Last week was a bad week for coal mines on the West Coast.
Early in the week Solid Energy announced 24 workers would lose their jobs from the Stockton mine, and by the end of the week Bathurst announced that it is putting the Denniston mine on hold, laying off 12 workers – terrible news for those workers and their families.
At the heart of this is the same issue that sent Solid Energy under: plummeting coking coal prices – a price that has continued to fall, and was again cited as the reason for Solid’s new layoffs.
Over on the Denniston Plateau, Bathurst’s woes have stemmed, in the first instance, from the long-signalled closure of the Holcim plant in Westport, its biggest client. Bathurst has had to seek domestic buyers for its high grade coking coal, because of the low international price.
Today’s news that the US and China have agreed a long term policy to reduce carbon emissions is being hailed as a “game-changer” in international climate negotiations. China has agreed to cap its emissions in 2030 — the first time it has committed to anything more than a reduction in the carbon intensity of its emissions, while the US will aim to cut emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, up from its current target of 17% by 2020. [BBC, Guardian, Climate Progress.] Meanwhile, NZ’s third term National government is being warned by its own civil servants that its current emissions policy settings commit the country to substantial emissions increases over the same time frame.
With the world’s two largest emitters — between them they account for 45% of total emissions — agreeing to work together for the first time, prospects for a global deal in Paris next year look brighter than before. However, the cuts on the table do not look like enough to keep the planet on a trajectory to 2 degrees of warming or less. Associate professor Peter Christoff of the University of Melbourne explains (via The Conversation):
These commitments will frame the levels of ambition required of other states at Paris next year. Climate modellers will no doubt now be rushing to determine what these new commitments, if delivered successfully, will mean for combating global warming.
The US and Chinese cuts, significant though they are, will not be enough to limit the total increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide unless other states engage in truly radical reductions.
In other words, global emissions are likely to continue to grow, probably until 2030, which will make it impossible to hold global warming below the world’s agreed limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.
The NZ Herald business supplement recently carried a thoughtful feature by Peter Huck in which he described moves to combat climate change at lower levels than the floundering international negotiations. He begins with a report on Desertec Industrial Initiative, the German-led consortium which this year hopes to trial in Morocco a concentrated solar power plant as the harbinger of ambitious plans to provide very large quantities of solar and wind energy to North Africa and Europe.
Huck takes this as one of the many signals that the top-down approach to limiting carbon emissions through international deals is giving way to a ground-up attitude that stresses action. Others include the EU’s introduction of a carbon tax on airlines that use its airports; Scotland’s investment in wave power; California’s embrace of renewable energy, clean fuels, a cap-and-trade programme to limit emissions, and other green policies; Ecuador’s efforts to preserve its forests by getting donors to pay it to keep oil in the ground; China’s approval last year of its 12th Five Year Plan, which aims to tackle energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Further down the chain Huck instances a growing urgency about reducing emissions which can mean corporate investment in renewable energy, municipal emphasis on public transport, or a family insulating their home.
Is there movement already under way in the world of industry which will outstrip the painfully slow progress of the political world in facing up to the challenge of climate change? Amory Lovins certainly thinks so and his recent book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, explains why. Lovins is the co-founder, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute(RMI), a well-staffed non-profit organisation established thirty years ago and active in research and consultation on issues relating to energy and the efficient use of resources. The book is the product of some years of work by many RMI staff. It focuses the Institute’s current initiative to map and drive the transition from coal and oil to efficiency and renewables.
Can the US realistically stop using coal and oil by 2050? And can such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business? The answer the book gives to both questions is yes, based on painstaking exploration of existing renewable technologies and an assessment that they are already competitive with fossil-fuel-based industry for those who have eyes to see. The book is directed to the business world. It presents the energy transition as a major shift for a civilisation which has benefited greatly from fossil fuels but must now move from the old fire dug from below to the new fire which flows from above and works without combustion (save for a small amount of sustainable biofuel). It is a time of exceptional business opportunity for those prepared to recognise it and take it. The costs of oil and coal are rising as the price of renewables keeps on dropping. “The curves are already crossing. The endgames of oil and coal have already begun.” Lovins reminds readers that inattentive whalers in the 19th century were astounded to find they had run out of whale-oil customers before they ran out of whales.
“There is a danger that, in trying to encourage major emitters to sign up to a new agreement or to bridge the Kyoto legal gap, New Zealand might commit itself to something short of a global deal that binds us to making economic sacrifices which are not reflective of fair burden sharing.” So wrote David Venables, executive director of the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, in the NZ Herald this week.
I described the Greenhouse Policy Coalition in a post last year, but I’ll briefly recap. Its members come from a range of New Zealand industry and sector groups covering the aluminium, steel, forestry (including pulp and paper), coal, dairy processing and gas sectors. They include Fonterra, NZ Steel, the Coal Association, Solid Energy, NZ Aluminium Smelters Ltd and others. They are not deniers of climate change and express the cautious opinion that “there is sufficient scientific evidence to warrant the adoption of appropriate precautionary public policy measures”. However their emphasis is strongly on policy which protects what they regard as New Zealand’s international competitiveness.