Gerry Brownlee, formerly a minister of energy and fossil fuel, and currently the Minister for Transport and for bulldozing democracy, heritage and social order in Christchurch, today announced that petrol duty will be increasing by 3 cents a litre annually for the next 3 years to fund new roads. Specifically mentioned are the Rangiriri and [...]
Posts Tagged Gerry Brownlee
A Close Up interview on TV One this week looked at the economic desirability of the proposed expansion of drilling exploration in New Zealand weighed against the environmental concerns. I had just finished my post on the feasibility of renewable energy fully powering the world’s economies by 2050 and it interested me that both the [...]
Rebuilding on a rising tide Jun 15Join the conversation at Hot Topic
It’s been a shaky week in Christchurch and Canterbury. Another M6.3 shock hit the city on Monday afternoon — renewing the misery for many in the city’s eastern and seaside suburbs, but thankfully not adding to the death toll. Attention has now turned — with some force — to the question of which suburbs should be rebuilt, and an excellent feature by David Williams in last Saturday’s Press on sea level rise and its implications for the rebuilding of Christchurch should cause some pause for thought. Williams interviewed James Hansen during his visit to the city last month (shortly before I did, in fact), and uses Hansen’s views on sea level rise to kick off his discussion:
Hansen says a multi-metre sea level rise is possible this century if greenhouse gas emissions, caused by things such as coal-fired power plants, vehicle engines and agriculture, are not reduced.
Williams goes on to put that into the context of a city where the baseline has shifted:
But the sea-level implications of his predictions are particularly significant for low-lying, quake-hit Christchurch.
The city has two rivers snaking through it and much of it is drained swamp land. As it is, the city’s main surveying marker — a stone in the foyer of the city’s broken Anglican cathedral, 8.5 kilometres from the beach — is barely five metres above the high tide line.
Since the run of earthquaked began last September, the city’s eastern and riverside suburbs are living with a new normal:
Tidal flooding from the Lower Styx River has swamped some Brooklands properties twice a day since the February earthquake.
Last month high-tide flooding hit Christchurch’s river suburbs and residents are anxiously waiting to see if it’s a wet winter.
GNS Science geophysicist John Beavan, of Wellington, has been surveying post-quake Christchurch. He confirms that isolated areas, rather than whole suburbs, have dropped by up to a metre.
Modelling done after the quake – quite a bit of which has been verified by surveying – showed that the Avon- Heathcote Estuary and part of the Port Hills has risen by “several tens of centimetres”. Meanwhile, land to the north of the Estuary, such as Bexley, has gone down by maybe 10cm. Subsidence because of liquefaction is on top of that.
It remains to be seen if Monday’s shock has added to those figures, but it would be unwise to presume that things haven’t got worse. Williams also digs out the views of another Williams who is taking a precautionary view of where sea level will eventually end up:
Former Christchurch man Nigel Williams, a traffic planner who now lives in Auckland, follows Hansen’s work closely and is developing a retirement property, with solar panels, well out of harm’s way.
Williams, 64, has a blog called The 100 Metre Line, which urges people to move to higher ground while they still can. He says 10 metres above mean sea level passes through St Andrew’s College, in Papanui, and parts of Halswell.
“If by 2050 there has been half a metre of sea level rise, we’ll be up to our arses by 2100,” he says. “I’d move to Geraldine.”
Nice place, Geraldine. Any city rebuilding plan which fails to take account of projected sea level rise over the next 150 years will not be worth the paper it’s written on, but given that the process is being supervised by coal-loving former energy minister Gerry Brownlee, I don’t hold out much hope for common sense and forward thinking being properly applied. [I should note that chez Hot Topic is 170m above sea level -- and a rather large earthquake-prone fault is expressed as a cliff about 30 metres from where I write this. I'm not sure which will get me first.]
