Posts Tagged lignite

The Gore synthesis: where we are now, where we are heading, and what we need to do Gareth Renowden Jan 22

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This is the five minute condensed version of the talk I gave in Gore at the Coal Action Network Aotearoa Summerfest (a somewhat optimistic title, given the chilly and wet weather last weekend).

It’s too late to avoid damaging climate change, because it’s already happening. Weather extremes — floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and storms — are on the increase, dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice is affecting northern hemisphere weather patterns, and accelerating ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica points towards a rapid increase in sea level. And the climate commitment, the 30 years it will take the planet to get back into energy balance once atmospheric CO2 is stabilised, guarantees that we will see much worse long before we see any benefit from action we take today.

Everything we do now to cut emissions will help us to avoid the very worst impacts — the almost unimaginable stuff that will be happening by the middle of this century — so it’s really worth doing.

To avoid future damage being catastrophic, we need emissions cuts to be made as if this were wartime. The global economy has to be switched from fossil fuel burning to clean energy as fast as possible — as if our very civilisation depended on it, because it does. Every year of delay now is a year more in the 2040s and 2050s of the very worst the climate system will throw at us. Every year of delay will make the job harder.

We need to go beyond stabilising atmospheric CO2 levels, and remove much of carbon emitted since the industrial revolution if we are to avoid losing much of the low lying land to long term sea level rise.

We need to be working now to futureproof New Zealand (and everywhere else) as much as possible. We must not lock our economies into high emissions pathways by investing in fossil fuel extraction or emissions-intensive agriculture. We must put in place policies to deal with sea level rise as it happens, but they will have to focus on managed retreat — at least until atmospheric CO2 is on a downwards trend. We need to focus on developing economic and social resilience, to enable us to recover from the inevitable shocks caused by rapid climate change.

This has to be the reality that our governments confront. Getting them to face up to the full seriousness of climate change is not going to be easy, but it’s going to have to be done.


I often find that preparing a talk crystallises my thinking around an issue, and that was certainly the case here. Reviewing the climate events of the last year, looking forward to the near future, and considering our options as climate change begins to really bite left me feeling rather gloomy — but the energy and enthusiasm of the CANA crowd, committed to preventing lignite mining in Southland and to phasing out coal mining throughout New Zealand, did a lot to put a smile back on my face.

Below the fold is an expanded version of the notes I prepared for my talk, with links to supporting material (as I promised to the audiences in Gore)…

Where we are now

Every year since 1976 has been above 20th century average [NOAA National Climate Data Centre]

2012 9th/10th warmest year (see link above)

  • Warmest La Niña year
  • 9 out 10 warmest years this century
  • UKMO forecast new record in 2013 [Hot Topic]

Arctic sea ice rapid decline continues — new record minimum [National Snow and Ice Data Centre]

Greenland ice sheet record melt [Arctic Report Card]

NH weird weather linked to Arctic ice decline: In this section I described how the summer sea ice decline leads to a warm Arctic ocean in autumn and early winter, and the effect this has on jetstream behaviour (with much waving of arms). [Good overview at Climate Central]

Extreme weather is where climate bites

  • Aussie heatwave + fires
  • US warmest ever year
  • US drought
  • Floods & intense rainfall: – Pakistan, Nigeria, England’s wettest year
  • Sandy
  • The new normal

CO2 = 394 ppm – emissions still growing 2.5ppm per year [CO2Now]

Weak emissions policies: In this section, I described how the persistent framing of environmental protection as having to be balanced against economic activity, coupled with industry lobbying to reduce environmental protections and limit the costs of action to reduce emissions combine to create a lack of political will to address climate change. As a result national and international policies have been weakened or left becalmed.

Where we are heading

4ºC of warming is looking more and more likely… [World Bank report: Climate Progress, Hot Topic]

2ºC in rear view mirror: there’s still a chance, but it’s getting slimmer by the day

Sea level likely to rise 24 metres if atmospheric COs stabilises at 400 – 450 ppm [Science Daily]: the only question is how long it will take.

