(this is part six of a series, but this one doesn’t lean on earlier knowledge as much as some others in the series have. you’ll be right to have this part be you first if you want. but flick back to the others if you need.)

So, where are we up to?

Australia is a global climate delinquent and is seen that way by the international community, and what happens here matters. While there are other factors that are relevant, the burning of coal, oil and gas is the principal cause of climate change and the ever increasing risks to lives, livelihoods and the places we love that occur as a result. (That’s part 1.)

The Australian Prime Minister’s maybe, possibly, probably not dance on net zero is first and foremost a media management strategy. For all the headlines this year tying Morrison to something that superficially looks like climate action, not one concrete thing has changed as a result of his very coreographed dance around the subject. As well, I covered the fact that our pathway to net zero – whether we go hard or take the long way around – is at least as important in determining the amount of harm we cause on the way as the date we get there. Oh. And stop punching yourself. (That’s part 2.)

The next part put the current rate of warming into context, flagging the fact that the last time the planet heated this fast, we got a shiny new crater in near the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and misplaced all the non-avian dinosaurs. It also pointed out that despite the pathway to zero being important, the date we hit zero still really matters. Just because an array of models have clustered around 2050 as a date to hit zero for x temperature doesn’t mean that there isn’t extraordinary benefit to be had from hitting zero earlier if we can. (That’s part 3.)

We can’t all be Tasmanians, and most of the time no-one will force you to be one against your will. Tasmania has recently become one of the world’s first net zero jurisdictions. But there’s not a lot to be learned here. Apart from ‘have big forests’, Tasmania hasn’t really done much in recent times, and their fossil fuel consumption is still increasing. We all, including the Tasmanians among us need to push as hard as we can for ‘real zero’ if we have any hope of avoiding the worst while repairing past harm. (That’s part 4.)

Carbon dioxide is by far the most important greenhouse gas. It isn’t as powerful as many other gases at warming the atmosphere on a gram-for-gram, but we’re emitting so damn much of the stuff through our burning of coal, oil and gas that it is dominating in the race to superheat the planet. Hitting net zero carbon dioxide is critical, but even if we had fit net zero carbon dioxide last year, our fate would still be meaningfully tied to what happens with the dozens and dozens of other heating and cooling emissions that we cause. We have to look more broadly than carbon dioxide. (That’s part 5.)

This is part 6, which is crazy. I would have thought I would run out of steam by now.

The way we count and account for emissions is extremely daft and packed with fudges and false equivalences. The international accounting rules that nations use to report their emissions are basically a children’s fable about the dangers of deciding things by committee. This could be kind of okay if more people – including most professional journalists – understood what is and isn’t important about the number that get spat at the end of emissions assessments, whether they are done at country level or company-level assessments. Unfortunately, public climate literacy is pretty low. Clearly, a bunch of people like myself have been slacking.

I’m going to cover two main points in this part. Both of these based on plague-rat infested bulldust that people have recently tried to pass off as meaningful about net zero.

  1. Emissions are substitutable. By planting trees, fertilising the oceans, or otherwise engaging in forms of spreadsheet magic, we can continue burning fossil fuels.
  2. If a fossil fuel company tries to claim that it is going ‘net zero’ but does not plan to (a) shut the fjak down or (b) move the fjak out of selling coal, oil and gas – coughwoodsidepetroleumspluttersantoswheezeeveryotherfjaker – this is good, ‘sensible’ even. Same goes for countries.

So, did you hear the one about Shell’s new global climate pathway? Yes, I do mean ‘We plan to change the percentage of our profit that comes from breaking the planet, but have not plans to stop breaking the planet’, Shell. That’s right, I am talking about ‘No company that is innocent of any involvement with the Nigeria military and human rights abuses would settle out of court for 15.5 million dollars’ in a lawsuit brought by the family of an executed Nigerian environmental activist, Shell. And, yes, that’s also top ten global climate polluter, Shell.

Luckily for Shell, using Shell’s new global climate pathway, there’s no great rush to get out of fossil fuels. Burn them if you’ve got them, kids! If you haven’t got them, Shell are selling them. The solution to this climate thing is perfectly simple, really. All we need to do is build a new forest that is the same size as the fifth largest country in the world.

