Regenerative offsets could create a carbon neutral coal industry

| March 11, 2019
This is a story of how a once only investment of $1b in regenerative agriculture will not only deliver regular annual returns and create permanent drought resilience for huge tracts of Australian farmland but could also help establish a $30b a year export industry for emissions free hydrogen-generated power within 10 years.  This opportunity would create around 30,000 new and permanent, skilled jobs, and deliver a global blueprint for a timely, expedient and affordable transition towards worldwide renewable energy.
The players are the Australian resources industry led by Woodside Petroleum; the Australian Government and its newly released Climate Solutions Package and a bunch of struggling, drought- stricken farmers of Penneplains-and Cobar in the Southern Highlands of NSW.
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, believes that Australia can develop an export industry in hydrogen worth $1.7 billion by 2030.  Woodside Petroleum, the leading Australian manufacturer of the ammonia used to carry hydrogen to fuel adapted diesel engines for transport in rural and remote locations, has already entered into development agreements with the Korean led Hydrogen Energy Network (HyNet).This hydrogen opportunity has not been lost on Bill Shorten’s Labor party.  In January this year, the opposition announced plans for a $1 billion investment in hydrogen for Queensland with a view to generating $30 billion of activity.

The coal mining company Glencore recently capped its coal production plans – causing the value of the Australian dollar to plummet.  The Nation’s biggest super fund, together with Climate Action 100+, said it will target emitters such as BHP, Rio Tinto, Adelaide Brighton, AGL Energy, Boral Qantas, Santos, South 32, Woodside, Woolworths, Bluescope Steel and Origin Energy to encourage them to reduce their carbon emissions. So, not only do the super funds have coal miners in their cross hairs, but there are other major energy users in their sights as well.
As recently as Thursday, 7 March, 2019, WA’s big polluters were the target of tough new emissions guidelines whereby WA’s Environmental Protection Authority will require offsets for any project emitting more than 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.
Both political parties must deal with the problems posed by energy.  Notwithstanding Prime Minister Morrison’s pledge to give a $2 billion extension to the Emissions Reduction Fund created by tony Abbot, his party is still as a holdout of climatic troglodytes while Labor juggles its climate commitments with the vested trade union and commercial interests still backing the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland.

The growth of “lawfare”

The Editor of the Australian, Graham Lloyd,  got it right when coining a new buzz-word, “lawfare”, for the political lexicon to describe the use of court cases to stop environmentally destructive activity.  The Tasmanian Dams Case in 1983 started this trend of environmental legal challenges, and analysis by the legal firm Norton Rose Fullbright shows that more than 1154 climate change cases have been filed worldwide.  900 of them are in the US alone, with major litigation also underway in Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other countries in the E.U., particularly Spain.
Lloyd concedes that most of these cases have not succeeded but argues that, over time, environmental litigants will develop ever more compelling arguments based on new research and evidence to support the links between emissions and climate change.
He cites the litigious history of Adani, dogged by three cases in the Federal Court calling for judicial review of Commonwealth approval under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, as well as four separate cases designed to halt expansion plans for the Abbott Point coal terminal and other new mines proposed for Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Lloyd maintains that even if current litigants lose in court, environment groups will see “lawfare” as a legitimate tactic for frustrating development, deterring risk averse investors and taking the decision-making process away from government to place it in the hands of international courts and conventions, creating uncertainty for developers.
As far back as 2006, the ruling in the Anvil Hill coal mine case by the Land and Environment Court in NSW held that greenhouse gas emissions from burning this coal must be considered, creating a precedent that indirect or downstream environmental impacts must be part of the decision-making process for new mine developments.
This litigious legacy was refreshed as recently as February this year in the same court when Chief Judge Brian Preston rejected the planned Rocky Hill coking coal mine in part because no plan had been made to offset future carbon dioxide emissions when its coal was used to make steel.
While not setting a firm legal precedent, because it applies only to the subject mine, the latest ruling is a persuasive sign of things to come and will have important ramifications for the consideration of future projects.  It will also add pressure on the industries targeted for legal attack as green groups seek ways to bypass politics to enforce treaties such as the Paris Accord and other companies restructure to quarantine their core activities from coal and carbon intensive products.
The lawyers at Norton Rose says the effects of the Rocky Hill decision will be felt well beyond mining and help create a new paradigm which acknowledges the greenhouse gas effects of development decisions.