Two items during this week highlighted the continuing progress of Solid Energy’s intentions to develop the Southland lignite fields. I therefore provide this depressing update to two Hot Topic posts on the issue late last year. Don Elder (left), CEO of state-owned enterprise Solid Energy, appeared before the Commerce select committee during the week and announced that the proposed lignite developments will be worth billions. And it appears that this will be the case even if they don’t receive free carbon credits under the ETS, which they appear to nevertheless hope for. There was a slight acknowledgement that there were carbon footprint issues still to be resolved and some soothing suggestions, reported in the Otago Daily Times, that approaches such as mixing synthetic diesel with biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and planting trees, could reduce the net emissions. With a convenient fall-back — that the company could pay someone elsewhere in the world to do this for it. There is little evidence that carbon capture and storage will feature as anything more than talk in this scenario. The wildest extremity of the CCS option was touched on outside the committee when Elder spoke of the possibility of eventually piping carbon out to sea and pumping it into sea-floor oil or gas wells, after the Great South Basin has been developed.
Claire Browning at Pundit describes in lively language being present at the committee hearing. She was fascinated by Solid Energy’s definition of sustainability:
’For our business to be sustainable in the long term we must carry out all our activities in ways that achieve our current business objectives without unreasonably compromising our ability to meet our future objectives.’
Rather circular by comparison with what is normally understood by sustainability, as in this UN statement for example:
’Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
Browning’s excellent discussion also draws attention to the fact that Solid Energy has at long last, under pressure from the Ombudsman, released lignite pollution estimates to WWF showing that the lignite-to-diesel fuel proposals would produce emissions at double the level of already-polluting conventional diesel. The WWF’s response is on its website. Browning also refers to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s carefully researched report in December in which she gave a clear thumb down to any proposals to develop lignite. Elder claims that the Commissioner’s report failed to address the economics of the proposals, which she evidently doesn’t understand. How economics can trump environmental concerns is presumably a lesson she has yet to learn.
Gerry Brownlee has learned that lesson well, of course, and in question time in the House this week he both acknowledged the magnitude of the emissions from the proposed lignite developments and pointed to the ETS as a way of coping with them. Asked by Green MP Kennedy Graham (who blogs on the issue at Frogblog here) by how many tonnes Solid Energy’s proposed lignite projects in Southland would increase New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 he replied that depending on the scale of technology used, gross emissions could be 10 million to 20 million tonnes per annum. He then immediately added that Solid Energy has said on many occasions that taking full responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions is a key consideration in its lignite developments and it expects its lignite-based plants to achieve full carbon compliance. Asked whether, if by that he meant carbon capture and storage, he could name one suitable reservoir to store carbon dioxide in the Southland lignite region, Brownlee replied that he couldn’t give operational answers on behalf of Solid Energy. But the fact that he immediately added that the government has introduced an emissions trading scheme that will enable carbon compliance suggests that CCS doesn’t matter anyway.
It’s important to appreciate the relative quantity of the increased greenhouse gas emissions which will result from the proposed lignite development. According to the Ministry for the Environment figures, in 2008 New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions were 74.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 10 to 20 million tonnes extra from lignite is not a minor addition. It is very large, and since in 2008 we were already 23 per cent up on 1990 levels it’s very difficult to understand how the government can be talking of a 10-20 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020 at the same time as smoothing the way for the exploitation of lignite.
If the ETS is not stringent enough to make the lignite proposals uneconomic then the government should be resorting to regulation. Market-based systems are not sacrosanct. The government’s hands are not tied. It’s absurd that so-called carbon compliance should be compatible with this dangerous development.
What about the economic opportunity we are missing? To my mind it would simply be a bank we hadn’t robbed. We would be missing out on the proceeds of crime. Is that being melodramatic? Not as I see it. It’s not as if the lignite development falls into the category of an unavoidable measure to keep us turning over while we make the transition to renewable energy. There’s no interim necessity attached to it. It’s simply a tempting fruit. And a forbidden one if we have any sense of the consequences which flow from plucking it.
Moving the earth for oil Jan 11Join the conversation at Hot Topic
Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.
But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:
’It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy. The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.’
He added in a subsequent interview that the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum ’is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don’t go to fund terrorism.’
So the oil is ethical because Canada is a democracy. He doesn’t actually name the countries which produce less than ethical oil, but his characterisation presumably draws on a recent book Ethical Oil by Canadian author Ezra Levant which instances Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Sudan as much less desirable sources.
As the Globe and Mail sees it, Kent’s pitch is ’an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada’s oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage’.
