Bad Science from Queensland's Land and Resources Tribunal

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;

  • scientifically flawed;

  • 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 0.5°C from 1900 to 2006. The largest temperature change in the 20th century was a 0.75°C rise between 1976 and 1998, But the fact that very similar rises have previously occurred (1852-1878, 0.65°C and 1910-1944, 0.65°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 0.05°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.

Also blogging this are Andrew Bartlett, Robert Merkel (who finds the decision "weird"), Jennifer Marohasy ("refreshing") and Andrew Bolt ("Bravo").

Update: John Quiggin thinks the decision might be an own goal for denialists.


More like this

Thanks Tim for the further analysis, particularly on the CO2 amounts.

What the hell was Koppenol on? He thinks he can dismiss the conclusions of thousands of scientists on the basis of a couple of minutes' doodling around with a graph?

Several things can be said about a coal mine's 'minor' contribution to overall GHGs. We have the chain syllogism argument that says if one mine is irrelevant then so is the next one and the one after that. This is akin to voting whereby the individual vote is trivial but the majority vote is decisive. More telling I think is per capital coal emissions for Australians. Think 420mt black coal (inc exports)plus 80mt brown coal times ABARE's conservative CO2 multiplier of 2.4. Divide by Aus population...and the figure is staggering. I include exports since it's our discretion. How can we possibly expect other nations to exercise GHG restraint? We must lead by example.

This is dirty washing that needs to be hung out in the open.

"The Carter-Byatt critique of the Stern Review was not mentioned at the hearing. I became aware of it a few days later, at about the same time as the IPCC's 4th Report Summary was released."

How fortunate we are that the LRT is not technically a court and is not bound by any of those tiresome rules of evidence or other impediments in the way of delivering the right verdict.

It's always good to be reminded why, exactly, I quit the Queensland EPA.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 18 Feb 2007 #permalink

Tim Lambert's points are well taken, both Lowe and Koppenol made errors, but with respect Tim appears not to have noticed Hugh Saddler's crucial distinction between Scope One "direct greenhouse emissions from mining operations" and Scope Three, those from transport of coal to end users here or abroad and their burning of it. According to all protocols on this subject including Kyoto the mine is responsible only for the first Scope, amounting to only 1.37 mt of CO2-e over mine life. The total c82.5 mt of emissions from USE of the coal is the responsibility of the users. If all the coal is exported then emissions therefrom are the responsibility of the importer's, say China's, users. If all or part is used say in Gladstone to produce alumina and aluminium, then it is those producers who are or would be liable (e.g. under emissions trading or caps etc.).

By Tim Curtin (not verified) on 18 Feb 2007 #permalink

Tim Curtin is correct.

The current export price of a tonne of coal is around $9.

The current market price for an offset credit for one tonne of CO2-e is around US$4 to US$10 (the lower end is price on the Chicago Climate Market, the upper is the price the World Bank paid recently.)

It's unreasonable to expect the Australian producer to internalise that cost while competing against Brazilian and other developing country exporters.

Of course, if there are cost-effective emission reduction opportunities (like methane capture) for the miner they should be encouraged to do so.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 18 Feb 2007 #permalink

Ian Gould Is that price of $9 per tonne correct?
If so, it explains why "free" solar and "free" wind find it so hard to compete.

ChrisL - coal prices are widely variable.

This article cites a US spot price of US$9 per tonne in the western US:…

"Cooler weather last summer and improvements in rail service from mines in Wyoming's Powder River basin allowed electric utilities to increase coal inventories that had dwindled to uncomfortable levels in 2005. As power companies rebuilt stockpiles, coal markets softened.

Prices for coal mined in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, prized for its low sulfur content, have declined to $9 per ton from more than $20 in late 2005."

However prices in the eastern US are much higher at around $40 per ton. (according to the same article).

Australian coal tends to be exported omn long term contracts and sells at a premium - so the US$9 figure is likely be very misleading.

There's also a wide variation between thermal coal (used for power generation mostly) and coking coal (used for steel-making). coking coal can fetch upward of $100 per tonne.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 18 Feb 2007 #permalink

A quick illustration of why internalising the cost of mitigation is likely to cause serious economic distortions.

Japan is considering a carbon tax on coal use.

If Australian coal producers are forced to offset their emissions or to purchase credits and cost is passed on when the coal is sold to Japanese power generators, the generators are effectively being forced to pay twice for their emissions.

The most likely outcome is that Japan would switch to importing coal from other countries that didn't force their coal miners to offset the emissions from burning their coal.

As Tim Curtin points out they should only be liable for the emissions from the actual mining process.

Emissions from Australian coal mines are significantly lower than from many o their competitors - largely because open-cut mining is innately more efficient and less energy-consuming than underground mining.

Imposing UNNECESSARY additional costs on Australian coal mines would simply shift coal production to other countries - probably resulting in higher overall GHG emissions.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 18 Feb 2007 #permalink

Ian That is a very sensible post
Do you know whether coal that is exported from Australia is counted in it's GHG emissions?

I don't accept the argument that Australia's hands are tied with coal exports. If we are such a good quality and reliable supplier let Japan source from other countries and see how they go. Stern's $US85 'environmental cost' for a tonne of CO2 is several times the raw export price; if that's valid we are scoring an own goal by exporting coal and bringing climate change upon ourselves. Mine coal in the morning and drink recycled sewage in the afternoon.

Nor do I agree with offsets like planting a few trees and other dubious ploys. The best thing is to leave coal in the ground and get energy from something cleaner, or perhaps use less energy period. We need to create mechanisms to force a gradual shift away from coal, not say the problem is unsolvable.

ChrisL - as Tim C. said, the emissions from burning the coal are countign in the country where it's burnt.

