Key contradictions

By Bryan Walker 09/06/2011

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.