Kent complains that the product has been demonised, but in its support falls back on the sort of argument we’ve heard a lot of in New Zealand. He calls it ’relevant measurements’.
’Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators.’
Citing the tentative economic recovery, Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.
’Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery. It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly.’
The Canadian government does have some intentions for emissions reductions — 17 percent down from 2005 levels by 2020. But the rules when they come will be drawn up ’with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation’.
It is clear that the Canadian Government has not faced up to the fact that we can’t both successfully tackle the threat of climate change and also pursue fossil fuels to depletion. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and no amount of bluster about developing natural resources or economic recovery or maintaining competitiveness can alter it.
It’s a fact which many Governments must face, not only Canada’s. Indeed while reading the Globe and Mail report I was struck by the similarities to the position of the New Zealand government. Our Minister of Energy and Economic Development is defending the exploitation of what he describes as our natural resources with equal robustness. He paints a rosy economic future from deep sea oil drilling and lignite coal development. It will, of course, be undertaken with due regard for the environment. In fact, he went so far as to say in his opening address to the NZ Petroleum Conference last September that the development is needed to enable us to care for our environment.
’I would strongly argue that it is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment. A strong economy allows the government to spend money on biodiversity, on improving water quality, on insulating our houses, on protecting our endangered species and preserving our heritage. All those things cost money. None of them are free. A strong economy allows expenditure on them…
’So rather than stop ourselves from using our natural wealth, this government has made it clear we want to develop our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.’
The doublethink is staggering. The only honest way of putting what both Ministers are saying is that anything we do towards emissions reduction will be token at best, because we are dead set on developing our fossil fuel resources. Why don’t they just put it baldly so that we all know where our Governments stand? Why the weasel words about environmental protection? Why talk of reducing emissions when they plan fuelling their increase on a large scale?
We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be.
No doubt I’ll be accused of being simplistic in pressing such questions when the issue is one of great complexity. Well, there may be complexities to be worked through, but the underlying picture is starkly simple. We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be. It was a group of Canadian scientists who have just published a widely reported paper in Nature Geoscience which predicts climate change resulting from even the present level of CO2 will be persisting for centuries. I wonder what Canadian Ministers make of that.
Another newly published Canadian paper was reported on TV3 news last night because of the major shrinkage it predicted in New Zealand glaciers during this century. I wonder if that registered with New Zealand Ministers. All the wealth of the South Island lignite fields or of oil discovered in deep sea drilling won’t suffice to put the ice back in the glaciers.
I’d like to offer a post in praise of Greenpeace. I’m not an active member of the organisation, though I give modest financial support because I am often thankful for its clear voice and actions on climate change. A look through Greenpeace NZ’s latest magazine reminded me of the range of its climate change concern and prompted this acknowledgement.
The backward-looking Gerry Brownlee receives short shrift in a piece which makes my criticisms of him on Hot Topic look timid by comparison. Here’s Greenpeace’s take on NZ reality:
’We are a renewable energy powerhouse with an embarrassment of riches in smart thinking, engineering and scientific capability which enables us to deliver world beating climate change solutions.’
Brownlee, instead of focusing government thinking and support on this reality, proposes:
’…that we reach for the pick axes and start digging for the black stuff — be it coal or oil. Come forth, explore, exploit and burn is his rallying cry as practically no part of God’s Own is exempt from the whims of the highest bidder.’
Brownlee is playing Russian roulette with our pristine coastlines, our international reputation and with the climate. Moreover his focus on resuscitating the dying fossil fuel industry is denying our clean tech companies (more than 250 of them) the opportunity to conquer the clean technology world. The government must wake up to the 21st century.
’It must make clean technology the foundation of long-term economic prosperity and, in doing so, send a clear signal to businesses both at home and abroad that we are serious about becoming a key player in a low carbon world.’
Elsewhere the magazine records that Greenpeace has called on the NZ government to permanently stop all plans to open up NZ’s coastal waters to offshore oil drilling and stop any expansion of coal mining. A petition to that effect is under way. Two actions have highlighted the call. A group of volunteers smeared with fake crude emerged from the sea at Muriwai in July (pictured). A few days later a bathing-gear-clad group similarly smeared walked through downtown Wellington to deliver the first 18,000 signatures of the petition along with Greenpeace’s submission on the Review of the Crown Minerals Act.