Scary stuff


Damaging climate change is unavoidable: climate commitment – 30 years warming in the pipeline

We have to cut net emissions to zero, then we have to take carbon out of the atmosphere

  • (but 300 would be better)
  • Oceans will work against us
  • Technology not ready (yet)

Need “wartime” emissions cuts

  • The longer you leave it, the harder it gets to cut
  • The longer you leave it, the worse the unavoidable damage
  • Geoengineering seems almost inevitable

Futureproofing NZ

  • Resilience
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Coastal retreat – Christchurch!
  • Do not lock economy into high emissions
  • Coal, lignite
  • Emissions intensive agriculture (dairy)

Coal deposits are not assets, they’re liabilities!

Hansen’s letter on lignite Bryan Walker Apr 07

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At the suggestion of Slovenian colleagues, James Hansen has written to the President and members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia urging them to deny a state guarantee for a proposed European Investment Bank loan to fund a new lignite-fired power plant in their country.

He points out that they are considering a decision which will have significant effects, some irreversible, upon the world that today’s young people and future generations inherit. Such a strong statement, he says, however unlikely it may seem at first glance, is a clear conclusion of the most advanced climate science. That science he proceeds to summarise in his letter, and to describe in more detail in an attached paper The Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature.

The paper is well worth attention. No fewer than 17 co-authors, from a variety of universities and institutes around the world, participated in its preparation. The result is a valuable summation of the science and the implications for humanity in moving to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency. I don’t know whether many politicians actually sit down and read a coherent account of where climate science is at, but the paper serves extremely well for anyone, politician or not, who wants such an account.

’Humanity is now the dominant force driving changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus future climate.’ Hansen’s blunt opening statement is explained in detail as the paper proceeds. I’ll touch only lightly on its contents, which are familiar enough to anyone who follows the issue. It’s worth noting the increasing urgency which the paper points to as the impacts of global warming become apparent. What was once thought to be a tolerable level of a few degrees of warming can now be seen as dangerous. Although global warming is currently less than 1ºC, significant impacts are already apparent. There has been a much larger than expected decrease in summer Arctic sea ice; the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shedding ice at several hundred cubic kilometres per year and accelerating; mountain glaciers around the world are receding rapidly; the hot dry sub-tropical climate belts have expanded; the abundance of reef-building corals is decreasing; more than half of all wild species are experiencing habitat and seasonal timing changes; mega-heatwaves have become more widespread.

There is a consequent need for a reassessment of what constitutes a dangerous level of warming and the paper points to Earth’s paleoclimate history as a guide. Powerful feedbacks of loss of albedo and rising CO2 emissions greatly amplified the effects of what would otherwise have been small changes in past climates; that is a warning for us of what the extremely rapid rise in emissions today may result in. Past records of sea level rise are particularly ominous in this respect.

The paper explains the conclusion that an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 ppm is the target which could stabilise climate near current temperatures. It’s an important conclusion, but also a troubling one in that we are already well past that mark and climbing. However the paper considers it is not impossible to return to 350 ppm this century through reforestation and increasing soil carbon. But emissions must start to be scaled back urgently as well.

Hansen et al also warn of the possible development of slow feedbacks, such as ice sheet disintegration, species extinction or the release of methane hydrates, if warming is allowed to continue. These slow feedbacks can become tipping points where further and possibly rapid changes become inevitable because they develop their own momentum and the dynamics of the process takes over.

The paper runs through the likely impacts of global warming — sea level rise, continuing into successive centuries possibly to very high levels; shifting climate zones, already apparent in isotherms moving poleward at a typical rate of the order of 100 km/decade in the past three decades; threats to species survival; loss of coral reefs; climate extremes; a variety of threats to human health.

The only effective response to the dangers posed by warming is for the world to move expeditiously to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. This transition, the paper considers, will not occur until a price is put on carbon. Fossil fuels are cheap only because they are subsidised and do not pay their costs to society.

