Memo to Labour: Calling fossil fuels “transition fuels” doesn’t make the carbon go away

By Mr February 09/09/2014


The New Zealand Labour Party announced their climate change policy on 24 August; the Sunday before last Sunday.

At first glance, it sounds refreshingly like a policy that takes anthropogenic global warming seriously. From the announcement:

A Labour Government will put in place a comprehensive climate change strategy focusing on both mitigation and adaptation, establish an independent Climate Commission and implement carbon budgeting, says Labour Climate Change spokesperson Moana Mackey.

“This is about future-proofing our economy. Making the transition to a low-carbon clean technology economy is not a ‘nice to have’ as the current Government would have us believe. It is a transition we must make and the sooner we begin, the easier that transition will be.”

How did the media respond? Well they ignored it. I haven’t seen any reporting of Labour’s climate change policy in the Herald, or Stuff/Fairfax, or Radio NZ or TV1 or TV3. I only stumbled onto it via Scoop a week after the release.

Like the 2011 election, the issue of climate change has been notable for it’s absence (the snake swallowing the elephant in the room).

However, some climate change focused NGOs responded positively to Labour’s policy. Simon Terry at the Sustainability Council said a carbon budget was the single most important reform. Generation Zero and the Iwi Leaders Group and forest owners welcomed the policy. The mainstream media of course also ignored these NGO views.

However, before I get into the detail of Labour’s climate change policy (a topic for another post), it’s important to ask “are the dots connected with Labour’s energy policy?” Unfortunately, the dots are not connected and the energy policy is 180 degrees contrary to the concept of a carbon budget.

Let’s look first at the sixth paragraph of Labour’s energy policy.

“It is internationally agreed that the average global temperature increase must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided. That means two-thirds of currently identified fossil fuel reserves cannot be consumed before 2050, in the absence of widely-deployed (and still unproven) carbon capture and storage technology.”

This is fantastic, isn’t it? Labour get it! They have read up on the Meinhausen et al Two Degrees Nature paper, the Carbon Tracker Unburnable Carbon Report, Bill McKibbin’s Do the Math and the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report.

They understand that the carbon in existing fossil fuel reserves will when consumed produce significantly more carbon dioxide than the quantity compatible with keeping average global warming to two degrees.

If only that were so. The next sentence tells us that Labour don’t get climate change.

“This does not mean that New Zealand should stop developing its own petroleum resources in a world still heavily dependent on oil. But this will be in the context of transitioning to renewable energy, which New Zealand and the rest of the world needs rapidly to do.”

This is inconsistent and nonsense. Someone else somewhere else must keep their fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change. But not New Zealand. Under Labour’s policy, the private sector will develop New Zealand’s oil and gas reserves and the oil and gas infrastructure, with say a 40 or 50 year life span, over which they will expect to get a market return. Thats a carbon commitment for most of the years until 2100. The very time frame that the IPCC low emissions pathways say we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%.

What is Labour thinking here? Where does Labour think the carbon dioxide from NZ’s new hydrocarbon reserves will end up? Or maybe if you label the NZ hydrocarbons as “transition” fuels there are fewer carbon atoms? Again this is nonsense.

I can only guess that Labour, in stating that their policy is in “the context of transitioning to renewable energy”, are arguing that oil and gas are now “transition fuels” to renewable energy supplies. That oil and gas are “bridge fuels” to renewables. Again this is nonsense. Are Labour now agreeing with Nick Smith?

I am not the only person to note the inherent contradiction in Labour’s policy. Bryan Walker has already noted that the intellectual hollowness is plain in Labour’s policy. Walker said;

“Political parties and governments which support expanded exploration and development of fossil resources either do not understand the severity of the scientific message or are so consumed by the prospects of economic wealth that they are determined not to heed it.”

Ditto Forest and Bird’s Kevin Hackwell;

“If Labour is taking climate change seriously it would realise that its fossil fuels policy is at odds with the party’s overarching policy statements on sustainability and climate change.”

Labour really need to be challenged on this. It’s as if the party has set a compass bearing for the destination and then headed off in the exact opposite direction. If there isn’t an understanding of the limited carbon budget in both your energy policy and your climate change policy, then it’s pretty much a ‘fail’ before even looking at the detail of the climate change policy.