Greenpeace NZ’s campaign against Fonterra for the dairy industry’s use of palm kernel grown on areas of destroyed rainforest has received media coverage, particularly through their disruptive action at the Auckland Fonterra offices. The magazine reports the evasiveness of Fonterra CEO Andrew Ferrier when asked if Fonterra supported deforestation in Indonesia ’…we’ve got, um, plenty of people in our comms department that you can talk to about that.’ The ’comms people’ were meanwhile putting out a statement mentioning Fonterra’s supply partner who ’we believe follows industry best practice in responsible sourcing.’ Greenpeace comments dryly that ’we believe’ is corporate speak for ’don’t ask, don’t tell’. Typically Greenpeace were on the ground in Indonesia, researching the continued destruction of rainforest by the palm industry and the magazine includes Communications Manager Suzette Jackson’s account of her 27 hours in jail when caught documenting the evidence of widespread destruction.
These examples from the recent magazine are of course just the tip of the iceberg for Greenpeace’s ongoing activism on climate change backed by solid and well-researched reports such as one on the clean energy future possible for New Zealand, or the Greenpeace International publications on their climate vision. From the international level the magazine carried some remarks by Kumi Naidoo who became the Executive Director of Greenpeace in 2009. He describes climate change as without question the greatest threat any generation has had to face, and at one point speaks of the role of civil disobedience, often present in Greenpeace actions, in awakening governments to action on such a crucial matter.
’History tells us that whenever injustice arises — whether that be related to civil rights in the United States, New Zealand’s nuclear-free movement, a woman’s right to vote, Parihaka or the anti-Springbok tour protests — it was only when determined men and women were prepared to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough, I am prepared to peacefully break the law and even go to prison to get our message across’, that change finally happened.
’When all other attempts at negotiation or discussion have faltered, organisations must have the option of turning to civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.’
It is this preparedness that gives Greenpeace’s advocacy the seriousness that climate change demands. All power to them as they continue the battle determinedly in the year ahead.
Can you dig it? Dec 15Join the conversation at Hot Topic
On the same day that I wrote a post about the proposed lignite development in Southland I emailed the Minister for Economic Development, Gerry Brownlee, to express my dismay at the news. I have received a letter in reply which explains all too clearly how such a development could, and presumably will, proceed under current policy.
In my email to the Minister I pointed out that simply offsetting the massive emissions from lignite development would hardly be in line with the intention of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote that unless there are clear plans to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide which will be released the company should not be permitted to undertake any of the proposals. The government is the owner of Solid Energy, able to tell the company it is not to proceed with the plans, and if necessary able to legislate to prevent the development of lignite until such time as sequestration technology is established. I spoke of the Minister’s duty to prevent such development at this time, and stated in conclusion that his obligation to protect our descendants from the potentially terrifying effects of climate change far outweighs any responsibility he carries for present economic development.
The Minister’s reply first assured me that, like me, the Government is concerned about climate change and is committed to doing its ’fair share’ in reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. The fair share theme is a constant in government statements about climate change these days. It’s a politically useful term: it reminds those who want to do considerably less than we are doing that we can’t afford to appear laggard, and it also serves to placate those who feel we are less than whole-hearted in tackling the issue. It’s hard to argue with, and I can understand its attraction for the government. Nevertheless it’s hardly the kind of term that immediately leaps to mind if one really is concerned about climate change. It suggests that the Government worry is not so much climate change as political positioning.
The Minister goes on to say the ETS is the Government’s principal policy response to climate change. It puts a price on greenhouse gases, he explains, and provides an incentive to reduce emissions and to encourage tree planting. He then adds that it does not provide a cap for existing (or future) emissions and hence is not prescriptive about what developments should or should not progress. This strikes me as a very clear admission that the ETS may not, in fact, result in any reduction of emissions at all. It is a remarkable act of faith in the power of incentives, and an abdication of responsibility for the outcome.
That abdication becomes clearer as the letter proceeds. It is admitted that lignite developments of the scale being investigated by Solid Energy will create significant greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the particular projects chosen. However any development will be ’carbon compliant’ with New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emission management frameworks. That looks like meaning that Solid Energy will pay whatever is required under the ETS to cover the cost of its emissions, and if the project remains profitable under such a regime it will go ahead whatever the level of its emissions.