Johnno, I'm not arguing against carbon taxes or emissions permits I'm simply arguing for applying them consistently.

Most of the climate scientists say we need to reduce emissiosn by 70% - not to zero.

We also have seen demonstrations of technology that can drastically increase the useable energy from burning coal.

The world could probably safely produce 40% or more of current electricity demand from coal indefinitely provided the best current technology was being applied.

Furthermore, even when we stop burning coal there's a good chance we'll be using it as a feedstock to manufacture plastics and other chemicals.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 19 Feb 2007 #permalink

Hi all

If we were to reduce emissions 70% what sort of lifestyle will we have? Will we still be able to use the air conditioner in summer or the heater in winter. How about a drive to a secluded beach where public transport does not go? I do not use power for the sake of it as I hate giving my money away to utilility companies and the govt. (tax). I drive a lot more than other people as I have a free company car.

In winter I burn wood in my fire to keep warm, tax free you see as wood is very cheap. In NZ we have had some poor electricity winters due to low lake levels making the politicians say we need to conserve power. So shall I freeze or shall I do what cavemen used to do, light a fire?
This 70% mark that climate scientists go on about is impossible in todays world unless we want to be like the citizens in Nth Korea.

Peter Bickle

By Peter Bickle (not verified) on 19 Feb 2007 #permalink

To Mr. Bickle,
I hear what you are saying. It is pretty hard to wrap my mind around figures like 70% reduction in emissions. But that is not to say we must use 70% less energy services - the actual benefits like heat, power and mobility. The key is to greatly improve how efficiently we get useful services out of resources. One of our profs here in Toronto has an entire book out on building energy efficiency, and he says we can cut the energy demand from new buildings by up to 90% (!) by planning maximum efficiency in from the drawing board stage. Retrofits can achieve over 50% savings. It is actually possible to build a building with no net commercial energy draw - add together passive solar, PV, geo-exchange, triple low-E glazing, etc.
For vehicles we'll need to make them much lighter. Electric power will require much more end-use efficiency, thousands of large wind turbines, lots of solar PV, and perhaps even nuclear, though many Greens still hope to avoid that.
Also we don't have to achieve these 70% cuts overnight - we're talking about targets for mid-century. I'll be really old by then - I'm hoping we get this right so I can survive Canadian winters (whatever may be left of them).

By Jim Prall (not verified) on 19 Feb 2007 #permalink

"If we were to reduce emissions 70% what sort of lifestyle will we have? Will we still be able to use the air conditioner in summer or the heater in winter. How about a drive to a secluded beach where public transport does not go?"


We will still use coal fro some of our energy needs.

The rest will come from renewables and nuclear. Power prices will rise - but for a typical western household power costs are less than 1% of the annual budget. If that goes to 2 or even 3% (the latter being highly unlikely)the effects will hardly be catastrophic.

We're also talking about a 30-40 year transition period so instead of falling 1-2% a year in real terms as they have historically power prices might rise by 1-2% a year in real terms.

The indirect costs will be higher as energy-intensive industries like aluminium put their prices up, but there's plenty of time for adjustment and plenty of capacity for substitution.

As for cars, combining plug-in hybrids with ethanol-blended fuel can reduce emissions by 90% or more.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 19 Feb 2007 #permalink

While Lowe and Koppenol made serious errors, Tim Lambert was also sloppy in his post when he wrote: "The appropriate context is to compare [CO2 emmissions from the mine] with the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere ... [So] the mine will warm the planet by 0.0001°C."

It has already been pointed out that, part from the trivial emmisions from mining operations, the mine itself will not warm the planet at all.

The more important point though is that coal from the mine in question is (as Tim should - and I'm sure does - know) a substitute for other energy sources, including coal from other mines (including existing and potential mines; here and overseas). The coal from the mine would only lead to the warming of the planet by the amount Tim calculates if it fails to displace any other sources of energy, and the greenhouse effects they would entail. In the extreme case where the coal from the mine completely displaces coal (of equivalent greenhouse attributes) from other sources, the mine would effectively add zero to global warming.

Koppenol P was right, that new coal mine in and of itself will have a close to nil impact on global emissions of CO2-e, as those involved in mining the coal amount to only 1.37 mt of CO2-e over mine life. That will add (using Tim Lambert's data) 0.000049 per cent to the current global total of atmospheric CO2-e. Shock, horror, definitely this mine should not be allowed to proceed!
The Quigglet's commentary failed (inter alia) to notice Hugh Saddler's crucial point in his evidence to Koppenol that in Kyoto and the relevant approved accounting mechanisms and protocols, it is the final user/emitter who counts, not the first except for its own direct emissions. Quigglet's support for refusal of permission for the mine to operate is of a piece with his general "witches of Salem" approach and with his tacit support for the Garrett/Brown/Flannery campaign for phasing out coal mining and exporting, which logically will also extend under Rudd's ALP to phasing out iron ore mining, iron and steel processing, the whole bauxite/alumina/aluminium production process, and everything else which uses coal or gas fired electricity, all of which are liable under Kyoto for their emissions.

Ironically, bith this and JQ's blog and servers are major contributors to global emissions of CO2-e - servers and their cooling absorbed the power from fourteen 1,000 MW power stations in 2005, more now, almost wholly produced by coal in the Australian case (see Financial Times, 16 Feb 07, re Koomey of Stanford, a vastly inferior university to UQ and UNSW of course).

Koppenol P should have directed the QCC to sue for closure of the JQ and TL servers as that would save more CO2-e than the coal mine project they attacked.

By Tim Curtin (not verified) on 19 Feb 2007 #permalink

Thanks to Tim C, I now understand that we should jail the users not the pushers (Come to think of it that's what happens in the US)...hhmmmmm.