What is the solution?

According to Norton Rose, the best way forward is to incorporate emissions reduction strategies in development plans to reduce or eliminate net GHG emissions by incorporating or investing in carbon sinks that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If it can be shown that the net result of a development does not adversely impact the “carbon budget” then the development is more likely to receive the go-ahead.
I have written before about the PundaZoie Company and its Greening the Earth (GTE) Program. It accomplishes what Norton Rose recommends by creating huge carbon sinks on marginal, under-productive or arid land by drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil and sequestering it as soil organic carbon to combat climate change.
This technique not only produces high quality foodstuffs for both animal and human consumption, but creates jobs for regional residents and indigenous populations.  This generates local economic activity while reducing the welfare burden, leading to a plethora of other economic, environmental, social, cultural and emotional benefits which make for happier and healthier rural communities.
A $1 billion investment by the coal mining industry in partnership with the farming communities of the Southern Highlands of NSW and Penneplains Cobar, will generate $6 billion in social and environmental value, with annual income returns ranging between 20% – 30% ($200 – $300 million) a year.  The $1 billion cost would therefore be recouped within a decade and continue to generate value over the next half century.

In September 2018, the United Nations published a paper exploring Life on the Land  – one of its Sustainable Development Goals.  This paper features a chapter by Greening the Earth’s CEO Gabriel Haros, Associate Professor Dr John Leake and myself, exploring whether the outcomes on which our survival depends are achievable in an era of global warming.  It is the only chapter to date published by the UN by Australian authors on strategies to ensure sufficient food for a global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050.

The Greening the Earth Program has also been shortlisted for a global award, the Global Foodshot Challenge, which comprises a group of venture funders, corporate and strategic investors and foundations led by the Rockefeller Foundation to improve global food security.  GTE plantations can sequester approximately 20 tonnes CO2 per hectare (tCO2/ha), and so an investment of $1 billion could create 100 GTE projects of 10,000 ha each, to give a total of 1 million hectares across the vast rangelands and Aboriginal holdings within the Southern Highlands and Penneplains-Cobar.
Australian fugitive emissions from coal mining and oil and gas production accounts for 7.5 % of the nation’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, a figure which would be halved by this commitment.  Reinvesting income returns into additional land projects would double this amount by the year 2030, making rendering the Australian coal mining industry carbon neutral.
This process would help Australia meet its commitment to the Paris Accord, improve drought resilience; reverse landscape salination and desertification, restore biological diversity, cut run-off and erosion and remove the need for intensive irrigation and harmful chemicals.
This would not only produce healthier food, animals, and communities, but would safeguard the future of the Australian coal industry by offering a path towards a carbon neutral future.
Should the scale of this proposition seem fanciful, it should be remembered that the land required is less than 3% of the 10 of our largest private landholdings, while another 14.22% of the country’s 7.7 million km is held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations as freehold, leasehold and/or Aboriginal reserves and would often be suitable for restoration.
Additionally, this approach would offer a template for the world to follow.  Australia would be seen as a leader in climate change mitigation, rather than one of the worst per capita polluters.  A range of regenerative agriculture techniques already draws down around 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year around the world, mitigating the worst effects of climate change while producing food and jobs for people.
The approach championed by Greening the Earth is supported by papers by the University of Technology, Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the German Aerospace Centre, but best of all it offers the prospect of a political solution to the climate challenge which could achieve cross-party consensus. It would ease the plight of Australia’s drought stricken farmers, support the Coalition’s new Climate Change Package and allow Australia’s coal mining industry to achieve carbon neutral status.