But if Geoff Bertram and Simon Terry have it right in their book The Carbon Challenge, Solid Energy, far from paying for the emissions from a plant to manufacture urea from lignite, may well be entitled to subsidies in the form of free emission units for its operations provided it meets certain benchmark standards for ‘emissions intensity’. Bertram and Terry estimate that subsidy could go as high as between $500 million and $1 billion dollars in nominal terms over the first twenty years of the plant’s life. This, even though it would be the country’s biggest single industrial emitter of greenhouse gases after the Huntly power station.
Back to the Minister’s letter. A paragraph follows noting that to potentially mitigate against CO2 emissions Solid Energy is actively following the progress of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The letter referred me to a page on the Ministry of Economic Development website for information about government-industry collaboration on the active investigation of the feasibility of CCS in New Zealand. Maybe I missed something but the page looked pretty sleepy to me. There’s little sign there that CCS is likely to figure prominently in Solid Energy’s lignite projects.
The Minister’s letter then emphasises that projects of this scale have long lead times. He is aware of investigative drilling and pre-feasibility studies, but as yet the decision to commence project construction has not been made. As no formal proposal has been lodged he cannot pre-empt outcomes. I don’t know what pre-empting means in this context, but it seems pretty clear from the rest of the letter that he won’t be looking to create any obstacles.
A final paragraph points out that a development of this scale ’that can effectively manage its emissions profile’ would provide significant opportunities for New Zealand, maybe even bringing about ’a step change’ in New Zealand’s growth. Given that the bar for the management of emissions is set so low what this seems to mean is that we’re soon to enjoy major economic benefit from the development of lignite. Am I being unfair in drawing the conclusion that this counts for the Minister ahead of any climate change concern?
The kindest thing one can say of the Minister and the Government he represents is that they have as yet no adequate conception of the magnitude of the threats that come with climate change. I’ll do them the courtesy of presuming that if they did they would have made it very clear by now that the lignite will stay in the ground.
Licking lignite Nov 06Join the conversation at Hot Topic
Jeanette Fitzsimons raised the alarm in a recent Herald op-ed over Solid Energy’s plans for Southland lignite. A very justified alarm. She wrote of well-advanced plans to use more than 3 billion tonnes of economically recoverable lignite from three fields in Southland. Big plans, of which New Zealanders are hardly aware. First off is the transformation of lignite, by drying it, into briquettes for Fonterra’s milk-processing plants and for export. Only 100,000 tonnes a year in the pilot plant to be built next year, followed by a full-scale plant many times larger. Next are plans to convert lignite to diesel, with the claim that all New Zealand’s diesel could be produced this way. The third big plan is the conversion of lignite to urea.
It’s the increase in greenhouse gas emissions associated with this vast development that concerns Fitzsimons. Her article rests on the arguments of James Hansen that the use of coal must be phased out over the next couple of decades. And she’s not buying the claim of carbon compliance:
’Solid Energy says all the emissions will be ‘offset’. But increasing the amount of biological carbon that cycles between atmosphere and plants can’t compensate for putting more fossil carbon into the system, even if our ETS scheme pretends it can.
’Paying money is, in the end, not a get-out-of-jail-free card for increasing pollution.
’These huge lignite developments are close – Solid Energy intends to start building next year. Any hope we had of reducing our greenhouse emissions would be lost.’
Her conclusion is robust:
’As citizens, we need to refocus our domestic action to tell Solid Energy and the Government by every means available to us to keep the coal in the hole. Every tonne of lignite New Zealand keeps in the ground is 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide that doesn’t get into the atmosphere.’
I agree entirely, and wonder what is going on in the mind of the Minister of Energy and others in government as they contemplate the proposed activity of the government-owned company. It’s not as if there is any requirement for lignite in something essential like our electricity generation, no lingering imperative that we carry on using it until we can replace it with renewables. The only imperative in the proposed lignite exploitation is that we not leave any resource stone unturned in the drive to greater economic wealth.
