Awesome Fossil Fuel Burning is Defying the Past and Defining the Future

More fossil fuel projects approved in Australia as geologists say there's no precedent for current speed of carbon dioxide releases

We're doing some pretty awesome things here in Australia as part of a global movement that is both history defying and future shaping.

Just to be clear though, when I say "awesome" I mean it in the context in which it's not often used these days.

This "awesome" is the one that might evoke fear and dread. Like the awesome power of a cyclone or the awesome size of a mega-coal mine.

This week, Australia showed its mettle again, when Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved four projects on the Great Barrier Reef coastline that are part of an attempt to liberate hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal and gas.

Two of the approvals help the expansion of the Abbot Point coal export facilities in north Queensland, near Bowen and the Whitsunday Islands. This is mainly to dig coal from massive planned mines in the Galilee Basin for export and burning.

The T0 coal terminal, if built, is a project of the Indian energy group Adani and will be able to export as much as 70 million tonnes of coal per year. The coal would come from Adani's planned giant Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin, which, if built, would be one of the biggest coal mines in the world.

As I've outlined before, the coal planned to be dug up from two other Galilee mines would emit about 3.7 billion tonnes of CO2 - that's about six years worth of the emissions of Australia or the UK.

With a long list of conditions which it is claimed will protect the reef and local habitat, Hunt has approved the dredging of up to three million cubic metres of material from the ocean bottom for the new coal terminal. The dredged material will be dumped in the ocean, putting more pressure on the Great Barrier Reef which already has an uncertain future.

The other two approvals are part of Queensland's rapid multi-billion dollar expansion of the contentious coal seam gas industry.

Given the go ahead are a nine-kilometre pipeline to get the gas from Gladstone to Curtis Island and a new plant there to compress the gas and export up to 18 million tonnes a year of liquified natural gas. Both projects are owned by Arrow Energy (jointly owned by Shell and PetroChina).

Eleven million Melbourne Cricket Grounds

But these decisions are just part of an awesome effort in the last 250 years or so to dig up and burn fossil fuels that have powered our modern lives.

What has this effort achieved in a historical context, in terms of smacking our climate around the chops?

Between 1750 and 2012, according to the Global Carbon Project, our fossil fuel burning has emitted about 1,407 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide.

This year, the Global Carbon Project says we will likely reach an all time high of emitting about 36 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuel burning and cement making.

That's a difficult number to visualise.

To give us an idea of just how much CO2 that actually is, geologist Derek Taylor has calculated that one gigatonne of CO2 is enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground 300,000 times.

That means emissions this year from fossil fuel burning would create enough carbon dioxide to fill about 11 million MCGs or 16 million Wembley stadiums.

History making

Efforts like the coal and gas extraction in Australia are helping to push the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to almost 400 parts per million.

Levels like this have not been seen on earth since the Pliocene era, which ended about 2.6 million years ago.

As Dr Andrew Glikson of the Australian National University has explained, during the Pliocene the world's average temperature was between 1C and 3C higher than it is today.

The rate at which CO2 concentrations are rising has not been recorded for at least 65 million years, says Glikson, when a chunk of rock thought to have been about 10 kilometres wide hit the earth and scrubbed out half or more of the species on the planet.

The Geological Society in the UK, the world's oldest geological group, has just updated its climate change statement to take account of new scientific findings.

The society says the speed that CO2 concentrations are rising in the atmosphere is now "unprecedented" - and they too have looked a long way back for a precedent. The society says:

... the rates of increase of CO2 since 1970 are unprecedented, even in comparison with the massive injections of carbon to the atmosphere at the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary, which led to a major thermal event 55 million years ago.

In some places on earth during the Pliocene, when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were similar to today, the society says after hundreds of years sea levels went up 20 metres in some places.

If emissions keep rising, then the society says the earth will have levels of CO2 in the atmosphere that have not been experienced for 24 million years or more.

Awesome or what?

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