It’s 2021. As the world grapples with the tragic effects of Covid-19, the climate emergency continues unchecked. Worldwide, 2020 was tied as the warmest year on record. Fires, flood and sea level rise continue unabated.
He Pou a Rangi – The Climate Change Commission – has just made its draft recommendations to the Government for action to reduce emissions. Now it’s over to the Government to act.
One step the Government can take this year is to announce a ban on new and expanded coal mines, plus an end date for the use of coal in Aotearoa and a just transition for affected workers and communities. Governments with ambitious climate action plans are announcing phase-out dates for coal – it’s time the New Zealand Government stopped dragging the chain.
Coal is the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel. Every kilogram of coal that is burned produces over two kilograms of carbon dioxide, the main gas contributing to the human-induced greenhouse effect that is cooking the planet.
In Aotearoa, coal is burned for backup power generation at the Genesis Energy plant in Huntly. It’s burned for heat in boilers, large and small, from Fonterra’s massive milk-powder drying plants to school and hospital boilers. It’s used to make steel at the New Zealand Steel plant at Glenbrook, near Waiuku, and the high-carbon form of coal known as “coking coal” is also exported for steel-making overseas – though the slump in world coking coal prices has put this on-again, off-again export trade on the back burner.
In 2019, about 2.68 million tonnes of coal was mined in Aotearoa, leading to well over 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
Let’s be clear: in 2021, it’s a disgrace that a country with the wealth of renewable energy resources New Zealand possesses is still so dependent on coal. The good news is, alternatives are either available now, or rapidly becoming available. The rise of large-scale electricity storage means we don’t need to keep relying on coal or gas to back up renewable energy generation. Coal boilers are being phased out at all levels: in 2019, Fonterra made a commitment to build no new coal boilers, while the Government has committed to a carbon-neutral public sector by 2025 and is rapidly moving to get coal out of school and hospitals.
As for steel-making, change is coming here too: in Europe, a process that uses hydrogen created by the electrolysis of water instead of coal in the steel-making process is being rapidly scaled up. In the US, research is underway to use the electricity directly, avoiding energy lost in electrolysis. As these technologies mature, coking coal will no longer be needed to make steel. Prudent countries and governments will get out of the coking coal business early, while those that cling on in the hope that markets will recover will be left with stranded assets.
In its recommendations, the Climate Change Commission has called for a steep decline in coal use by 2035, but not for a complete ban – and its graphs show coal use continuing past 2050 .
This appears to be so New Zealand Steel can keep burning coal as long as it wants. The New Zealand Steel mill uses a different technology to most overseas steel mills, but still burns coal. How long will coal-fired steel be economically viable or politically sustainable? Do we really want to be known as the last of the coal dead-enders?
We don’t think so. In a climate emergency, half-measures are not enough. New Zealand Steel is likely to be the last industrial user of coal in Aotearoa, but it shouldn’t be given an indefinite right to pollute – it should be put on a transition path from using coal to using renewable energy, well before 2050. And let’s make sure that transition is to renewable energy, not natural gas, itself a dangerous climate warmer.
Announcing an immediate ban on coal prospecting, exploration, and new and expanded mines plus a phase-out date for all coal mining and burning in Aotearoa should be low-hanging fruit for the Government. A phase-out date will allow for a planned, just transition for the roughly 700 coal miners in New Zealand and the communities that depend on coal mining.
The Government already has a Just Transitions Unit that’s been working on the transition away from oil and gas in Taranaki – focusing on building a partnership with iwi, local mayors and the Government. Unions have also been actively been involved in the just transition process. It’s time for the Government to expand that Just Transition focus to coal and coal-mining communities.
The fossil fuel era has ended. It’s time the Government acted accordingly. It’s time to send coal to the ash heap of history.