I don’t know how much thought the Minister gives to the counter imperative that we take every step open to us to prevent the continuing build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. There is perhaps a cautionary note in the reference to coal in the Draft Energy Strategy, but it’s far from specific:
’New Zealand’s extensive coal resources currently contribute to electricity supply security. Coal is also utilised by industry and is exported. Coal could potentially contribute to the economy in other ways, such as through the production of liquid fossil fuels, methanol or fertiliser such as urea.
’This potential is more likely to be fully realised if an economic way to reduce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions is found. Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) will potentially be an effective way of utilising resources while reducing CO2 emissions.’
Moreover there’s nothing in Solid Energy’s plans which suggests that the lignite development is going to wait on CCS (if the technology is ever developed successfully). Meeting the slack requirements of the ETS is all they appear to have in mind, and that’s clearly no impediment to proceeding.
The Minister has a wide embrace. He welcomes every renewable energy development that comes along. In the same breath he waxes enthusiastic at the prospect of the discovery and urgent development of fossil fuel resources. If the Draft Energy Strategy is as close to his and the government’s philosophy as we’re going to get it appears the thinking is that we can fully exploit the fossil fuel resources while alternatives are being developed. And we should be getting on with it smartly while it’s profitable. It’s an opportunity which we would be foolish to miss. Indeed according to Chris Baker, CEO of the mining and exploration lobby Straterra, who followed up Jeanette Fitzsimons’ article the very next day, the lignite resource could be worth $3 trillion. He didn’t say to whom, but no doubt there would be trickle down.
How does this wealth stack up against the release of more atmospheric carbon as a result of exploiting the lignite? That’s a rhetorical question. It doesn’t matter how many trillions of dollars we gain if we lose a habitable world for our descendants in doing so.
If the government is serious about tackling climate change it should instruct Solid Energy not to pursue the lignite plans and relieve them of whatever dividend expectations that makes them unable to fulfil. If regulation is necessary it should legislate for it. It should tell the public that unless full carbon capture and storage technology is possible there can be no exploitation of the lignite fields because of the seriousness of the threat of increased greenhouse gases. That threat, it should explain, far outweighs the transient economic gain of fossil fuel development.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t reduce emissions by increasing them. We can’t say we recognise the threat of global warming and at the same time expect to carry on with all activities which give rise to it. If Gerry Brownlee and the government think we can, they are deceiving themselves and us. Jeanette Fitzsimons is absolutely right. Keep the coal in the hole.
PS. Take a few minutes to send Gerry Brownlee an email to that effect. Remind him that he has a responsibility to the future. I’ve done so.
As an example of contradictory thinking it would be hard to better Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee this week. He was announcing that oil and gas exploration in New Zealand is to get a substantial boost in government resources, including funding to further the possible exploitation of deep-sea methane hydrates.
He made a plea for New Zealanders to consider the potential for an accelerated oil and gas discovery programme to be achieved in an environmentally responsible way.
“People need to shift their thinking on exactly this issue. The development of New Zealand’s natural resources and the protection of the environment are not mutually exclusive. It is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment.”
Is it unfair to construe this as follows?
We need to mine more oil and gas, the burning of which will hasten dangerous climate change, in order to become rich enough to deal with dangerous climate change.
In fact of course, when Brownlee talks of the environment he is probably not thinking of climate change at all. He gives very little evidence of ever thinking of climate change.
The contradictions of which Brownlee is an example are deeply embedded in the political scene in a great many countries. There is very little indication that governments are preparing to stop the mining of fossil fuels. Indeed there’s every indication that they’re ready to increase it whenever it looks as if there could be an economic benefit in doing so. Even the monstrous environmental assault of the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands is justified by its proponents. American Senator Lindsey Graham, who once supported a US climate bill, announced recently on a visit to view operations that he was going to do all he could to make sure that the oil sands production was not impeded because of US policy. He remarked that its production ’really blends in with the natural habitat’!
One risks being regarded as slightly mad in declaring that a rational New Zealand would leave any possible new oil and gas fields undisturbed, along with coal unless effective carbon capture and sequestration processes are in place. But that seems to me to be the sane view at this stage of our understanding of what greenhouse gas emissions are doing to the climate.
