On Lignite: Elder not better

By Bryan Walker 19/05/2011

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.