The wrong road to take

By Bryan Walker 19/01/2012

It’s difficult not to become repetitive when blogging about climate change. The basic science is well-established. The dangers global warming poses to human society are clear and in some places present. The solutions lie with drastically cutting the level of greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes already unavoidable.  The mitigation solution in particular continues to be resisted by vested interests and their political allies. I’m conscious of having expressed each of these facts many times over in a variety of forms over the past three years. And now I’m about to repeat myself within a month of last writing about the contradiction in New Zealand government thinking.

It was BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly’s article in the Herald on Tuesday that provoked me. He was bullish at the start of a new year on New Zealand’s opportunity to earn new wealth. It’s our hard commodities – minerals and petroleum —which offer outstanding rewards. We are ’blessed with iron sands, coal, petroleum, phosphate, precious metals and rare earths’. We already take royalties and tax revenues from the sector, and O’Reilly claims we could be earning much more by opening access to more of our mineral and petroleum estate. It needs to be done responsibly of course, and we could be leaders in that direction:

We could create a minerals and petroleum sector with standards for sustainability, safety and environmental protection that are the highest in the world.

From a climate change perspective let’s be clear about what O’Reilly is proposing. He wants the search for and extraction of fossil fuels to play a major part in the New Zealand economy. He’s looking for a great surge in activity in this direction. The high standards of environmental protection he writes of clearly do not include climate protection. This is not surprising. Fossil fuel use is inimical to climate protection. The only way fossil fuels can protect the climate is by remaining in the ground unused. All the care in the world to prevent oil spills or restore mined landscape doesn’t alter the fact that when that fuel is burned it will increase the level of global warming.

O’Reilly urges readers to participate in the review of the Crown Minerals Act which is currently under way and which will invite public consultation this year. I had a look at the Ministry of Economic Development website to see what that involved. There’s nothing there to reassure anyone alarmed by climate change. The first aim of the review:

Align the regulatory regime with the Government’s Economic Growth Agenda and regulatory reform agenda.

And the Economic Growth Agenda to which it is to be aligned?

The Government has set a target for New Zealand to catch up with Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (currently 76 per cent) and for exports to be 40 per cent of GDP (currently 31 per cent) by 2025. The Government has announced a broad economic growth plan to achieve this. The plan includes focusing on lifting the growth of particular sectors, including the petroleum and minerals sectors, which have the greatest potential to contribute to a step change in New Zealand’s economic performance and where the potential impact of government action is likely to be very high.

This is all spelt out at greater length in the full discussion document which contains no mention of climate change, global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, or carbon dioxide. In other words the government is determined to go ahead with fossil fuel development as a key factor in their plans for economic growth and no consideration of climate change will be permitted to stop them. Phil O’Reilly, representing New Zealand’s largest business advocacy body, is very much in step.

What is so wrong about all this is not that we are continuing to use fossil fuels. Our economy is built around them and no one is claiming that we can switch off using them immediately. But what one expects from an educated government and business community is a plan to move towards a low-carbon economy with all possible speed and determination, not an all-out drive to discover and exploit fossil fuels justified by the wealth it will create. To do so is morally obtuse since we know the dangers such a course holds for humanity. It is also likely to prove economically self-defeating because it pushes investment in a direction which has dead end written all over it.

O’Reilly does not represent all New Zealand businesses. Phillip Mills of Pure Advantage carried a very different message in the Herald (also posted at HotTopic) in November, urging politicians to plan for a very different future from that extolled by O’Reilly.

Rather than risking our environment and reputation by opening marginally accessible petroleum reserves to foreign oil corporations, the emphasis should be on investing in those industries that can provide us with an advantage in rapidly emerging markets such as renewable energy and the businesses that spin off that, from electric vehicles to cloud computing.

He wrote that the Pure Advantage Trust has recently commissioned a group of world-leading economists to review New Zealand’s green growth opportunities and make recommendations as to how we can build a greener, wealthier nation. They plan to release the group’s findings early this year. Those findings might prove a useful counter to the kind of results the government obviously expects from its review of the Crown Minerals Act.

The task of turning governments worldwide away from fossil fuel exploration and extraction seems herculean. But we have no alternative than to keep at it. It would be dereliction to allow them to carry on regardless with no protest from the portion of the population which understands how truly dire are the circumstances many governments continue to ignore.

I’ll endure the knowledge that I’m repeating myself and say again that the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t extract all our fossil fuel resources without producing severe climate consequences. Exporting them for someone else to burn alters that fact not one whit. The Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and the Energy and Resources Minister Phil Heatley should be facing up to that reality every day and requiring their cabinet colleagues to do likewise.