No, I am not kidding. Look. Here’s the headline on Carbon Brief.

Where do we fjaking start?!

That’s 5% of the land on the planet given over to forest because Shell reckon that they should still be able to sell fossil fuels in 2100.

I have a concern or two. I mean… I don’t know if anyone on Shell’s team noticed this, but whichever reasonably fertile 5% of the planet they intend to devote to offsetting climate destruction in, there are probably going to be people, species, agricultural lands and ecosystems there already. So… uhh… who’s paying for the land that this forest is going on? Is it Shell? Are they going to start putting down a deposit today to buy one-out-of-every-twenty square centimetres of land on the planet?

But actually, it’s worse than that, because the solution Shell is hoping someone else will pay for so that they can keep sell coal, oil and gas won’t even bloody work.

Rightfully, a lot of emphasis is placed in climate science and climate policy on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. This makes sense because it’s where we’re putting the greenhouse gas, it’s where the greenhouse effect takes place and so it’s where the warming happens.

And yes, the same gases that cause climate change casue catastrophes elsewhere, so much so that this other issues – like ocean acidification – should arguably be considered another part of the whole of ‘climate change’. That said, history is an ass and our climate policies are all focused on the role greenhouse gases play in super-heating the atmosphere. However, the fact that these policies pay way too much attention to the atmosphere does not meant that the atmosphere is the only thing worth considering.

The atmosphere is just one part of a bigger climate system consisting of the atmosphere, the oceans and the land. In a very real way, what happens to one, happens to the others as greenhouses gases cycle through the system, moving between atmosphere, ocean and land. Broadly — and apart from disturbances like us — over time the air, land and ocean settle into equilibrium, where the concentration of carbon in each is balanced against the concentration of carbon in the others. At the same time, the lands and oceans very, very, very slowly remove carbon from the atmosphere, mostly through burying organic matter. This old, slow sequestration is the source of the fossil fuels we’re burning in ever greater quantities today.

By taking directed steps to relocate greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into lands and seas, we can relocate gases and their chemical constituents from the atmosphere to the land and seas by doing things like planting trees or even – if we’re feeling dangerous enough – fertilising the ocean.

But while this temporarily reduces their planet cooking potential, these three systems are interconnected. This means that whether from natural death and decay, or from bushfire and marine heatwave, most of this greenhouse gas will be back in time. Regardless of what we do on the land and sea, by burning fossil fuels, and so reintroducing old greenhouse gas to the active system, we are ensuring that there’s a bigger bite at the other end of the snake’s tail. No matter what we do to store carbon in land and sea, we will be bitten by it.

There are extraordinarily good reasons to restore past harm to the ability of marine and terrestrial ecosystems to store carbon – including to help reduce the impact of climate change. However, restoring them to increase the amount that we can destabilise the planet has to be one of the most addle-brained turd-sandwiches around.

The only real, long term solution we have at our disposal today is disappoint the hell out of Shell. We have to ensure that coal, oil and gas stays in the ground. That means getting busy today on zero emissions alternatives everywhere these hazardous substances are burned.

Or in pictures, …

Infographic. In summary: Producing and using fossil fuels re-introduces greenhouse gas to the biosphere that was buried over millions of years. When this was in the atmosphere last, the world was much hotter and humans didn’t exist. Whether land or sea, manipulating natural processes can relocate emissions within the biosphere and protect the stores we have today, but they are slow at removing them. Most relocated carbon will eventually find a way back to the atmosphere under climate change.

Sorry, Shell. A Brazil-sized forest just isn’t on the cards. You’re going to need to move on.

You might be getting a sense through this series that I’m not someone who abides nonsense. True story. I’m not a fan, and I’ve never had much time or energy for it.

That said, I have no problem with true ignorance. If I had a problem with people not knowing thing nor not understanding things, I wouldn’t be able to do my job, and I certainly wouldn’t continue doing essentially identical stuff – though with the added perk of being able to use barely veiled swear words like ‘fjak’ – on my own time, unpaid, after hours.