One of the world’s leading climate scientists, supported by a distinguished group of colleagues from a number of disciplines, takes the trouble to write to the members of the Slovenian National Assembly over one coal-fired power plant, and to include a carefully prepared paper tailored to their understanding.  One hopes the Assembly members will recognise that the attention they have received is a measure of the concern that the authors feel that the world is heading for major disaster.  One also hopes they will read the paper closely. I did, and I find it difficult to see how anyone could doubt the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence it canvasses that we are at a time when it is imperative that we begin a substantial and steadily continuing reduction in our emission of greenhouse gases and that we acknowledge that most remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

Some social scientists point out that the scientific evidence alone is not what convinces people. I have some difficulty appreciating this because I found some years ago that the science was quite enough to convince me. They in return would no doubt say that I was socially pre-conditioned to conviction. But whatever the merits of such arguments it surely remains important that the stark reality of the scientific picture be continually brought to public attention and that we are made to understand that the scientists themselves are deeply alarmed by what they discover. That’s the touchstone against which all our responses should be measured, whatever social factors may also come into play. Hansen and his colleagues perform a public service of high importance.

Hidden treasure is fools gold Bryan Walker Dec 19

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The Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) has launched a new document, Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction. The title says it all, and it’s the same message as the government has been feeding us for the last three years.

First the treasure. The document sets it out in dollar terms. I’ll mention only the fossil fuels here. They estimate the potential value of the resources as $109 billion for coal, $248 billion for lignite, $187 billion for oil and $45 billion for natural gas.

Then the question of responsible extraction. The document is concerned with the environmental effects. There are plenty to be concerned about, but in this post I’ll focus on greenhouse gases, which the document addresses in a short section headed ’Can We Manage Greenhouse Gas Emissions?’

The opening statement of the section attempts to declare us free from any responsibility for the consequences from exported products:

A global decision has been made that the responsibility for minimising greenhouse discharges lies with fossil fuel users, not producers.

And so far as burning them in New Zealand is concerned, that’s all covered by the ETS which has seemingly accounted for the effects of emissions:

The New Zealand regulatory environment already provides direct economic signals to private investors so fossil fuel users and producers are able to operate in a market that embodies the effect of greenhouse gas emissions.

The conclusion follows logically:

IPENZ considers New Zealand should not penalise itself or forego economic opportunity by leaving its minerals and petroleum in the ground. It is not immoral or inappropriate to derive economic benefit from these resources.

This is casuistry, all too familiar in the defence of continuing fossil fuel extraction. What they are really saying is that it is still profitable to mine fossil fuels because governments refuse to put a price on them which reflects their real costs. That means there is continuing demand for them and we would be fools not to benefit from it.

Interesting that they should feel the need to say it is not immoral. I hope that means they suspect it might be. Somewhere along the line it must become immoral, by any normal definition of morality. We know that the continued burning of fossil fuels will create havoc with the environment in which human civilisation has developed and flourished. We can be pretty sure that it is already impacting harshly on the lives of many of the world’s poorer populations. We can foresee the grave threats it carries for the viability of many human societies even in the course of this century. It may not be immoral to continue with fossil fuels for a brief time while we make an urgent transition to other energy sources. But to delay that transition while we extract and use up all the fossil resources that are still available would be deeply immoral and should be denounced as such. To hail the possibility of extracting all New Zealand’s fossil resources as an economic opportunity not to be missed is to move dangerously away from basic ethical norms. IPENZ needs to check its moral compass, if it hasn’t lost it.

The next paragraph in the document begins to considers the possibility that the ETS may not be as effective in dealing with the matter of emissions as they first declared:

However, it is acknowledged that in a review in 2010, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlighted New Zealand’s international emission reduction obligations and the unlikelihood of the country meeting its targets. The review also noted the Emissions Trading Scheme is the only significant mechanism currently available for curbing growth in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But they’re not going to let that weigh too heavily on their conscience:

This is a wider issue for New Zealand to consider, rather than one industry.

A final paragraph looks at the lignite question.

Solid Energy New Zealand Limited has recently begun constructing a pilot lignite briquetting plant near Mataura in Southland. Solid Energy is also investigating converting lignite to ammonia and urea fertiliser, or to liquid transport fuels. Each of these products has different carbon emission intensity and this will need managing. Solid Energy is aware of this issue and has stated it intends to explore ways of reducing emissions, offsetting emissions by plantings or purchasing carbon credits, or carbon capture and storage.

