Australia in the dark on its own fossil fuel emissions, says Superpower Institute

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Australia does not know what it is emitting nor how much, say a group of eminent scientists who are pushing the government to adopt a new roadmap to fill that knowledge gap.

The proposed National Emissions Monitoring Roadmap was created by the Superpower Institute – a reference to the energy superpower potential of Australia – and calls for upgrades to the country’s existing monitoring system from the current very low baseline.

Today, there are just four greenhouse gas monitoring sites across the country: Cape Grim in Tasmania, Gunn Point in the Northern Territory, Aspendale in Victoria and Wollongong in NSW. 

No modern techniques are used, such as satellite data, nor any sophisticated regulations as the European Union is imposing that includes standards for measuring, reporting and verifying methane emissions from oil, gas and coal sectors.

The new proposal, written by TSI chief scientist and atmospheric physicist Peter Rayner, wants the number of sites beefed up to at least 16, to monitor methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, and ancillary gases.

These sites will complement and refine satellite data, allowing emissions sources to be better pinpointed and effective carbon sinks identified. 

At least four of the new sites should incorporate vertical column measurements that can compare site versus satellite data, and the types of gases monitored need to be reassessed every two years, so the system stays up to date with best practices.

A centralised lab would calibrate the data and oversee the whole network. 

The central pillar of the roadmap, however, is mandated source-level measurement by industry operators such as coal miners and gas companies on-site, with verification by an independent arbiter. 

The estimated cost is $40 million in startup costs, and $6 million a year afterwards to run it. 

“At the moment we’re measuring emissions in a very analogue way, by working out how much coal we’re using, how much petrol we’re using, what’s the standard factor for a coal mine or a factory. We’re not actually measuring what’s in the atmosphere,” Superpower Institute chair, and former competition cop, Rod Sims told RenewEconomy.

“We’ve got to start measuring what’s in the atmosphere, otherwise we don’t know how to control our emissions if we don’t know how much they are.”

Momentum builds against methane

Not knowing exactly what the country is emitting is a key problem. This is partly because it means Australia can’t reduce what it doesn’t know – or won’t admit – is being created, and partly because other countries with the power to punish those emissions increasingly have a better idea of what those might be. 

International organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and countries in Europe, and the US, now know more about what Australia is emitting than the government does, thanks to satellite technology. 

The IEA says Australia produces five times as much methane as the population warrants, but systemic underreporting means that number is likely to be as much as 63 per cent higher than government estimates. 

For example, satellites run by the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research show Glencore’s Hail Creek coal mine in Queensland emits 10 times as much methane as the company reports, some 200,000 tonnes annually.

With the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism transition period starting in October this year and finalising in 2025, soon the EU will be able to tax – or put a fair price on – the carbon content of goods imported into the zone. 

Sims says Australian companies making green steel or hydrogen for example, should be able to say just how much better than black steel of hydrogen they are. 

The inverse is that the EU will know better than Australia the carbon content of its coal or steel, and be able to tax accordingly – with little regard to the Australian data. 

Already satellite technology, cameras that can capture gas readings and AI that can analyse it, are proving that some energy producers in Australia do not have control over fugitive emissions, or are deliberately venting greenhouse gases.  

In 2022, the Australian Conservation Foundation found that Chevron released 16 million tonnes more greenhouse gases, including methane, from the Gorgon project in Western Australia than the company said it would during the approval phase.

This year, environmental group the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) found evidence of massive leaks and deliberate venting of methane at 15 of 38 sites visited in New South Wales (NSW), and at 20 of 42 sites visited in Queensland.

Research group IEEFA says Australian coal miners are underestimating their methane emissions by 81 per cent and gas companies by 92 per cent.

In October 2022, Australia signed the Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 from 2020 levels across all sectors. 

The country does not yet have a national target and the federal government declined to tackle the issue inside the Safeguard Mechanism, which controls emissions from the country’s highest polluters. 

Shining a light on emitters

CATF’s findings were immediately refuted by gas industry lobby group APPEA, which claimed its members had ascertained all results were incorrect.

It pointed to a 2021 study by the Australian Gas Industry Trust (AGIT), another gas lobby group, that indicated the Australian oil and gas sector was a very small contributor of methane emissions.

A national greenhouse gas monitoring system, which more closely captures what the fossil fuel industry is actually emitting, is likely to see lobby groups like APPEA line up against it.  

Sims’ answer to that kind of opposition is that companies cannot object to measurement. 

“If a company says its coal mine, for example, is producing this much in emissions from its facility, then first of all we need to receive reporting on a regular basis, then we can test them against 16 of the government’s ground-based sites,” he says. 

“You cannot object to measurement. If you think [others’ data] is wrong you must welcome the measurement.”

The Superpower Institute, its university partners, and CSIRO don’t plan to let big emitters continue to make their own claims around emissions, if the government doesn’t quickly implement the roadmap.

The institute will begin releasing satellite data showing Australia’s emissions from next year.   

“What we’re going to do is start using the satellite technology, and that will show how much methane, for example, we’re finding in the atmosphere from one year to the other,” Sims says.

“The Superpower Institute will start showing we are emitting this much… let’s say it’s X per cent more than being reported, and we’re going to say we think the problems are over here and there, where there’s a coal mine and a gas plant. So there’s going to be reporting out there one way or the other. 

“The satellite technology will be posing a hell of a lot of questions.”

Rachel Williamson is a science and business journalist, who focuses on climate change-related health and environmental issues.

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