We need to talk about coal and climate change

We need to talk about coal and climate change

Posted on 13 June 2019

By Chris Baker, Straterra CEO

It’s not often that both protestors and organisers of an event can claim to have achieved what they set out to do – but in the case of the recent Minerals Forum in Dunedin that’s just what happened.

Protestors wanted to cause disruption via ‘peaceful’ protests outside the Forum venue in Dunedin’s Octagon.  Their actions meant some delegates missed the opening sessions, and the protestors’ antics achieved plenty of airtime. 

The media turned up in force, of course.  And this led to the Forum getting more coverage than it would have otherwise.  Much coverage was focused on the protestors’ tactics and antics rather than the substantive issues – what was the Forum about and why were the protestors protesting. That said, there was some good and balanced coverage in mainstream media, coverage that acknowledged and explained the role minerals play in modern society.

Within the Forum there were sessions on technology, the environment, climate change, energy transition, health and safety, operations, social and societal challenges. Preliminary results from the post Forum survey indicate unprecedented support and approval from attendees – many expressed the view that this was the best Forum, ever!

So why the protests? Climate Change and coal obviously but “stop the Forum’, stop mining, what’s that about? One leaflet handed out by protestors included the statement ‘We will not survive climate change without socialism’. History might have created some bias in me on that issue but if socialism is the solution then I misunderstand the problem!!

To be clear, the Minerals Forum was not a coal summit – 11 percent of the more than 300 delegates work for coal companies; and only four of the 44 presentations were directly about coal (with another four covering topics such as transitioning out of coal, and coal and climate change).

The Forum was supposed to stimulate and encourage a wide range of voices.  Sadly, Forest & Bird head Kevin Hague shied away from sharing his views and concerns. Having initially agreed to join Hon Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Economic Development, and Jonathan Young, Opposition Spokesperson for Energy and Resources, in a closing debate, Hague withdrew. He explained that he supported the protestors and that participation in the forum would run the risk of diluting that support.

Which begs the question, isn’t a divergence of views healthy, and a prerequisite to informed debate?

Hague’s decision, in my view, is symbolic of the reluctance, on the part of many New Zealanders, to acknowledge facts and realities that don’t necessarily align with their personal beliefs. We all want to be part of an environmentally sustainable world but climate change, more than any issue we face at present, is diabolically complex. Climate change is not something you ‘believe in’, it’s something that is happening and that requires technical solutions. These solutions come with complications including; free riders, carbon leakage, political capture, competing priorities, alarmism, the availability of low emissions technologies and associated transition time frames, the list goes on.

So, we must front up and have conversations to find a way forward.  Leaving an empty seat at the top table, as Hague chose to do, helps no-one.

We are in a state of transition to a lower carbon economy.  No-one disputes that or why that transition must happen. What’s overlooked by many is that the minerals sector has a vital role to play in that transition to a low carbon future. The enablers of a global, lower emissions future – windmills, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries – all require large quantities of minerals.

The protestors argued that coal mining should cease in 10 years. We point out, for example, that there are no commercially viable technologies to make steel, at scale, without coking coal.  Of course we can reduce demand for steel production by recycling more, and wealthier people in countries like New Zealand can make choices that reduce demand for steel, or fossil fuels generally, but there is scant evidence of that happening.

The stark reality is New Zealand  needs coal to maintain energy security (ensuring we have electricity for homes, offices, factories and schools).  We used about 300,000 tonnes of coal per year at the Huntly power station over the last few years - and that scenario won’t change for years to come. And if we don’t mine the coal required to run the Huntly power station when we need it, we import it.

It was gratifying when Environment Minister David Parker acknowledged to the Forum that the shift towards lower emissions will be minerals intensive.  He went on to say New Zealand has a leadership role internationally in minimising the environmental and human impacts of mineral extraction because we are good at it. 

We couldn’t agree more.

The minerals sector in New Zealand is highly innovative and environmentally focused. Delegates heard about the quality of New Zealand’s coking coal, quality that reduces net global emissions from steel making, potential for discovering economic resources of lithium in New Zealand, controlling nitrogen leaching with zeolite, and using carbon foam for energy storage.

The fact that there was such a large gap between the delegates inside the Dunedin Town Hall and the protesters outside hammers home that Straterra and the minerals sector still have a lot to do to explain to our fellow New Zealanders about the importance of mining and its contribution to society.

We’re up for that conversation. Are you?

Chris Baker, Chief Executive of Straterra, the industry group representing the New Zealand minerals sector