These are weasel words. Unless carbon capture and storage becomes a viable proposition — a possibility of which there’s so far little indication other than rhetorical — the plain fact is that the lignite development is going to add substantial quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere because the cost of offsetting will be cheap and will not come anywhere near compensating for the emissions. Offsetting is not a miracle solution to rising emissions.

The convoluted arguments of IPENZ carry no weight against the stubborn reality that most of the world’s as yet unexploited fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground if we are to have any hope of avoiding the more extreme dangers of climate change. I would have hoped that engineers would have enough scientific savvy to recognise this. The lure of hidden treasure must sometimes be resisted.

The scientific yardstick for political policy Bryan Walker Nov 14

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I was pleased to see the Labour Party’s announcement that it is opposed to the Southland lignite development planned by Solid Energy, and went looking for more detail in the party’s climate change policy.  The opening paragraph of the policy statement struck me as more direct than I expected:

Climate change poses an enormous global threat and severely threatens our way of life. It is occurring more rapidly than previously predicted. Humankind is pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on a scale far greater than the ability of the environment to absorb them.

Against this background the decision to oppose the lignite development in spite of its claimed financial benefit makes perfect sense:

New Zealand’s lignite resources are immense but the environmental case against large-scale lignite use is overwhelming.

Labour does not support the mining of lignite, and its conversion to liquid fuels using current technologies, because of the high volume of greenhouse gases produced.

There is more, and the conclusion is clear:

Labour will therefore direct Solid Energy not to proceed with its liquid fuels lignite mining proposal.

I applaud the Labour Party’s stance, as much as I deplore the Government’s support for lignite development, reiterated in the response of the Deputy Prime Minister to Labour’s declaration as ’just another example of Labour standing in the way of jobs and progress in Southland’.

Why would Labour want to stand in the way of ’jobs and progress’? Does Bill English ask himself that question?  Is it possibly because they have declared that ’climate change poses an enormous global threat and severely threatens our way of life’?

I had a look at the National Party policy. It’s on a cheery page headed Environment and Climate Change with the subtitle Building a Brighter Future. Certainly nothing there to suggest an enormous global threat. Indeed, the scaling back of the Emissions Trading Scheme is referred to as ’a more balanced approach to climate change’. There’s some reassuring-sounding reference to more trees, more renewable power stations, more home insulation, emissions targets. But the better balance they refer to is between what they describe as New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests, and it essentially means, so far as I can see, that they do not treat the climate crisis with full seriousness. No one contemplating with equanimity the conversion of Southland lignite to liquid fuel can be treating climate change seriously.

Consider the recent analysis of the International Energy Agency, as reported in the Guardian. If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available “carbon budget” will be taken by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, the whole of the carbon budget will be taken. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA summed it up:

“The door is closing. I am very worried — if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

That’s the proper context in which to consider ’jobs and progress in Southland’.

To return to the opening paragraph in the Labour party policy statement. Nothing less than such a statement will do to guide political action today. It is desperately necessary that the major parties acknowledge this, as the Greens have long done. There is no political slant to this kind of recognition. It is to do with fundamental science and fundamental conditions for life. The enormity and severe danger of climate change is the yardstick against which our political environmental policies must be measured. And politicians of all persuasions should be finding the courage to say so unequivocally and regularly.

A Week of Contradiction Bryan Walker Sep 10

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We seem to have convinced the world that we’re right up in the forefront when it comes to tackling climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon came to New Zealand this week to the Pacific Islands Forum and called at Kiribati en route.

“For those who believe climate change is about some distant future, I invite them to Kiribati.

“Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.”

“We will not succeed in reducing emissions without sustainable energy solutions,” he said, and then he praised New Zealand as a global leader in sustainable development, with the vast majority of its energy coming from renewable sources.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission also arrived and had this to say:

’The European Union has adopted the world’s most stringent set of climate and energy targets to be met by 2020, known as the ’20-20-20’targets.

’New Zealand is one of the first countries to join us in tackling action against climate change, namely though its emissions trading scheme, through its pioneering role on renewables, especially hydro and increasingly wind power, and for having championed the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases.’

