New reports underscore the urgency of ending the fossil fuel industry as the Government considers its options for an Emissions Reduction Plan, Marc Daalder reports

Nearly all of the world’s known coal and a majority of oil and gas reserves must remain in the ground if we want even a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, a major new study has concluded.

“We estimate that oil and gas production must decline globally by 3 percent each year until 2050. This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable,” four University College London climate experts wrote in the Nature report released on Thursday.

This is only the latest report to find that fossil fuel extraction, production and use must rapidly come to an end to avoid the most catastrophic possible impacts of climate change.

In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said a 1.5 degree-compliant path would require an immediate global ban on new coal mines or extensions and new oil and gas fields. By 2025, there would have to be no new sales of fossil fuel boilers and coal use would be phased out by 2030.

The dire impacts of the burning of fossil fuels were highlighted in a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August, which was authored by 234 scientists, took into account tens of thousands of comments from expert reviewers and received sign-off from all of the world’s governments. That report found that some impacts of climate change are occurring faster than expected, that other impacts will be irreversible for centuries to millennia, that humans are unequivocally the cause of climate change and that the worst impacts can still be limited through deep and rapid cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nature report is likely to spark further pressure on the Government to tackle the fossil fuel industry, even as it prepares its Emissions Reduction Plan. A direction of travel on the plan is expected soon and the final document is legally required to be released by the end of the year. Climate Change Minister James Shaw has previously signalled he hopes to release the plan prior to the global COP26 climate summit in early November.

Shaw, in a statement to Newsroom, said the findings of the Nature report were unsurprising.

“These findings are consistent with what we have known for a long time – that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – have to stay in the ground,” he said.

“The burning of fossil fuels is by far the biggest contributor to the climate crisis. They are also responsible for local air pollution, as well as environmental and health costs. Globally, we have to end the expansion of oil, gas and coal production in line with the science, and phase out existing production in a way that is fair and equitable.”

Climate campaigners have said a range of ambitious policies should be on the table for the Emissions Reduction Plan, including an end to all oil and gas exploration and a ban on new coal mines, as well as a 2030 phase-out for coal use in New Zealand.

“No new coal mines and every coal mine should be shut by around 2027, 2028. And that’s in line with the phasing out of coal use by 2030, that the IPCC tells us,” Cindy Baxter of Coal Action Network Aotearoa told Newsroom, prior to the release of the Nature report.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re told that something has to stop, you stop it and you find an alternative. There’s never been that sort of stick in New Zealand climate policy. We’ve just never had it.”

Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods told Newsroom the Government had “big decisions” to make.

“Our Government’s got some big decisions to make ahead of it as we go through and consider our pathways to achieving what we’ve signed up to in the Paris Agreement. Cabinet will be considering the considerations of the independent Climate Commission. Of course, New Zealand has already moved far ahead of a number of countries in terms of the ban on offshore exploration,” she said.

That ban didn’t extend to onshore exploration and the Government issued two new permits for exploration in Taranaki in June. Coal mine extensions could still occur in New Zealand as well, with a mine in Ohai receiving authorisation from Southland District Council to explore neighbouring land for more deposits.

In Baxter’s view, an extension is the same as a new mine and shouldn’t be permitted. The IEA report also explicitly called for an immediate ban on coal mine extensions.

The Government is also considering a phase-out for most coal use in New Zealand, though the date it has set is 2037. That’s seven years after the IEA’s target and right in line with what dairy giant Fonterra had previously set as its own target for an end to coal use. The cooperative says a third of its processing sites use coal as their main source of energy.

“The 2037 phase-out date for coal in process heat – that was Fonterra’s date. The Government said, ‘How high can you jump?’ They said, ‘Oh, this high. We can go to 2037’,” Baxter said.

“What is absolutely clear is that Fonterra asked for a 2037 phase-out date and got it.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment