Time for scepticism

coal mineAt what point did scepticism become a dirty word?

Perhaps it was when political correctness overtook us and we were forced to accept convention or risk ridicule from everyone, including the kids. Maybe it was when we disappeared into the virtual world where the only thing reminding us of reality was stiffness from ‘smartphone neck’. Or maybe it was when the media purposely made sceptic and denial mean the same thing.

Here is quick reminder of the real definition of sceptical… not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations.

What this means is that a sceptic is not convinced by the first thing she hears. She thinks about new information, turning it around to see it from all sides. She seeks other opinion, even counsel. She thinks some more and then makes a decision to believe or not.

The sceptic is not a denier even though she may choose to reject what she is told. She is much smarter than that — she starts with the idea that whatever new information is heard may not be all that it seems.

Recall any scene from your favourite reality TV show. The editors pull together snippets of action to present the most drama and then milk it with liberal use of mood music enhancement. This can make the little craziness in the scene much wilder and entertaining; but if we believed all these capers as the truth we would be foolish indeed.

Now let’s consider how the sceptic would deal with a more difficult example.

Should we believe the Australian government when it says that giving mining companies taxpayer funded offset credits to capture methane at new coal mines is a good tactic to achieve policy targets for emission reduction?

Under any carbon price mechanism the idea is to reduce the carbon intensity of human activities. This means that energy generation, manufacturing, transport and agriculture [the sectors that make up almost all the greenhouse gas emissions] should release less carbon to the atmosphere than in the past. Where the activity can’t be made less intensive, such as a coal-fired power station, emitters can buy credits [or are given allowances] that, in time, make them commercially inefficient and so they are replaced by cleaner technologies.

Methane gas is often associated with coal seams. The whole coal seam gas debate is about extracting this methane as a fuel source. But when the resource in demand is the coal, the methane is either incidental or too expensive to capture. Usually it is released to the atmosphere where it contributes to climate change effects because methane has 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Capturing and burning the methane from coal mines would reduce this emission source because methane converts to carbon dioxide when burnt. And carbon dioxide has a net global warming potential of 1.

Burning methane would reduce net emissions from the activity of mining coal.

Except how does this contribute to emission reduction when new coal mines will extract millions of tons of the very stuff that generates greenhouse gases in the first place. No matter that most of the coal is exported and ends on the emissions accounts of another country.

Whatever the rhetoric the taxpayer is actually paying for more emissions not less. In effect it subsidises the development of new coal extraction capacity. This cannot be “a good tactic to achieve policy targets”.

So what should the sceptic do with all this? Be themselves and be sceptical, very sceptical.

This is a ruse by the mining sector to get paid for emitting, the exact opposite of the original policy objectives.

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