The Forum was an entirely appropriate place to be talking about tackling climate change, though I combed John Key’s opening statement in vain for mention of the subject. Renewable energy to replace fossil fuels was as close as he got. However a joint statement was issued on Wednesday by the Secretary-General and the leaders at the Forum which urged “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states.”

Jimmie Rodgers, director general, Secretariat of the Pacific Community said:

“The impacts of climate change are more pronounced in the Pacific Small Island Developing States. For many of their citizens, climate change touches and impacts their lives on a regular basis. For them it is about how food security can be sustained, how health is protected, how education is enhanced, how safe water supply is safeguarded, how coastal areas are protected, how human settlements are climate proofed and how the impact of high water surges and flooding are reduced.”

Some financial assistance has been offered. The US has announced a $21 million climate change programme for Pacific Small Island Developing States. The EU will make $17 million available to Papua New Guinea and East Timor to help combat climate change. Australia will spend $13.5 million on alleviating the effects of climate change in the Pacific, including the planting of mangroves on Kiribati and other water supply, agricultural and coastal maintenance projects in the region. New Zealand will invest $7.9 million to fund the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant in Tonga. Token amounts, but…

Meanwhile what’s happening back in the real world? This may be the week that we joined with Pacific Island leaders to call for “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states” and enjoyed having nice things said to us by important people about our commitment to action on climate change, but it’s also the week in which a beginning was officially made, with Bill English in attendance, on the first steps to unlock billions of tonnes of lignite from under the fields of Southland.  A factory at Mataura is expected to be completed by June. It will turn 150,000 tonnes of lignite into 90,000 tonnes of briquettes for home and industrial heating each year. If that works out a far bigger plant will be built. And then in due course there’ll be the fertiliser and diesel schemes to follow. Eleven billion tonnes of the stuff lie underground in Southland and Otago.

I’ve written often enough on lignite to be uncomfortably aware that I’m repeating myself but there is a blatant contradiction between our apparent sharing of Pacific Island leaders’ deep concern about the impacts of climate change and our determination to press ahead with a project which will add very significantly to our greenhouse gas emissions.  Behind the scenes we are acting quite differently from the sustainable development image we have evidently presented, so far successfully,  to the world audience.

Thinking Old-Style Big Bryan Walker Aug 23

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A full page feature recently appeared in the Waikato Times in which Press journalist John McCrone interviewed Solid Energy CEO Don Elder on the Southland lignite proposals. It was a thoughtful piece of journalism, and I wish I could provide a link to it but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Stuff website. It provided a good overview of the thinking behind Solid Energy’s pursuit of lignite development, along with objections levelled against it. I’ve already written on the question but it’s important enough to keep returning to.

Lignite is big. Briquetting should be under way next year in a factory which has been consented by Environment Southland. Hospitals, commercial greenhouses and Fonterra are expected customers. But that’s just a groundbreaker. On the drawing board is a phase two briquetting plant that will be ten times larger.

Then come the ‘truly humungous’ developments. First, the $1.4 billion lignite-to-urea conversion factory which could be operational by 2015, producing enough fertiliser for New Zealand to become a $2b a year exporter. Second, a $10b to $15b lignite-to-diesel conversion plan which could be producing enough synthetic fuel by 2018 for New Zealand to be self-sufficient in road transport and agricultural machinery fuel for the next few hundred years. There’s a third prospect, thankfully looking unlikely, a 2000-megawatt lignite-fired power station, double the size of anything else that has been built to supply the national grid.

Elder sees New Zealand as fantastically fortunate. 10 billion tons of lignite reserves, the equivalent in energy to 30 Maui gasfields. Yes, he completely agrees, there’s climate change to be concerned about. But that’s not the problem it looks. Solid Energy holds a trump card. Carbon capture and storage (CCS).

’Solid Energy’s proposals include the siphoning off of all CO2 produced during the urea and diesel conversion processes. This captured carbon will then be sequestered — liquefied, piped deep underground into aquifer formations, or even down oil wells if Southland’s off-shore petroleum fields ever get developed.

’Elder says under the right kind of rock it will remain sealed. ‘It stays liquid under pressure and barely moves. We’ve had a team working on geo-sequestration for eight or nine years now and we’re very comfortable with the technology.’’