But there’s genuine ignorance, where people just don’t know, and then there’s outright intellectual laziness.

Screenshot of Australian Financial Review article on 9 June 2021. Headline reads, ‘Woodside’s model climate change transition.’ The sub-head reads, ‘The move to clean energy does not include abrupt cancelling of sensible projects such as Woodside’s Scarborough gas field.’

The other day, the Australian Financial Review ran an editorial that was so colossally incurious, so obviously flawed and so excruciatingly without merit that even for a person like myself who’s pretty comfortable with the ignorance of others, it managed to be a standout in a crowded field of codswallop.

For the benefit of any overseas readers, the Australian Financial Review is functionally similar to the Wall Street Journal though it mostly lacks any of the meatier longer form stuff that pops up in WSJ. Australian newspapers are absolutely dominated by the Murdoch empire, with News Corp owning something like 60% of the market. There are two newspapers in Australia the are truly national: News Corp’s The Australian and the Australian Financial Review (a.k.a., the ‘AFR’). The AFR is owned by a publicly listed Australian Company, Nine Entertainment, and leans right, though not nearly as hard as Australia’s other national masthead.

Alongside a bit of oil, Woodside Petroleum is the largest gas producer in Australia and, as previously discussed, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied gas. A little over one fifth of the world’s internationally-traded liquefied gas is extracted from Australia, and Woodside is responsible for a decent chunk of that. Woodside has also been very good at hemorrhaging shareholder value over the last few years.

At a time when even the International Energy Agency – a historically conservative organisation that was established to ensure supply of petroleum – is coming out saying that the best chance limiting climate harm is for there to be no new coal, oil or gas development anywhere, Woodside Petroleum has decided to come out publicly and say, ‘Those IEA losers don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re gonna produce way more fossil fuels and double our emissions. What’s more, we’re gonna catch ourselves a net zero cookie at the same time!

There are so many aspects of this that are innard-twistingly absurd. I won’t go through them all, but strongly recommend. the work of the Conservation Council of Western Australia. They have been doing an excellent job of keeping track of Woodside’s douche-tastic climate endeavours. Their recent report with The Australia Institute comes with a two thumbs up endorsement from me.

I’ll focus on the pretence of net zero, which is based on two things: (a) as a company with a sole purpose of profiting from the sale of substances that destabilise the planet we all live on, they’ve decided to draw a line around taking responsibility for the impact of the products extract, market and sell to the world. And (b) they’re offsetting the rest. For (b) remember: it’s the fjaking climate cycle). For (a), let’s just say that this makes perfect sense after you’ve headbutted a wall for the best part of an hour.

Enter, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, an initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol isn’t exactly a household name, but if you’re in the business of helping businesses plot a course forward through climate change, its standards are your bible. The GHG Protocol sets out a common language and a common accounting framework to describe climate reporting for companies. If you’re a company relying on the protocol, you’ll find that it doesn’t prescribe what concrete steps you need to take. It doesn’t tell you to be 100% renewable or zero emissions by March 38th 2044. However, in the interests of transparency it demands that you talk about your plans and performance in a certain way.

Central to the logic of the protocol is the concept of ‘scopes’ which describe three different classes of greenhouse gas emissions that a company might control.

  • Scope one emissions: These are any emissions that are directly caused by the company using assets that it owns or that it is otherwise directly responsible for. Fossil fuels burned on site, cars driven, cows kept and fed, etc.
  • Scope two emissions: These are any emissions that occur in the process of generating electricity that your company uses. this does not include electricity you produce on site (because that’s scope one) or resell to others (because that’s scope three).
  • Scope three emissions: Emissions from elsewhere in the company’s supply chain. These can be either upstream – emissions produced by others in order to make or perform products and services that the reporting company relies on – or downstream – emissions produced as a result of consumers using the product or service your company has provided them.

As a full set, scopes one, two and three catalogue any emissions that a company has a reasonably direct ability of controlling, either by changing the way it does business, or by changing who it does business with.

