Albanese government may join US push to cut global methane emissions by 30%

Exclusive: New resources minister also says ‘the pathway from coal to renewables goes only through gas’
2022-06-22 17:30

The Albanese government could sign up to Joe Biden’s push to limit global methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade, as part of efforts to signal Australia has turned a corner on climate ambition.

Australia’s resources minister, Madeleine King, confirmed the new government was considering signing the global pledge, but stressed no final decision would be taken without careful consultation.

“We are looking at [the global methane pledge] seriously and we are also taking consultation seriously because our export industries of resources and agriculture are very important to the economy, and they deserve to be respected and not have shocks put on them,” King said in an interview.

Biden used last year’s climate summit in Glasgow to push for a pact to cut global methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels before 2030. More than 100 countries made the pledge, but the Morrison government refused to sign on.

The National party insisted on no methane cuts during negotiations with the Liberals on the 2050 net zero target. At the time, the National Farmers Federation backed Morrison’s refusal to sign up to the Biden initiative, but Farmers for Climate Action urged Australia to commit to cut methane.

King said curbing methane emissions – which are more than 80 times as powerful as CO2 – was “a big challenge for agriculture and the gas industry, but they are very much onto it and have been talking about how they reduce their methane for a number of years”.

The minister noted the existing safeguard mechanism, which Labor will use to drive more ambitious emissions reduction over the medium term, already included methane, so that revamp would help curb emissions. But she said Australia signing the global pact is “certainly something we are actively looking at”.

The potential revival of the methane pledge would form part of the new government’s efforts to extract itself from what Anthony Albanese terms “the naughty corner” of global climate action, by projecting renewed policy ambition both to the Pacific and the rest of the world.

But while flagging a possible shift on methane, King is continuing to defend boosting the supply of gas – a polluting fossil fuel increasingly on the frontline of the battle to contain the risks of runaway global heating.

King said she did not intend to be a federal resources minister actively resisting the transition to low emissions – a stance that many of her predecessors in the portfolio, both Coalition and Labor, have adopted.

She said: “My goal is to make sure the resources portfolio and therefore the industry is seen by the community … as heading towards net zero”. King said this realignment is to be “to be part of the solution”.

The minister also welcomed activism both by the environmental movement and by shareholders, including a spate of legal challenges testing the approval of Australian fossil fuel developments based on their projected contribution to global heating.

“I’m not afraid of activism because activism in this space has pushed people to a good place on net zero emissions,” King said.

But she insisted gas was a critical part of the transition to net zero. “We want to get to a decarbonised economy, a decarbonised globe, to reduce the negative effects of climate change”.

“We all want that. Some of us disagree in part on how we get there and the timing of it. People need to understand if they want what they’ve got – houses, power, cars, heated swimming pools – we have to think about how we power that, and most of this in the southern states [is] powered by coal.

“We want to move away from coal burning power stations … and we want to get to renewable power and storage and hydrogen eventually, but the pathway from coal to renewables goes only through gas.

“That’s the truth. As much as you might not want to hear it, this is how we will lower our emissions over time. We do have to accept reality here. We want the same thing, but we have to be realistic about how we get there.”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the world cannot afford new large fossil fuel projects, including new gas fields, if we are to stay within safe limits of global heating.

King said she respected the IEA’s analysis and Australia had not given up on the objective of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but she insisted gas was the key transition fuel in the shift to net zero.

King expressed irritation that the domestic debate about the transition was effectively marooned where it had been more than a decade ago when Labor implemented a carbon price and characterised gas as the transition fuel.

“I understand people want to [decarbonise] sooner,” the minister said. “Me too.”

“I’m frustrated. I’m as angry as anyone. I’ve been a bystander in opposition as well. There’s only so much you can do from opposition while [the Coalition] fiddled while Rome burned.

“It’s horrific, the lack of what they did … We can look back and complain as much as we want and we will point out the deficiencies, but we also need to move forward and accept the truth.”

Amid soaring energy prices, blackout threats in five states and the recent suspension of the wholesale electricity market, King has also been examining options to boost the domestic supply of gas including reserving supply for domestic use.

She said the gas sector had been configured as an export industry and there was not a lot of uncontracted product to work with.

King said the government was looking at a number of options, including utilising supply from the contentious Narrabri gas project, which has passed environmental approvals, but is yet to secure native title agreements.

She said Santos, the proponent of the Narrabri development, had committed to supplying that gas domestically, but “do they need to strengthen that commitment? Perhaps they do”.

King said the Albanese government would not be able to replicate the gas reservation model in place in her home state of Western Australia. “Unwinding long-term contracts is very difficult. We are looking at the whole spectrum of possibilities but reverse engineering something to look like the WA proposition is very, very difficult.”

She also flagged more taxpayer support for carbon capture and storage.

King said the government was looking at existing programs to see how they might work better and be harmonised, and she flagged a potential return to the flagship model that was implemented by the Rudd government to support industry and research projects.