McCrone points out that others like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright and Lincoln University researcher Shannon Page consider the idea of CCS is still unproven. There are no guarantees that it works in practice or that Southland even has room for the volume of gas involved.  That doesn’t faze Elder who has a fall-back option of offsetting carbon emissions by regenerating native forest and says Solid Energy has been working on a carbon sink trial with the Conservation Department.

Elder’s assurances about CCS look premature to me. I’ve seen no evidence that we’re ready to put it into operation within four years. The fact that he offered an alternative of offsetting by native afforestation suggested that he was by no means sure that CCS was a goer. Afforestation proposals are to be welcomed, but as attempts to lower the CO2 already in the atmosphere, not to open the way for large and unnecessary additional emissions. Elder’s preparedness to rely on offsets in this way suggests that he has little appreciation of how dire the current greenhouse gas levels already are. And there was no suggestion that the afforestation proposals had been quantified relative to the expected level of emissions.

Elder did assure McCrone that Solid Energy would not be seeking free credits under the ETS for its proposals. They’ve already said no to such a possibility. ’We’ve got a very clear view on this. We won’t get to do these projects unless we can pay for our own carbon.’ Not that that’s a big call under a government seemingly prepared to keep the price of carbon at a comfortable level for industry.

On the fertiliser question Elder said that nitrogen fertilisers have to be made from fossil fuels. I presume when he says ’have to’ he means it’s the cheapest way to make them. In future, because of the better economic uses for natural gas, it will be made from coal, and China has been building coal-to-urea plants. So, if we make urea from our own lignite we’ll just be displacing the fertiliser we would have bought from China. No recognition here, incidentally, that there’s any problem surrounding the overuse of cheap nitrogen fertiliser on New Zealand farms and globally or that human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. (See Planetary Boundaries)

Diesel has to be generated somewhere else in the world and imported at cost to us. Much better to make it ourselves. Elder presumably discounts the possibility that we can make it ourselves in a climate-friendly manner by using biomass, as outlined, for example, in the 2006 report of the Royal Society Energy Panel or explored by Kevin Cudby in his recent book From Smoke to Mirrors.

This argument that if we don’t do it someone else will is much favoured by those who want to keep exploiting our fossil fuels. It is an abandonment of responsibility for our greenhouse gas emissions. It displays no sense of the urgency of the need to find alternatives to fossil fuels. It is conventional business-as-usual thinking which seems unable to even imagine how we could do some things differently, let alone set about achieving it. Basically it is a failure to recognise the imperative that rising levels of greenhouse gases have imposed upon us.

That is where Solid Energy’s plans founder. They are cavalier about the risks of catastrophic climate change. And they are consequently risky even as economic propositions. Consider this outcome: as the realities of climate change begin to bite society will turn decisively away from greenhouse gas-emitting industry and the prosperous future prophesied by those who look to keep mining fossil fuels will not eventuate.

But look, protests Elder, we’re the lucky country. We’ve got everything Australia has — land, minerals, sunshine — but we’ve also got water, and it’s water which is essential to adding value to mining. It’s massive amounts of water which can enable us to turn coal to fertiliser or to diesel. Australia is stuck with commodity mining, but we can focus on added-value mining. We’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface of what coal can do for us. For good measure he adds the theme often sounded by the Minister for Economic Development Gerry Brownlee, that with the returns we earn we’ll be able to pay for top environmental practices. Indeed Elder’s thinking generally is very much in harmony with Brownlee’s Draft Energy Strategy.

It’s yesterday’s thinking. The dreams of wealth from coal are a chimera. If Solid Energy stays on that track investors would do well to be wary when it’s partly privatised. The company could have a much more secure and profitable future by turning its attention to the rapid and full development of our renewable energy potential. Elder says it’s time for realism rather than idealism, and adds that opponents to lignite have to consider the science. Surely science and the realism which flows from it say unequivocally leave the lignite undisturbed.

Key contradictions Bryan Walker Jun 09

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Gareth’s post on James Hansen’s talk at the University of Canterbury carried a link to a recent report that the Prime Minister supports the intentions of Solid Energy to develop the Southland lignite fields. The contrast between the warnings of Hansen and the bland assumptions of Key was painful.