The GHG Protocol has a little graphic in the standards, but it’s ugly and I had a big battle with writers block for this part of the series. I made one of my own instead. The fact that mine is still kind of ugly goes to show how bad theirs was.

Graphic representing scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 emissions. The body text adequately covers the material. This only exists to make things very marginally more interesting for sighted folk. If you can’t see it, please be assured that I only added it because it had been a while since I broke up the text with a picture. I promise that you haven’t missed anything interesting.

How would the scopes apply to a big gas exporter like Woodside?

Their scope one emissions will be exceptionally high. Extracting, processing and transporting gas results in far more pre-combustion greenhouse gas pollution per unit of energy provided than other fossil fuels. There’s no question that this is all Woodside’s responsibility. Alongside this an extraordinary amount of energy is used to further process and compress their product for export. The boiling point of methane — the principal component of the gas we ship overseas — is -162°C. You don’t make methane a liquid without real effort. That effort is, for the most part, produced by the gas industry sampling a heckin’ lot of its own product. How much you ask?

The gas industry burns so much of its own product in order to ship Australian gas overseas each year that the use of gas to process gas for export will soon be the biggest user of gas in Australia. In the financial year that ended in June 2019 — not including the gas that is actually sent overseas — the gas industry’s own use of of the fossil fuel was significantly larger than the amount of gas used by the entire Australian manufacturing sector. It was only narrowly behind the amount of gas used by the entire Australian electricity sector. With the gas industry’s gas use set to increase, and the electricity sector’s gas use in steep decline, this means that the Australian gas industry will soon be burning more Australian gas in Australia to compress gas so it can be shipped overseas than is used by any other sector in the country.

As a result, Woodside comfortably finds a home in Australia’s top ten climate polluting companies every year.

The scope two emissions of a big gas exporter like Woodside will normally be much smaller. A lot of the energy used in preparing gas for export is delivered to the process as electricity. However, where gas facilities need electricity, they tend to produce it on site using their own ready supply of fossil fuel.

But of course, Woodside are a fossil fuel company. As colossal as their scope one emissions are, the biggest impact their continued existence will have on the destabilisation of the climate is always going to sit under scope 3. To re-emphasise and remind you, Woodside are the biggest gas producer in a country that creates more than one-fifth of the world’s liquefied gas. The word ‘carbon bomb’ gets thrown around a lot in climate circles to describe projects where the total emissions produced rival that of decently sized nations. Woodside has a couple of these projects and plans to grow, including by growing their emissions.

Given everything that you know about what is important about net zero – including that climate change doesn’t stop getting worse until emissions from the consumption of coal, oil and gas get damned near to zero – you would think that Woodside would at least have the self-respect to engage in a ‘Shell-game’. They don’t even manage that.

Woodside’s version of ‘net zero’ is to baldly declare that the product it produces, markets and ships overseas is simply someone else’s problem, not theirs. They will increase their scope one and two emissions in the short term, then buy some trees to offset, whack a few solar panels up to reduce the amount of electricity that they derive from burning their own gas – and making more gas available to sell overseas at the same time – and claim to be climate responsible. This is a claim that is almost exactly as praiseworthy as a drug-dealer joining Narcotics Anonymous, but continuing to deal.

Just for a moment, imagine the colon-clenching chutzpah that is required to claim to shareholders. that they are in any way climate responsible, or adequately managing their climate risk, after this exact ‘We just sell the stuff!’ defence was so spectacularly unsuccessful for companies like James Hardie Asbestos and Philip Morris Tobacco. J

And just for a moment, imagine how intellectually lazy an employee of a financial press would have to be to not only accept such obvious bollocks but to describe it as ‘sensible’ and have it published as the newspaper’s official view on a project that is going to cause such extraordinary harm.

Ignoring the excruciatingly hypothetical possible future existence of a new forest the size of Brazil, which is obviously nonsense and won’t fix the problem, Woodside either has a product in 2050, or we have a stable climate.

‘Sensible’ infjakingdeed.

Unpaid, personal opinions, given on my own time. I’d love it if you could like, clap and share.



Tim Baxter

Climate and energy researcher for my day job, but these opinions are written on my own time.