Rebuilding on a rising tide

It’s been a shaky week in Christchurch and Canterbury. Another M6.3 shock hit the city on Monday afternoon — renewing the misery for many in the city’s eastern and seaside suburbs, but thankfully not adding to the death toll. Attention has now turned — with some force — to the question of which suburbs should be rebuilt, and an excellent feature by David Williams in last Saturday’s Press on sea level rise and its implications for the rebuilding of Christchurch should cause some pause for thought. Williams interviewed James Hansen during his visit to the city last month (shortly before I did, in fact), and uses Hansen’s views on sea level rise to kick off his discussion:

Hansen says a multi-metre sea level rise is possible this century if greenhouse gas emissions, caused by things such as coal-fired power plants, vehicle engines and agriculture, are not reduced.

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Lignite: dirty brown forbidden fruit

Two items during this week highlighted the continuing progress of Solid Energy’s intentions to develop the Southland lignite fields. I therefore provide this depressing update to two Hot Topic posts on the issue late last year. Don Elder (left), CEO of state-owned enterprise Solid Energy, appeared before the Commerce select committee during the week and announced that the proposed lignite developments will be worth billions. And it appears that this will be the case even if they don’t receive free carbon credits under the ETS, which they appear to nevertheless hope for. There was a slight acknowledgement that there were carbon footprint issues still to be resolved and some soothing suggestions, reported in the Otago Daily Times, that approaches such as mixing synthetic diesel with biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and planting trees, could reduce the net emissions. With a convenient fall-back – that the company could pay someone elsewhere in the world to do this for it. There is little evidence that carbon capture and storage will feature as anything more than talk in this scenario. The wildest extremity of the CCS option was touched on outside the committee when Elder spoke of the possibility of eventually piping carbon out to sea and pumping it into sea-floor oil or gas wells, after the Great South Basin has been developed.

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Moving the earth for oil

Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.

But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:

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Greenpeace: speaking truth to power

I’d like to offer a post in praise of Greenpeace. I’m not an active member of the organisation, though I give modest financial support because I am often thankful for its clear voice and actions on climate change.  A look through Greenpeace NZ’s latest magazine reminded me of the range of its climate change concern and prompted this acknowledgement.

The backward-looking Gerry Brownlee receives short shrift in a piece which makes my criticisms of him on Hot Topic look timid by comparison. Here’s Greenpeace’s take on NZ reality:

“We are a renewable energy powerhouse with an embarrassment of riches in smart thinking, engineering and scientific capability which enables us to deliver world beating climate change solutions.”

Brownlee, instead of focusing government thinking and support on this reality, proposes:

“…that we reach for the pick axes and start digging for the black stuff – be it coal or oil. Come forth, explore, exploit and burn is his rallying cry as practically no part of God’s Own is exempt from the whims of the highest bidder.”

Brownlee is playing Russian roulette with our pristine coastlines, our international reputation and with the climate. Moreover his focus on resuscitating the dying fossil fuel industry is denying our clean tech companies (more than 250 of them) the opportunity to conquer the clean technology world. The government must wake up to the 21st century.


“It must make clean technology the foundation of long-term economic prosperity and, in doing so, send a clear signal to businesses both at home and abroad that we are serious about becoming a key player in a low carbon world.”

Elsewhere the magazine records that Greenpeace has called on the NZ government to permanently stop all plans to open up NZ’s coastal waters to offshore oil drilling and stop any expansion of coal mining. A petition to that effect is under way. Two actions have highlighted the call. A group of volunteers smeared with fake crude emerged from the sea at Muriwai in July (pictured).  A few days later a bathing-gear-clad group similarly smeared walked through downtown Wellington to deliver the first 18,000 signatures of the petition along with Greenpeace’s submission on the Review of the Crown Minerals Act.

Greenpeace NZ’s campaign against Fonterra for the dairy industry’s use of palm kernel grown on areas of destroyed rainforest has received media coverage, particularly through their disruptive action at the Auckland Fonterra offices. The magazine reports the evasiveness of Fonterra CEO Andrew Ferrier when asked if Fonterra supported deforestation in Indonesia “…we’ve got, um, plenty of people in our comms  department that you can talk to about that.” The “comms people” were meanwhile putting out a statement mentioning Fonterra’s supply partner who “we believe follows industry best practice in responsible sourcing.”  Greenpeace comments dryly that “we believe” is corporate speak for “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Typically Greenpeace were on the ground in Indonesia, researching the continued destruction of rainforest by the palm industry and the magazine includes Communications Manager Suzette Jackson’s account of her 27 hours in jail when caught documenting the evidence of widespread destruction.

These examples from the recent magazine are of course just the tip of the iceberg for Greenpeace’s ongoing activism on climate change backed by solid and well-researched reports such as one on the clean energy future possible for New Zealand, or the Greenpeace International publications on their climate vision. From the international level the magazine carried some remarks by Kumi Naidoo who became the Executive Director of Greenpeace in 2009. He describes climate change as without question the greatest threat any generation has had to face, and at one point speaks of the role of civil disobedience, often present in Greenpeace actions, in awakening governments to action on such a crucial matter.