Key speaks straight business as usual:

“At the moment companies like Solid Energy are growth companies and we want them to expand in areas like lignite conversion.”

“We know there is lots of resource there and we know they potentially have the capability [to convert lignite to urea or diesel] and so we will see how that progresses, but the briquette plant is a good starting point.”

There is a nod in the direction of environmental concerns, but only in vague general and reassuring terms.

’Mr Key said companies were controlled by Government regulations and so there were always environmental obligations that needed to be met.’

His words repeat the balance mantra which has long been used to sanctify government determination to carry on exploiting fossil fuels:

“We do actually think we can grow the economy and look after the environment, but obviously it is incumbent on us to have the right rules to follow that … I’ve always believed we can balance our environmental responsibilities with our economic opportunities.”

What regulations and rules is the Prime Minister talking about? Presumably he is referring to the Emissions Trading Scheme, and it seems pretty clear that there is nothing in the ETS which will stand seriously in the way of the lignite development.

He speaks of environmental responsibilities. In relation to climate change the nearest responsibility the government has accepted is the 2020 target for greenhouse gas reductions. Woefully inadequate though it is at between 10 and 20 percent below 1990 levels, one might assume that it would certainly rule out a major new emissions source such as the lignite development. But apparently not.

Why not? A look at the explanation offered on the Ministry for the Environment website suggests there are ways to accommodate the new source of emissions.

’A ‘responsibility target’ means that it is expected that New Zealand will meet its target through a mixture of domestic emission reductions, the storage of carbon in forests, and the purchase of emission reduction units in other countries.’

In other words, the lignite development would simply reduce the size of the domestic emissions reductions contribution to the target, leaving more to be taken up by the other two in the mix.

It sounds reasonable and obviously satisfies the government. But it’s smoke and mirrors. There is no way in which the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the continuing exploitation of fossil fuels can be compensated for by tree planting. A carbon price set at an appropriate level would underline this reality. But New Zealand’s current ETS is designed to make it impossible for carbon to be priced at a level appropriate to the dangers it poses.

Jim Hansen says if we hope to keep the global temperature within a range similar to that in which human civilisation has developed we must phase out coal quickly, not exploit unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, shale oil and methane hydrates, and not pursue the last drops of conventional oil in polar regions, the deep ocean or pristine land. John Key looks forward to development of the lignite fields and his Minister of Energy sees great potential in deep ocean drilling, possible methane hydrate exploitation, and coal mining on conservation land if he can get it.

The two positions are far apart. Yet the government doesn’t actively deny the science of climate change. It acknowledges it in broad terms, and takes part in international discussions to reach a global agreement to tackle it. But, in a classic tragedy of the commons scenario, it also continues to pursue what it sees as its own economic advantage in the exploitation of its fossil fuel resources. The ethical contradiction is manifest.

New Zealand is not alone in its position, which is no comfort. Rich countries like the US, Canada and Australia follow much the same line. Maybe it will be less well off countries who in the end jolt them out of their selfishness. In international discussions one of the arguments for inaction has been that the developing countries are not prepared to pull their weight. However Oxfam has this week reported that, according to a survey they commissioned from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), developing countries have pledged to make bigger 2020 cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions than industrialized countries, compared to a business as usual scenario. If that is the case then it is clearly the rich countries that are not pulling their weight. The SEI survey shows that in terms of pledges the emissions reductions of developing countries could be three times greater than those of the EU and the emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil — the BASIC countries — could be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the 7 biggest developed countries — the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia by 2020.

The Oxfam climate change policy adviser Tim Gore comments:

’All countries need to do their fair share to tackle climate change. Yet rich industrialized countries which are most responsible for the climate crisis are not pulling their weight.

’It’s time for governments from Europe to the US to stand up to the fossil fuel lobbyists. Their competitors in developing countries — from China to India and Brazil — have pledged to do more to rein in emissions and start building prosperous low carbon economies. Europe and the US risk being left behind.’

Not that the sum total of all the pledges is anywhere near enough to keep us below the 2 degrees target agreed to in Cancún. Oxfam, after declaring that we sink or swim together, rightly points out that the pledges currently on the table mean we are sinking. Which is what Hansen affirms and the New Zealand government presumably denies, if it ever gets as far as thinking about the implications of its actions.

