Straterra OpEd for New Zealand Herald October 2020
Tim Jones of Coal Action Network Aotearoa, 12 October, 2020, along with his fellow protestors, is worried about climate change and that mining in this connection is “profoundly irresponsible”. Well, the mining industry has a solution for him.
Minerals are essential to the low-carbon transition, a view from the World Bank. This means increased demand for minerals for batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, hydro schemes, electric vehicles and other low-emissions technologies is likely- from mining and through recycling.
Coal of course is a particular concern. Coal is a mineral and thermal input into steelmaking for which there is no current commercial substitute, at scale. West Coast export coal leads to fewer carbon dioxide emissions than would otherwise occur in steelmaking because it is among the world’s highest-quality coals. CANA has a reasonable explanation of the steel making process on its website, but its conclusion is that coal mining should stop. Others, including presumably those who make steel and who use steel, have a different conclusion.
Electricity generation for back-up supply and industrial process heat in New Zealand rely heavily on coal as well as gas. Relevant sectors include dairy and other food processing, hothouse horticulture – deemed to be essential services during the Covid-19 lockdown period – and cement and lime manufacture.
Coal producers work with their customers and will continue to do so as the transition progresses. In some cases this is happening now, in horticulture for example, and in other cases the transition will happen over decades, steel making for example. Key criteria in this transition are available technologies and maintaining competitiveness and jobs. Or, in other words, avoiding simply exporting the problem.
In agriculture in particular New Zealand is a world leader in the efficiency of our production, and we want to maintain that leadership. More efficiency and new technologies will be developed, but not at the behest of the protestors. Both this Labour government and previous National governments have chosen to provide exemptions from the Emissions Trading Scheme for dairy processing and steelmaking. To not do so, as protestors demand, would simply result in reduced production, and a loss of jobs.
So, there is no basis to claim that the coal sector seeks “business as usual”. The fact is that every tonne of coal has a buyer before it comes out of the ground – climate change is a demand side issue, driven by consumers not producers.
Note that coal accounts for only 4% of New Zealand’s CO2 emissions. Of course, we should look to all uses of fossil fuels, but a myopic focus on a small sector is not likely to produce optimum results. Is it relevant that more emissions come from Aucklanders’ road use than from the burning of coal in New Zealand?
At issue is that less than 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions face any carbon pricing and for this group, the average price is US$2 per tonne of CO2 equivalent. That’s from the World Bank’s May 2020 report, State and Trends in Carbon Pricing. The New Zealand carbon price is currently around $35/tCO2e and the government has signalled an intent to drive this next year to $50.
This single-minded approach to carbon pricing in New Zealand will drive emissions offshore while contracting our economy. We need to be smarter as a nation about climate change action.
The New Zealand Minerals Forum covers a range of mineral and mining issues, not just coal. It is about a sector that represents, directly and indirectly, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. It discusses among themes how to improve good and best-practice in resource discovery and development, research, environmental management, climate change action, workplace health and safety, and engagement with communities and iwi. The Forum is also an opportunity for NGOs, including CANA, to engage in an informed debate on these issues – yes, that is an invitation.
Claims are often made, as CANA does, that mining today leads to “irreparable damage to surface waters, native bush, indigenous flora and fauna, agricultural land and to people’s health”. As with most human activities, there are trade-offs – that is a key reason we have an independent process – the RMA and the Environment Court – that imposes conditions on resource projects, including mining. That is a part of our resource management system that works well.
For the record, the Minerals Forum was cancelled partly out of fears the organisers would be unable to ensure the safety of delegates or protestors. This is an issue where the right to protest and the right to conduct a lawful activity are in conflict. As a democratic society we must be able to do both – but from the evidence of the Dunedin Minerals Forum last year, and other such disruptions, achieving that balance is at risk.
Of course, CANA, Extinction Rebellion, and other groups can vote accordingly, and march on Parliament to press for the outcomes they seek. That would be upholding democracy, the rule of law, and respecting others’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In the same vein, we hope government ministers and MPs across the spectrum expressly ratify the facts that minerals are essential to society, and, as stated above, are part of the solution for the low-carbon economy transition. These thoughts are further Minerals Forum themes.
We invite CANA and others to reflect on actions individual companies are taking to improve their energy efficiency, to reduce CO2 emissions and to provide leadership on these complex and challenging issues. The government seeks a just transition and the mining sector supports that – but that just transition must be underpinned and informed by science and evidence.
To close: minerals are essential to society, and law-abiding people are at the centre of this multifaceted, exciting and fast-evolving industry, which has an emphasis on sustainability and social performance.