized.

Australian coal export expansion was also one of 14 “carbon bombs” — anticipated projects that could push global warming past the two degree threshold — listed by Ecofys and Greenpeace in January. If the expected expansions of the country’s coal exports occur as planned, global carbon dioxide emissions could rise by 1.2 billion metric tons a year. And that’s just one of the fourteen examples.

That said, awareness of the problem is certainly growing in the country: Australia just endured a summer of record-breaking brush fires, heat waves, and flooding — which the government’s climate commission determined can be linked to climate change. The government also recently passed a carbon tax, and studies suggest Australia’s power supply could go 100 percent renewable by 2030.

But starting in 2015 the price the policy puts on carbon is scheduled to be pegged to the European Union’s carbon trading scheme — and the E.U. carbon price has been rather dysfunctional as of late. The good news is that the price of wind is already outperforming fossil fuels, even without the assistance of government policy, and solar isn’t far behind on that trend.

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25 Responses to Australia’s Coal Reserves Alone Could Take Up 75 Percent Of What We Can Still Risk Burning

  1. Superman1 says:

    Between the governments of Australia, Canada, USA, Iran et al being unwilling to bear the economic penalties of not developing these fossil resources, and the unwillingness of the citizens of this planet to reduce fossil fuel use to the levels required to save the biosphere, it is inconceivable to me how the biosphere can be saved.

    • addicted says:

      It’s a bubble. It will only take slightly meaningful action by one power (most likely China) for investors to realize the bubble is about to burst.

      Here is the reality. China has publicly stated it will reduce its fossil fuel dependence, and there are very good reasons to believe they aren’t kidding us this time.

      The main reason why people don’t believe the Chinese will reduce fossil fuel consumption is because they believe the Chinese government is worried about social unrest caused by slow growth, so they wouldn’t even want to risk that. However, in the past year, multiple environment related protests by the Chinese people, and an extremely embarrassing smog in Beijing, has shown that the larger threat which may lead to social unrest is probably climate change/pollution. The Chinese government can always patch the economy using different monetary and fiscal policies. But there is little they can do to fight off nature (as their helplessness during the smog showed).

      I strongly believe China will make huge steps towards clean energy over the next decade, which will make these coal/oil companies worthless (most coal/oil consumption growth is predicated on a massive increase in Chinese consumption, which is not gonna happen).

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        She has been making huge steps and is accelerating those efforts, and the Aussie coal industry knows it. That’s why they are screeching like demented cockies, ME

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The ‘social unrest’ in China trope is a crude propaganda canard. The Chinese have enjoyed booming living standards, great falls in poverty, huge infrastructure building, an education system amongst the world’s best, growing global prestige and increasing freedom to speak their minds, so long as they do not advocate ‘regime change’ or are in the pay of foreign enemies of the country. Surveys of Chinese public opinion by foreign observers regularly find the Chinese to be amongst the most satisfied populace anywhere. They don’t like pollution, of course, so their Government is working to fix it, and, judging by their previous successes, they will do so. The countries faced by the real prospect of revolt amongst the populace are the Western countries that have gone backwards in living standards for the popular mass since the 1970s. The situation has been exacerbated by the ongoing GFC, as US household income and wealth falls for the bottom 93%, while the top 7% are richer than ever. And ‘austerity’, that Rightwing jihad against 100 years of social advance, is crushing one Western society after another. That’s where unrest will break out, and soon.

  2. Jeremy says:

    They will be burned….maybe it will take longer….but they will be burned….unless our society falls apart and the technology is destroyed along with it.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Reality says otherwise, ME

    • Superman1 says:

      They will be burned with all due haste (as they are being burned today) until 5-6 C is reached, and there is no one left to burn them. We are voting on this issue with our feet; any ‘polls’ that say otherwise are pure fantasy, to be used for political agenda purposes only.

    • Superman1 says:

      And, when will this 5-6 C be reached? The global climate models predict about the end of the century. Add in strong positive feedbacks, and we come closer to mid-century. So, a child today has low probability of reaching a ripe old age if we continue BAU, and if the feedbacks are strong, will have low probability of reaching a ripe middle age.

      • Superman1 says:

        That’s the legacy we, The so-called Greatest Generation, have left to our children and grandchildren.

      • Joe Romm says:

        No. End of century say models with feedbacks in them.

        • Superman1 says:

          Not true. In commenting on the Rowlands model results (which predicted temperatures up to 3 C by 2050 by the authors), Maslin and Austin (Nature, June 2012) stated the following: “Although their average results matched well with IPCC projections, more extreme results, including warming of up to 4°C by 2050, seemed just as likely”.