George Monbiot has been reflecting on gap between the grand announcements of governments about emissions reductions and the reality that they aren’t achieving them. In a bleak column this week he writes that the failure of the international political process to find a successor to Kyoto means that ’there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth.’
It’s not as if the warnings are getting weaker. They are clearly mounting as the evidence continues to accumulate. But ’the stronger the warnings, the less capable of action we become.’ We were mistaken to think that something might come out of the last 18 years of talk and bluster. Environmentalists tend to blame themselves, but there was no strategy sure of success. The powers ranged against us are too strong.
’Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power — acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so.’
Monbiot concludes that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we’ve sought to avoid. I guess here in New Zealand that means accepting that the juggernaut of ’resource’ exploitation is going to roll on and leading politicians are going to continue to talk as if they’re protecting the environment while they’re in the process of destroying it. It also means that only strong organised implacable challenge is likely to have any effect — there is a small ray of hope in the success of mobilised public opinion against mining in protected conservation areas, but whether that kind of mobilisation can be raised against fossil fuels remains to be seen.
It may be worth noting that another columnist this week found reason to sound more upbeat, though certainly not about his own country. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, lamented the failure of the US senate to pass the energy-climate bill but pointed to the seriousness with which Chinese Communists were by contrast tackling the climate change issue and turning it into an opportunity for the development of clean technologies. Friedman is inclined to optimism, as was apparent in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, but he provides some basis for it in the case of China.
He quotes Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China.
’China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data…China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world. It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.’
Friedman points to the way China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities.
It’s perhaps not much to pin hopes on, especially as coal continues to be used for much new power generation in China. But it may well yet be the case that burgeoning clean technologies will take us further than politicians can. In my inbox this morning was information from the Earth Policy Institute on the continuing rapid growth of solar photovoltaic cell production, described as the world’s fastest-growing power technology. China, Japan and Taiwan are the leading manufacturers. The writer acknowledges that it remains more expensive than fossil fuel-generated power, but points out that its costs are declining rapidly. If fossil fuels ceased to receive subsidies and were required to incorporate their currently externalised costs their relative cheapness would be exposed as only apparent.
Which is good reason to argue in New Zealand for more even-handed government investment in renewables by comparison with fossil fuel extraction. The absurdity of offering so much support for fossil fuels and so little for the green technologies on which our future, if we have one, will depend might be realised by some in our government if we keep on insisting. But it remains a hard slog.
No energy for change Jul 28Join the conversation at Hot Topic
Gerry Brownlee’s draft energy strategy for New Zealand is an interesting read, but not perhaps in the way the government intended. As Bryan discussed in his comment on the strategy, Brownlee puts mining and drilling up front and centre, and relegates environmental and carbon issues to a definite second place in government priorities. You might infer from the document that this is a “strategy” that has been designed to fit with what the government wants to do, rather than what is actually necessary. But what struck me most forcefully was the apparent lack of any well-thought out or detailed context for the strategy. Let’s see if we can supply some, and see where that leads us…
The draft document pays little more than lip service to reducing carbon emissions. This is all the document supplies as context (p4):
Over the next 40 years, New Zealand’s energy mix is expected to change. The international economy will reward efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand will reduce in the longer term.
The “longer term” appears to be the government’s inadequate “50 by 50″ target, and the only means of achieving it an aspirational commitment to 90% renewable electricity generation by by 2025, plus carbon pricing through the watered-down ETS.
What happens to the world in the “longer term” depends on three things:
- how the climate system reacts to the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere,
- how much carbon we add in coming decades,
- and how the international community decides to act on both.
There’s a lot of uncertainty attached to all three factors, but uncertainty in this context is not our friend — it cannot be an excuse for doing nothing.
The current level of atmospheric carbon is important because the climate commitment means that we are “locked in” to discovering its impact. If we could freeze atmospheric greenhouse gas amounts at today’s levels, we would still be committed to at least another 20 years plus of warming “in the pipeline”. In other words, there is nothing we can do to stop the changes that are likely to happen in the near term — we can only hope to minimise the future impacts of further emissions.
