Queensland’s Land and Resources Tribunal has rejected objections to a new coal mine by environmental groups who wanted offsets for the carbon emissions of the mine. Unfortunately, the Tribunal got the science badly wrong, understating the emissions by a factor of 15, making inappropriate comparisons for the emissions, and dismissing the scientific consensus on global warming based on their own erroneous understanding of the science.
The Presiding Member, Greg Koppenol writes:
Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe AO gave evidence that the proposed mine would contribute to the cumulative impacts of global warming and climate change. He was the only QCC witness to address the key issue of causation (GHG emissions:climate change). However, Professor Lowe’s assessment of the mine’s GHG emissions (which he said he was putting “in context”) sought to compare its minelife emissions with global annual emissions. That was said to give a figure of 0.24% of current annual global release of GHGs. But when the mine’s annual output of CO2-e (5.6Mt
over 15 years / 15 for the annual figure) is compared with global annual output
CO2-e (34,000 Mt), the correct figure is not 0.24% but (as I calculate it) 0.001098%. In other words, Professor Lowe’s figure was 218 times too high. Professor
ultimately accepted in cross-examination that the mine’s annual contribution
annual global GHG emissions was “very small”. Dr Jonathan Stanford (an
witness for the applicants) said that such a very small figure would
difference to the rate of global warming–an assessment which I accept.
Koppenol has made multiple errors here.
First, he has the annual emissions from the mine wrong. In his submission, Lowe wrote:
Dr Saddler calculates in his report that the total average annual emissions from
mining, transporting and using the coal produced by the mine would be
5.6 Mt CO2-e for the 15 year life of the mine or 84.0 Mt CO2-e in total.
Koppenol has mistaken the figure Lowe gave for annual emissions (5.6 Mt) for the figure for total emissions (84 Mt). In other words, his figure for annual emissions is too low by a factor of 15. There is no excuse for his error since Saddler submitted a detailed derivation of the number.
Second, it is wrong, as Koppenol does, to just look at the annual emissions. The environmental damage that the mine might produce depends on the total emissions, not the rate at which they are emitted. If, for example, the mine were to operate for just 5 years and produce the same amount of coal, the total emissions and the effect on the environment would be the same, but the annual emissions and the result of Koppenol’s calculation would be three times as high.
Mind you, Lowe’s comparison of the emissions to annual world emissions isn’t the right context either. The appropriate context is to compare them with the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is 750 Gt of carbon, or 750*(44/12) = 2750 Gt of CO2. So 84 Mt will increase this by 0.003%, and since the climate sensitivity is about 3°C of warming for a 100% increase in CO2, the mine will warm the planet by 0.0001°C.
Koppenol had difficulties understanding other submissions as well. He wrote:
Regrettably, Mr Norling grossly exaggerated references in the Stern Review to sea level rises: for example, converting Stern’s “if” certain ice sheets melt over “centuries to millennia”, to “when” they melt over “the next several centuries” and suggesting that sea levels could rise 5m to 12m over the next century — when Stern predicted only 0.09m to 0.88m and IPCC only 0.18m to 0.59m.
But here is what Norling actually wrote:
Rising sea levels will cause severe damage to coastal areas. Although
Stern estimates this will happen over the next several centuries, the
consensus in academic research is that when the Greenland or West
Antarctic ice sheets melt (which has already started) we could
experience sea level rises of 5-12 meters (Stern, p16).
Norling did exaggerate when he turned Stern’s “centuries to millennia” to “the next several centuries”, but so did Koppenol when he turned Norling’s “the next several centuries” into “the next century”.
Koppenol then criticizes the Stern review:
However, the Stern Review has been severely criticised on both scientific and economic grounds. Papers recently published by Professor Robert Carter et al and Professor Sir Ian Byatt et al concluded that Stern’s claim that the scientific evidence for GHG-induced serious global warming and climate change was overwhelming was just an assertion and was wrong — and that the Stern Review was:
biased, selective and unbalanced;
a vehicle for speculative alarmism; and
not a basis for informed and responsible policies.
Well, those papers asserted that, but why should anyone believe them? They weren’t even published in a scientific journal and contain many serious errors. Koppenol doesn’t appear to have the background to judge the quality of these two papers and seems to have latched on to them because the conclusions conveniently support his judgement.
It gets worse. Here he is on the IPCC report:
Finally, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary for Policymakers was released on 2 February 2007. It relevantly concluded that is very likely that human-induced GHGs are causing global warming, and that most of the observed increases in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century are very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human-caused) GHG concentrations. However, a close examination of the global mean temperature chart (Fig SPM-3), which was said to support that view, reveals that the last 106 years had 3 periods of cooling (1900-1910, 1944-1976, 1998-2006) and 2 periods of warming (1910-1944, 1976-1998) and that temperatures rose only 0.5Â°C from 1900 to 2006. The largest temperature change in the 20th century was a 0.75Â°C rise between 1976 and 1998, But the fact that very similar rises have previously occurred (1852-1878, 0.65Â°C and 1910-1944, 0.65Â°C) was not specifically mentioned or causally explained in the Summary. Also not mentioned or causally explained is the fact that temperatures have actually fallen 0.05Â°C over the last 8 years.
Yes, Koppenol dismissed the scientific consensus based on his own naive analysis of one graph in the SPM. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the scientists might have thought of his objections and have an answer. And he doesn’t seem to have asked any scientists about his objections. So where has he gone wrong? Well, the temperature has a fair amount of year to year variation from things like volcanoes and El Nino events. By looking at the temperature in individual years you can create trends that are not meaningful. To get an idea of long term trends you need to look at how multi-year averages have changed. This was plotted on the SPM-3 graph, but Koppenol ignored it. And Koppenol doesn’t seem to have understood the next graph, SPM-4 which shows why the IPCC scientists believe that humans are causing warming — while natural factors can explain the warming in the first half of the twentieth century, they cannot explain the warming in the second half.
Update: John Quiggin thinks the decision might be an own goal for denialists.