Hansen in NZ: final roundup Gareth Renowden Jun 05

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Here’s a high quality video of Jim Hansen’s talk at the University of Canterbury last month (excellent work by the audiovisual team at UC). Well worth watching, if only because it provides a succinct summary of Hansen’s current thinking. As Dr. Chuck Kutscher of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US said:

If you want to know the scientific consensus on global warming, read the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But if you want to know what the consensus will be ten years from now, read Jim Hansen’s work.

Hansen has also published his open letter to John Key (at HT here), with added observations on his time in New Zealand. I particularly enjoyed his heartfelt reference (in a footnote) to his minder, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons:

[...] slave-driver Jeanette Fitzsimons unceremoniously routing me out of bed at 6 or 7 AM every day to get moving to the next town — not exactly a case of sipping piña colada on a beach.

See also: R0B at The Standard draws attention to a podcast of Hansen’s talk at Otago University, who notes that he described his meeting with Environment Minister Nick Smith as ’a very unpleasant discussion’. With the recent news that John Key has given his support to lignite mining in Southland, it’s clear that the disconnect between reality and the New Zealand government is growing ever greater.

[Climate Show interview with Jim Hansen here. Hat tip to Jason Box for the Kutscher quote.]

On Lignite: Elder not better Bryan Walker May 19

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Since Don Elder thinks it inappropriate for the visiting James Hansen to comment on the morality of the proposed lignite development in Southland, let me, a fellow New Zealander, say that I find the morality of the development indefensible and all the special pleading offered by Elder doesn’t alter the case.

There is evidence that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity are already causing hardship to some poorer populations of the world. There is little doubt that they will deliver today’s young and their children a world under pressure from immense and adverse changes which few of us would wish on them. That’s the basis of Hansen’s forthright comments on the morality of continuing to burn fossil fuels. If you want a more eloquent statement than he is accustomed to make have a look at what Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder said at a panel he shared with Hansen at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. I quoted him at some length in this post, but the essence of his speech was in these words:

’You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. This must obviously include your neighbour generation. It has to include absolutely everyone who will live on the earth after us. The human family doesn’t inhabit earth simultaneously. People have lived here before us, some are living now and some will live after us. But those who come after us are also our fellow human beings…We have no right to hand over a planet earth that is less worth than the planet that we ourselves have had the good fortune to live on.’

If the South Island lignite remains in the ground it will not add to the dangerous level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But, pleads Elder — and he no doubt represents a large section of opinion including, one presumes, Minister Gerry Brownlee — if we don’t use it to manufacture urea and diesel we will have to obtain the products from elsewhere in the world, and because they have to be transported here they may in fact carry a larger carbon footprint than if we manufactured them in Southland.  He provides no evidence that the lignite processes will in fact be less polluting in total than the imported materials are. He also assumes that environmentally gentler alternatives to the fertiliser and fuel will not be desired in the future as the country wakes up to the reality of human-cause climate change.

The kind of arguments Elder is putting forward can be pursued to the point where all the fossil fuels in the world are exploited, and at every point along the way similar casuistries will make it seem only sensible and reasonable that we should all be doing what we are doing and that it is even in the interests of the environment. I once wrote to the Minister of Energy and Climate Change in the previous government asking how the mining and export of coal could be justified in the light of the commitment to mitigate climate change. The answer was that the countries to which it is exported are responsible for the emissions, not us.  I was not surprised by the answer, but it still strikes me as washing our hands of the consequences of our coal mining, and fits the scenario of a world which carries on digging every last bit of fossil fuel from the earth and burning it, with seemingly reasonable explanations to hand all along the disastrous way.

The world can’t stop burning fossil fuels overnight. But it can start to wind them down. The development of Southland lignite is not necessary to bridge any interim as we move to a low carbon economy. Nor is coal mining for export for that matter. They are simply undertaken to make money. The human cost is ignored or denied. I think that can fairly be described as morally reprehensible.

Lignite: dirty brown forbidden fruit Bryan Walker Feb 20

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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.

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