So what’s likely to happen over the next 20 years? On the face of it, not too much. About 0.4ºC increase in the global average temperature, if the current rate of warming persists. Sounds like gentle warming that we can just adapt to, doesn’t it? But there is a real possibility that the climate system may spring a few surprises. One example: Arctic sea ice is melting well ahead of schedule — a growing body of expert opinion suggests that the Arctic Ocean might be seasonally ice-free within the next decade or soon after, and that has important consequences for northern hemisphere climate. There is a real (non-negligible) possibility that large parts of the planet might find climate changing significantly (and perhaps dramatically) on that sort of timescale.
All anyone can do to plan for this sort of event is to design policy that encourages resilience — the ability to cope with and recover from sudden shocks and disruptions. The possible international reaction to a climate “surprise” is impossible to gauge. Being a cynic, I might suppose that if the impact was being felt in North America, Europe or China then the international community might be goaded into urgent action to respond — and to reduce future emissions. A warm Arctic or starvation in Africa might not be enough on its own…
Barring surprises, how likely is it that the international community will take action to reduce emissions? A year ago, I would have said the chances were good, but post Copenhagen and with the US signally failing to address the issue, the prospects of a major international deal seem more distant. Meanwhile, the reasons why we need to act now are becoming more and more evident. Here’s a table I’ve snipped from the recent US National Research Council report, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts Over Decades to Millennia (full pdf, reg req’d, exec summary):
Given that we’re around 450 ppm CO2e at the moment (aerosol cooling is doing us a favour by reducing that to an effective CO2e of about 390 ppm), it’s obvious that we’re heading for more than 2ºC — unless we start actively removing carbon from the air. The NRC report also looks at the impacts to be expected, by degree Celsius of warming. Some examples:
- 5 percent to 10 percent less total rain in southwest North America, the Mediterranean, and southern Africa.
- 5 percent to 10 percent less streamflow in some river basins, including the Arkansas and Rio Grande.
- 5 percent to 15 percent lower yields of some crops, including U.S. and African corn and Indian wheat.
Do we act now, at modest cost, in order to limit warming to 2ºC and crop yield reductions to 10-20%, or do we wait a while and see what happens, risking 30% losses and severe droughts in the southwest USA? Fancy gambling with those stakes? Not very attractive odds, either.
From a policy-making perspective, one thing is obvious — the risks are not evenly balanced around some sensible and safe middle course. We are almost certainly committed to 2 degrees — that’s our least bad outcome. The risk that the world will do nothing to restrict emissions is effectively zero (either because of a climate “surprise”, or — we hope — pre-emptive rational behaviour), but there’s no guarantee that we will do enough, at least at first. The question really is when and by how much emissions will be cut, and how best to position policy to respond. It is therefore essential that policy should be flexible, and capable of being tightened over relatively short periods.
The realpolitik of international negotiations means that current commitments to emissions reductions (the Copenhagen Accord numbers) will put the world on target for an increase of 3ºC or higher. At some point the powers that be will realise that they’re steering the ship towards a reef and will attempt to change course. They will have a few options: speed up the pace of emissions reductions, plump for geoengineering, or try both. We will have to hope that it’s not too late to make the turn.
So where does this leave NZ, and Gerry’s energy policy? According to the draft strategy, carbon cost is something for the “longer term”, to be considered only after drilling for oil and mining coal and trying to boost economic growth (it’s the last two pages in the strategy document). There’s no sign that the government has thought through the risk environment for either climatic shocks or resource shortages (though you could argue that drilling for oil makes sense if you expect peak oil sometime soon). They seem to assume that the future will be benign, and that flies in the face of the evidence. I would suggest that a strategy that doesn’t put emissions reductions front and centre isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Steep emissions reductions are going to be required sooner or later (the later they come, the steeper and more expensive they’ll be), so it makes sense to prepare the ground for them now.
An aggressive campaign to cut energy emissions would give New Zealand Ltd a competitive advantage in a carbon-constrained world. Sadly, there’s no sign of that sort of thinking from Brownlee and the government. And that’s a missed opportunity for us all.
PS: I’ve just discovered, courtesy of the Independent, that the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (note the message in the name) has a web-based calculator (a David Mackay idea) that allows you to play with energy policy and emissions, to find out what meeting an 80% cut by 2050 (the UK target, National please note) involves. The equivalent for NZ would be a wonderful tool…