Flat White

Net Zero? The hypocrisy of the religious clerisy

Graham Young


Graham Young

10 November 2022

4:00 AM

It is a rootless age when 100 of the leaders of various Christian and other churches in Oceania can pen an open letter to Prime Minister Albanese demanding Australia stop ‘approving new coal and gas projects’.

This is not an area where they have any expertise, unlike morality. Whether from a practical or moral angle, this open letter is wrong.

Australia needs to produce more gas for its own use, and more gas and coal for the world’s use.

To deny that is to destroy any chance of a pivot to a low-carbon economy and to deny the role fossil fuels play outside the power grid, producing fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other necessities.

Ceasing the approval of new coal and gas projects would be a real death sentence on millions in the developing and developed world.

Take the practical first.

The official Australian Energy Markets Operator (AEMO) plan is for Australian power generation to transition from a mix that is currently 53 per cent coal, 19 per cent gas and 27 per cent renewable to 98 per cent renewable plus storage and gas backup.

Most of this under the federal government’s promises is to happen within the next 8 years.

How is this to work? Let’s look at exhibit one, the state of South Australia which is the furthest state along the road to decarbonisation, bar Tasmania, which is a one-off because of its extensive, and unique hydro capacity.

South Australia is 61 per cent renewable on average, and has been reported as high as 92 per cent for short periods of time, but if it weren’t for the gas-fired backbone, and interconnectors to Victoria, it wouldn’t function as a grid. Renewable energy is unreliable, so it requires grid-scale storage and/or flexible, on-demand back-up.

On the storage side, as far as the grid is concerned, batteries are almost entirely absent. Despite boasting the largest battery in the country at Hornsdale, SA only deploys about 0.75 per cent of its electricity from batteries according to the AEMO Data Dashboard.

The only currently viable form of larger-scale storage is pumped hydro. In 2019 there were four potential pumped hydro schemes in SA vying for ARENA funding of $40 million.

Now there is only one, a project at Baroota with a potential capacity of 250 MW (10 per cent of total state peak demand) and total discharge potential of 2 GWh (5 per cent of South Australia’s daily requirement). It was supposed to start construction in 2022, but as yet there is no sign of it, so perhaps it also has been shelved.

In the absence of pumped hydro, the only way of keeping the lights on in South Australia is gas, which currently supplies 38 per cent, the same amount it supplied in 2014-15, although it has been as high as 53 per cent in 2012-13 and 52 per cent in 2017-18.

It’s possible it could reduce further with the building of more renewables, but not by much without storage.

There are already so many renewables in the system that on days like Wednesday of this week when the sun is shining and the wind blowing, they can be 95 per cent of output.

In fact, that day there was actually more power being generated than the grid could use, so the price of electricity was negative at -$48.21 (14:14 GMT-10:00).

When power is so cheap you can’t give it away most of the time there would be no profit in building more of it.

These factors are recognised in the 2022 AEMO Integrated System Plan which projects a need for 10 GW of gas-peaking capacity in 2050 (p11) supplying overall around 2 per cent of energy demand (p38). In 30 years, the gas to fuel this capacity probably won’t come from any wells in existence today, it will come from new wells the government must approve.

So the clerics who demand the end of approvals to new gas projects want to sabotage the market operator’s thoughtful scheme to get to Net Zero. Because they know better, or because they know nothing? What is the morality behind this tinkering?

Australia also has a role to play in ensuring Europe doesn’t freeze to death because of the lack of Russian gas. Europe uses 400 billion cubic metres of gas per annum, of which Russia supplied approximately 160 bcm.

To replace Russian output to Europe we need to increase total internationally tradable production by 16 per cent. Australia, as the 5th largest exporter with 9 per cent of total volume, has a moral obligation to do more than its part because we have the scale to make a difference, along with the USA, Qatar, Norway, and Canada, the other big exporters. Otherwise, people will die from cold and starvation, and Europe will have to rely on activating mothballed coal-fired power plants, and burning forests, as it is now doing, to keep its citizens alive.

How many deaths do our churchmen want on their conscience? What is the point of their plea if it leads to increased emissions?

They might retort that climate change is killing people today, but the evidence is that many more lives rely on reliable energy for a prolonged life, and to deal with the challenges of climate, than any change in the climate currently threatens.

Does God value hypothetical lives in the future more than he values real lives in the present?

They also fail to take account of the other 50 per cent of oil and gas – the 50 per cent that goes to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, and other useful substances like bitumen.

Without plastics to provide the lightweight components that reduce energy consumption the low carbon future is even more difficult. Without pharmaceuticals managing health becomes harder and life shorter. Famine in Sri Lanka shows exactly where absence of fertiliser leads. And without bitumen where will we drive our Teslas?

If churchmen and women want to make a statement about Net Zero, then let them start at home before lecturing the rest of us.

Most lead comfortable middle-class lives with tax-sheltered above-average incomes (an Anglican priest in Brisbane earns around $104,000 after tax, equivalent to $140,000 before tax). They have mostly working spouses, second cars, overseas sabbaticals, and often holiday homes.

As a consequence, their carbon footprint is much larger than the average.

Rather than signing open letters telling the government what to do, they should concentrate on their daytime job. The Bible has some good advice for situations like this.

‘And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me remove the speck from your eye”; and look, a plank is in your own eye?’ Matt: 7:4-5

Without a proper understanding of the practicalities, there is no way to make moral pronouncements. God might work in mysterious ways, but he only works within the physical world that he has made, and it has limitations.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Comment by Nelle- religious leaders shouldn’t meddle-their job is to promote the bible and educate people in the ways of the Lord-they are in a safe place where the effects of Net Zero won’t touch them -it will of course affect the majority -the very people they should be supporting-no wonder many are moving away from their church because they can’t get the support they need

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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