Coal, climate change, and the New Zealand economy: winners, losers, and long-term users

Cross-posted from Coal Action Network Aotearoa

As the country reeled with the news last week that Solid Energy had gone into administration with a $300m debt, another event was happening in the Pacific that puts the debate in a context that it too seldom receives in New Zealand.

Sign on Kiribati's island of Tarawa. Photo: flickr
Sign on Kiribati’s island of Tarawa. Photo: flickr

On Thursday, Kiribati Prime Minister Anote Tong wrote to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coalmines.

“Kiribati, as a nation faced with a very uncertain future, is calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines. lt would be one positive step towards our collective global action against climate change and it is my sincere hope that you and your people would add your positive support in this endeavour,” he wrote.

“The construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP 21 in Paris, whilst stopping new coal mine constructions NOW will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical.”

UK Economist Sir Nicholas Stern agreed: “The use of coal is simply bad economics, unless one refuses to count as a cost the damages and deaths now and in the future from air pollution and climate change,” he told Reuters (Stern’s full statement here).

In June, Pope Francis said in his encyclical that the use of “highly polluting fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Continue reading “Coal, climate change, and the New Zealand economy: winners, losers, and long-term users”

Two weeks in Warsaw: Damage control

home made radio studio in the media centre
home made radio studio in the media centre

Another year, another climate COP, and a few more faltering baby steps toward trying to limit global climate change. But this time coal was in charge and it showed. I’ve been to enough of these meetings to know that there isn’t going to be One Big Event that will Suddenly Save the Climate, Just Like That. This was the problem with Copenhagen, a meeting that, frankly, was never going to do the job and where expectations were too high.

But every year, as emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and new, fossil-fuel-fired infrastructure is built, and new scientific discoveries are made, the more important these meetings get.

While Warsaw wasn’t going to get a Big Deal, it was an extremely important stepping stone toward the 2015 agreement which will be the closest thing to the One Big Event we’ll have seen in at least a decade, if not longer (since Kyoto?).

As one colleague said to me on the night the talks ended: “we got some things, and we lost less than we thought we would. But it wasn’t a major breakthrough, not with the amount of damage control we had to do.”

So what did we get at the end of those frenetic two weeks?

Continue reading “Two weeks in Warsaw: Damage control”

Polish Government and Big Coal kick own goal in Warsaw

Greenpeace banner on Polish Ministry of Economy.  Photo: 350.org
Greenpeace banner on Polish Ministry of Economy. Photo: 350.org

I’m not sure if the Polish Government really meant this to happen.

In the run-up to the climate talks, they had scurried round and found a bunch of largely fossil fuel and car sponsors to help them out.  Thanks to these sponsors, we’ve all been given coal-coloured bags with a big oil service company logo on it. Such a contrast from Durban where we had lovely cloth bags made from recycled fabric, made by people from villages across South Africa.

But in Warsaw today, he Polish Government and the coal industry must have been so pleased with their idea of setting up the World Coal Association “Coal Summit” at the same time as the climate talks. They even managed to persuade the UN Climate Convention’s Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres to speak at it, much to the fury of the youth, whose invitation she turned down.

But that’s when it all started to unravel. Continue reading “Polish Government and Big Coal kick own goal in Warsaw”

Poland or Coaland? Climate talks about to begin in Warsaw

Will the sun rise over progress at the climate talks (is that a coal fired power station in the distance?)
Will the sun rise over progress at the climate talks (is that a coal fired power station in the distance?)

Another year, another round of climate talks.  It’s the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Climate Convention and we’re back in Poland, the scene of an almost complete non-event in 2008, the year before Copenhagen.

It’s Eastern Europe’s turn to host another meeting, and nobody else was prepared to put their hand up, so we’re back in the land of coal, in the country that has rallied their biggest coal companies to sponsor the conference, and which is dragging the whole of the EU down to their level as they refuse to accept stronger targets.  I suspect #coaland will be a well-used hashtag by the end of this.

Usually when you come to a meeting like this, the town is full of banners and signs that a climate meeting is being hosted, but there’s not much sign of it here in Warsaw, except this rather confusing industry advertisement at the airport.

Next weekend there’s a World Coal Association conference in town, being addressed by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christian Figueres, who turned down a talk to youth at the Powershift conference in favour of talking with Big Coal.  She’s assured them it’s because she wants to “talk frankly” – let’s hope she does.

Last month the Polish hosts were caught posting a news piece heralding the melting of the Arctic as a new opportunity to explore for yet more fossil fuels.  While The YesMen (in a specacular own-goal, in my opinion) tried to claim the piece as their own, it was indeed the Polish Government’s own work. Given this government is chairing the talks, it’s not looking terribly hopeful.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, Cyclone Haiyan, the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded, has caused a terrible loss of life that’s still being counted – and major damage.  With winds at 195mph as it made landfall, it beat the 1969 record,  according to Jeff Masters’ blog.  Sea surface temperatures were up to 1.5degC above normal.

What role will the science have in these talks?  Will the IPCC’s recent working group 1 conclusions make a difference?  Figueres has already confirmed the IPCC’s carbon budget figures will not be on the agenda. Continue reading “Poland or Coaland? Climate talks about to begin in Warsaw”

Morality, government and fossil fools (Bryan’s back!)

I signed off regular writing for Hot Topic some months ago. But failing eyesight doesn’t mean failing concern, and my anger at the way our government heedlessly pursues the expansion of fossil fuel exploration led me recently to reflect I could still see sufficiently to write letters to editors. Publication of a letter by the NZ Herald emboldened me to try something for the dialogue page. It wasn’t accepted, on the reasonable  ground that they were about to publish an article by Jim Salinger which they described as along the same lines.

However I thought Hot Topic readers might be interested in my attempt to attack the government on moral grounds. I acknowledge that politics and morality make uneasy bedfellows, and that moral absolutism is hardly a suitable tool for political effectiveness. Nevertheless sometimes issues arise where shades of grey can legitimately be challenged by something closer to black and white, and that transition is certainly much earlier along the path of fossil fuel exploitation than our government (and many other governments) is currently inclined to allow.

The moral appeal is strongly made by many who write and speak on the climate issue. Al Gore sounds it regularly. Among the many books I have reviewed on Hot Topic I recall being struck by what William Calvin’s book Treating a Fever had to say on the question, as I summarised in the review:

“He also pins hope on religious leaders coming to see that climate change is a serious failure of stewardship and our present use of fossil fuel is a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations. Their arguments will trump the objections of the vested interests, just as they did when slavery was ended in the 19th century.”

Whether there’s any hope of an onslaught by religious leaders in church-going US, or for that matter in less religion-oriented NZ, is hardly yet clear, but the appeal to morality can be sounded just as well by those of no religion, and is worth making if we set any value on the finer human traits.

Here’s the piece I submitted to the Herald. Hot Topic readers will understand that it was written for a general public audience.

Continue reading “Morality, government and fossil fools (Bryan’s back!)”