          • Superman1 says:

            In addition, the Rowlands model was feedback-free; they state that explicitly. So, if 4 C is possible by 2050 in a feedback-free model, how much is possible by 2050 with feedbacks added in? 5 C? More? Extrapolate fifty years beyond to end of century, and we’ll be lucky to remain below 6 C, perhaps even without feedback. This is not arm-waving; this is based on some of the most advanced models we have!

          • Joe Romm says:

            The fastest you could plausibly get to 4C with high feedbacks is the 2060s. See here.

          • Mark E says:

            Not necessarily, Joe.

            The paper by Betts et al is interesting, sure, but what did they do exactly?

            ANS: In IPCC AR4 (2007) IPCC reported results from feedback-containing “GCM” models only up thru the next-to-worst emissions scenario. Due to limited PC power at the time IPCC did not run their worst case emissions scenario (A1Fi) with the feedback-containing models. Instead they used a “simple” model, with linear responses.

            The only thing BETTS et al did was run the A1Fi scenario with the GCM models. This nudged projections up a hair, but not much.

            =======================
            Good enough?
            =======================

            Sure…. if you believe the GCM models at the time included ALL the known feedbacks. Only we know that’s not true. They didn’t have the albedo-feedback in the arctic, and they didn’t have permafrost/methane hydrate feedbacks, and they still don’t have feedbacks to deep ocean mixing because we’re still trying to get data to understand it.

            In this case, I think Superman has a good point….. we should not be reassuring ourselves with supposed comfort-margins based on models. Fact is, we still don’t know how fast the deep ocean will (or will not) take in AGW energy units, but we definitely do know that we should be acting now to keep the system from accumulating that warming energy in the first place.

        • Superman1 says:

          Joe, In the reference you gave me below, your own words state: “Also, while Betts et al. does a better job of incorporating carbon-cycle feedbacks into their modeling than virtually anyone else, I do not believe that they incorporate any feedback of methane emissions from the tundra or methane hydrates — and that is certainly the most worrisome of all of the carbon-cycle feedbacks”. So, probably the two major feedbacks that could lead to runaway temperatures are not included, and you conclude: “The fastest you could plausibly get to 4C with high feedbacks is the 2060s.”

          • Superman1 says:

            My reading of the references I quoted plus your references and your words is that we could hit 4 C even before 2050, if feedbacks kick in moderately strong.

          • Joe Romm says:

            Quite a stretch. Maslin and Austin do summarize Rowlands as you say, but Rowlands et al concludes, “We find that model versions that reproduce observed surface temperature changes over the past 50 years show global-mean temperature increases of 1.4–3 K by 2050, relative to 1961–1990, under a mid-range forcing scenario.”

            Anything is “possible” but even that one study says it’s unlikely. Note that permafrost feedback is unlikely to have a huge impact by 2050, again based on physical limits of defrosting and the like.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    It will be interesting to see if China and Australia cooperate in ditching coal. China signed a 20 year, $80 billion or so coal import deal from Australia a couple of years ago. If they cancel it, that would be an important sign, especially if they do likewise for Powder River coal.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      The PM was over there a couple of weeks ago, a lot of talking behind closed doors. We know CC was on the agenda but I heard no details apart from further cooperation, ME

      • Mike Roddy says:

        Thanks, Merrelyn, and please keep us posted. You are one of our favorite voices here on CP, giving us hope for Down Under. Not so sure about here On Top.

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Two degrees is already a lost cause even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. There are some big lags in the climate system, mainly due to how long it takes the ocean to heat.

    There is significant masking from the aerosols we have put up, when we stop burning fossil fuels those aerosols will wash out. That masking is hiding about half the effect of what we have already done.

    There are feedbacks from the already reduced albedo from ice loss. There are feedbacks from Arctic methane, but there are various estimates on how much.

    Nasty is already a forgone conclusion, lets stop before we go beyond the survivable.

    • Superman1 says:

      “lets stop before we go beyond the survivable”. What are the metrics that will tell us whether or not we are ‘beyond the survivable’? How do you know we have not crossed that line already?

  5. pianoteach says:

    This is awesome and informative! Why would anyone put money into a dead fuel??

  6. Greg says:

    This is why I think Carbon Capture and Storage will have to play a role in the future. There is absolutely no way Australia would give up its lucrative coal market.

    Unfortunately there is a lack of investment or direction in the area. It would require a price on carbon across a few countries to actually spur the technology to be developed.

    As much as people rejoiced about a Carbon Tax in Australia. If you read the fine print, Australian researchers in climate and Energy modeling has factored in that CCS technology will be in use within 10 years and that coal will be continued to be used long after that.

    As not green as the technology is, it is potentially a way to lower emissions in the short term.

    I’m not saying, don’t invest in renewables. I honestly just don’t have that much faith in humans long term vision.