As I wrote recently on the issue of agriculture and meat consumption, decarbonising sectors in which the problem is distributed across many individuals can be tricky. Many people own cars; many people eat meat and many people own homes. Adjusting all these things to climate friendly options takes a lot of time and effort.
Each of these are ripe for very silly culture wars. The great EV battle of 2019, fought at the federal election, saw the Labor party’s 50% EV sales 2030 target treated as if the government was coming to literally wrench utes from hands of tradies. It’s worth highlighting just how bad it got, but it’s also worth highlighting that the Victorian Labor party’s 50% EV sales by 2030 target, announced last weekend, saw close to no backlash of this kind.
This clip from the 2019 federal election is a pretty nice example of just how aggressively the Australian government attacked EVs. It formed a decent bulk of their messaging – 'the government will force tradies to drive wimpy battery cars'pic.twitter.com/vymbglI4GE
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) March 5, 2021
A decent proportion of Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions come not from power or cars but from gas burned in homes, for cooking, water heating and space heating. And a new report from The Age’s Tom Cowie and Nick O’Malley shows that a total moratorium on gas connections to new Victorian homes could play a major role in cutting the state’s emissions by 45% to 50% by 2030. They report that the City of Yarra is the first council in Victoria to set a target of converting all buildings from fossil fuels to electricity by 2030, and are asking for state government support for a local ban on new gas connections.
As you can expect, the response was very……..’end of the weekend‘. A 7 News report features a quick cut of the Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien declaring that “you can take my barbeque tongs from my cold dead hands”, and Victorian Climate Minister Lily D’Ambrosio had to insist that “no is going to take away your tongs”.
“You can take my barbecue tongs out of my cold dead hands,” Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien says of the City of Yarra’s plans to phase out gas. pic.twitter.com/dyvxVtrhC5
— Benita Kolovos 🐯 (@benitakolovos) May 4, 2021
Of course, the goal here is to get people arguing about something totally unrelated to the actual policy. No one is phasing out barbeques. But the worrying thing is that this tends to work – these decisions really relate closely to personal feelings. We know this because the industry was built on it. Gas companies have spent a very long time (and a lot of money) cultivating a public relations strategy that markets their fossil fuel product to customers on the grounds that it provides some substantial benefits.
As RenewEconomy revealed last year, the ‘Go Natural Gas’ campaign was paying influencers to promote food cooked using fossil stoves, in a direct mirror of a massive US lobbying effort. And most significantly, it was revealed this week by Ben Storrow at EE News that a consortium of 15 gas utilities in Massachusetts, USA, was formed to very literally fight electrification of households.
The gas industry in Australia has noticed this trend and is ramping up both its public relations efforts, and also its greenwashing efforts. A piece of modelling released last year used a range of questionable assumptions to conclude that the best way to decarbonise the gas network is blending hydrogen into the mix, instead of converting to electricity. This preserves any sunk costs in gas pipelines and associated infrastructure, and also ensures a far slower transition, as the blend between hydrogen and methane can change in tiny increments.
Ensuring that this doesn’t fall into the trap of petty politics will be difficult. But it’s important – Victoria is one of Australia’s heaviest users of gas. This was detailed in last year’s ‘Flame Out’ report by the Grattan Institute.
The emergence of this debate comes right at the same time that the Climate Council has released a broad new study demonstrating the significant dangers of using a fossil fuel inside the walls of your own home. Around 12% of childhood asthma is attributable to the usage of fossil gas for cooking. It’s a problem in schools, too, with a range of extremely dangerous fossil-fuelled heaters in classrooms.
“I find it incredibly disturbing that the majority of NSW public schools still use unflued gas heaters when not a single NSW private school nor any schools in states and territories outside of NSW do,” Bailey Linton-Simpkins, 16, from Epping Boys High School (my alma mater) told News.
Pressure is going to build, and the gas industry will only become more emboldened, more aggressive and more effortful in their campaigns to prolong the presence of this fuel in our lives for as long as possible.