A single coal mine that will add 1 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere

Amidst the rubble of international and Australian climate change policies a remarkable expansion of the Australian resources sector continues.

A new mega-mine, the Carmichael Coal Mine, is now proposed in Queensland, Australia, by a subsidiary of the Indian-based Adani Group. It will produce around 60 million tonnes of thermal coal for 150 years.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the mine is estimated to have an indicated and inferred resource of 7.8 billion tonnes of thermal coal.

No details of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the mine have yet been published but a very rough calculation of the total GHGs that will be produced by the mining and burning of the coal from it can be done using the formulas and figures set out in the Australian Government’s National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (Measurement) Determination 2008.

Based on this methodology the mining and burning of coal from the Carmichael Coal Mine will produce around 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the 150 year life of the mine. This figure is a rough estimate only and there are significant uncertainties that cannot be resolved without detailed information on the coal resource and mining methods (which the proponent has yet to provide).

In the absence of more detailed calculation of the GHG emissions being supplied by the proponent, the figure of around 20 gigatonnes of CO2 from the mining and burning of the coal at least gives a rough estimate of the total GHG emissions from the mine. These emissions are truly enormous on a national and global scale. They are equivalent to around 36 years of direct emissions from the whole of Australia based on current levels of emissions of around 550 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (excluding LULUCF).

The emission of 20 billion tonnes of CO2 from the mining and burning of coal from the Carmichael Coal Mine alone will add around 1 ppm to atmospheric CO2 levels based on current levels of global emissions of around 32 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents/yr and corresponding annual rises in atmospheric CO2 of 1.6 ppm/yr.
The fact that the coal from the mine will be produced over 150 years means little for the atmosphere given the fact that the CO2 released by the burning of coal will continue to affect the atmosphere for “300 years, plus 25% that lasts forever” (Archer 2005).

Despite the enormity of the greenhouse gas emissions involved the mine is certain to be approved by the Australian Government and the State Government in Queensland.

The Australian Government’s commitments to prevent dangerous climate change while at the same time allowing massive expansion of coal mines is, as John Podesa put it, like “trying to ride two horses galloping in opposite directions.”

This coal mine brings Elizabeth Kolbert’s closing lines in Field Notes from a Catastrophe to mind:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

10 thoughts on “A single coal mine that will add 1 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere

  1. I think that what you have glossed over and what some people may not get is: When 32 Gt CO2 is emitted and the atmospheric CO2 increases by 1.6 ppm it means that a lot of the CO2 has gone into the oceans as well.

    Now, I like using moles because when CO2 is produced by combining O2 with C, the total number of moles in the atmosphere is unchanged (see the spooky plots in TAR and AR4 of decreasing atmospheric oxygen).

    Total atmosphere ~ 1.8 x10^20 moles. So, 20 Gt of CO2 is 4.5 x10^14 moles = 2.5 ppm of total atmosphere, if it all stayed in the atmosphere. It doesn’t and my point is that the addition to the atmosphere is only part of the damage.

  2. Great post Chris. And well spotted Doug. The question I have now is, what is the liability costs of adding 1 ppm (or 1.6 or 3) to the atmosphere at this stage? Given the scale of the damage that is occurring already, this could be a very large number indeed.

  3. Ove, the liability costs of adding 1ppm are uncertain right now from a legal perspective. Like cigarette and asbestos companies in the 1970s, the coal industry has a growing legal liability but it is yet to see the flood of litigation that will come.

  4. Thanks Chris. Given the overwhelming evidence underpinning the role of fossil fuels like coal in driving climate change (large even by comparison to smoking or asbestos) you would have to be concerned about litigation over the impacts if you were a mining company or government involved in supporting it.

  5. I was pondering liability of new fossil fuel operations like this while covering the Cancun climate COP. We already know burning just 25% of proven reserves puts us over 2C. So why is nothing like a ban on new fossil fuel exploration discussed at the UNFCCC meetings whose stated goal is now to keep global temps under 2C? I wrote about this in my opening article: http://stephenleahy.net/2010/12/08/cancun-climate-summit-gives-fossil-fuels-a-free-pass/

    Why would investors sink their money into something so risky, so certain to be curtailed and penalized?

  6. Thanks for the link to your story Stephen, and for the ongoing work you are doing as a journalist.

    I think the answer to you question is that many fossil fuel energy suppliers, coal-fire power generators, investors and governments of countries that are rich in fossil fuels like Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia simply assume that there is no alternative to the current reality where fossil fuels provide the bulk of energy supply. Even though they publicly accept climate science, this lets them feel safe that the current free pass they are getting will go on forever even if climate change causes serious impacts and carbon capture and storage (CCS) remains unviable.

    My own belief is that as increasingly dire impacts of climate change are felt, the response to climate change will increase dramatically. It won’t be a smooth, gradual increase but a rapid, jumpy one in response to crisis after crisis.

    Large fossil fuel projects are likely to be left as stranded assets with the rapid shift in policy that will occur.

    That obviously means investing in a large, long-term fossil fuel project like a big coal mine or tar sands is very risky.

  7. What about photosynthesis?
    Have you considered the most important photo chemical reaction in the world?

  8. Coal Statistics shows that there are many companies answers to the call of a cleaner coal to help the environment preserve it’s purity and as well as the coal industries longevity. Both must work hand in hand to see the sky rocket success in the coal market news and green house effect.
    Cherry of http://www.coalportal.com

  9. It is all good and fine to say don’t mine the coal and I agree we need to clean up our act.BUT we are not acting globally the greed of a few are destroying the home of all. we need to focus on assisting countries without the means to do it themselves to use more advanced tech to generate Electricity. We will need to mine coking coal for the foreseeable future until other methods of steel production (and other materials) are developed.
    As I see it the only way forward is global governance, equality between countries and population control. It is unlikely to happen since as a species we cannot agree from state to state in a single nation. Of course the other factor that will preclude any fast way forward is greed and economics, once free fuel is used no one is going to be happy to pay the current prices for electricity.
    there are technologies available to reduce the emissions from coal fired plants but again cost is prohibitive. It strikes me as prudent to mention that here in Australia we have the resources, we have the technology, to build and install, globally, wind turbines and other types of generators but we insist on selling the raw materials. If a strawberry farm is going badly we cry value add make jam. we, as a nation have a very volatile economy and yet we do not value add! The renewable’s market is ripe for exploiting and again Australia is missing the boat

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