“History tells us that whenever injustice arises – whether that be related to civil rights in the United States, New Zealand’s nuclear-free movement, a woman’s right to vote, Parihaka or the anti-Springbok tour protests – it was only when determined men and women were prepared to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough, I am prepared to peacefully break the law and even go to prison to get our message across’, that change finally happened.

“When all other attempts at negotiation or discussion have faltered, organisations must have the option of turning to civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.”

It is this preparedness that gives Greenpeace’s advocacy the seriousness that climate change demands. All power to them as they continue the battle determinedly in the year ahead.

Can you dig it?

On the same day that I wrote a post about the proposed lignite development in Southland I emailed the Minister for Economic Development, Gerry Brownlee, to express my dismay at the news. I have received a letter in reply which explains all too clearly how such a development could, and presumably will, proceed under current policy.

In my email to the Minister I pointed out that simply offsetting the massive emissions from lignite development would hardly be in line with the intention of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote that unless there are clear plans to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide which will be released the company should not be permitted to undertake any of the proposals. The government is the owner of Solid Energy, able to tell the company it is not to proceed with the plans, and if necessary able to legislate to prevent the development of lignite until such time as sequestration technology is established. I spoke of the Minister’s duty to prevent such development at this time, and stated in conclusion that his obligation to protect our descendants from the potentially terrifying effects of climate change far outweighs any responsibility he carries for present economic development.


The Minister’s reply first assured me that, like me, the Government is concerned about climate change and is committed to doing its “fair share” in reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. The fair share theme is a constant in government statements about climate change these days. It’s a politically useful term: it reminds those who want to do considerably less than we are doing that we can’t afford to appear laggard, and it also serves to placate those who feel we are less than whole-hearted in tackling the issue. It’s hard to argue with, and I can understand its attraction for the government. Nevertheless it’s hardly the kind of term that immediately leaps to mind if one really is concerned about climate change. It suggests that the Government worry is not so much climate change as political positioning.

The Minister goes on to say the ETS is the Government’s principal policy response to climate change. It puts a price on greenhouse gases, he explains, and provides an incentive to reduce emissions and to encourage tree planting. He then adds that it does not provide a cap for existing (or future) emissions and hence is not prescriptive about what developments should or should not progress. This strikes me as a very clear admission that the ETS may not, in fact, result in any reduction of emissions at all.  It is a remarkable act of faith in the power of incentives, and an abdication of responsibility for the outcome.

That abdication becomes clearer as the letter proceeds. It is admitted that lignite developments of the scale being investigated by Solid Energy will create significant greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the particular projects chosen. However any development will be “carbon compliant” with New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emission management frameworks. That looks like meaning that Solid Energy will pay whatever is required under the ETS to cover the cost of its emissions, and if the project remains profitable under such a regime it will go ahead whatever the level of its  emissions.

But if Geoff Bertram and Simon Terry have it right in their book The Carbon Challenge, Solid Energy, far from paying for the emissions from a plant to manufacture urea from lignite, may well be entitled to subsidies in the form of free emission units for its operations provided it meets certain benchmark standards for ‘emissions intensity’. Bertram and Terry estimate that subsidy could go as high as between $500 million and $1 billion dollars in nominal terms over the first twenty years of the plant’s life. This, even though it would be the country’s biggest single industrial emitter of greenhouse gases after the Huntly power station.

Back to the Minister’s letter. A paragraph follows noting that to potentially mitigate against CO2 emissions Solid Energy is actively following the progress of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The letter referred me to a page on the Ministry of Economic Development website for information about government-industry collaboration on the active investigation of the feasibility of CCS in New Zealand. Maybe I missed something but the page looked pretty sleepy to me. There’s little sign there that CCS is likely to figure prominently in Solid Energy’s lignite projects.

The Minister’s letter then emphasises that projects of this scale have long lead times. He is aware of investigative drilling and pre-feasibility studies, but as yet the decision to commence project construction has not been made. As no formal proposal has been lodged he cannot pre-empt outcomes. I don’t know what pre-empting means in this context, but it seems pretty clear from the rest of the letter that he won’t be looking to create any obstacles.

A final paragraph points out that a development of this scale “that can effectively manage its emissions profile” would provide significant opportunities for New Zealand, maybe even bringing about “a step change” in New Zealand’s growth.  Given that the bar for the management of emissions is set so low what this seems to mean is that we’re soon to enjoy major economic benefit from the development of lignite. Am I being unfair in drawing the conclusion that this counts for the Minister ahead of any climate change concern?

The kindest thing one can say of the Minister and the Government he represents is that they have as yet no adequate conception of the magnitude of the threats that come with climate change. I’ll do them the courtesy of presuming that if they did they would have made it very clear by now that the lignite will stay in the ground.

[Mock Turtles]