After coal use in New Zealand soared in 2021, it has now plummeted to the lowest level in more than three decades, new statistics show.

The September 2022 quarter saw just 426,000 tonnes of coal burned for industry, process heat or electricity generation, rising slightly to 437,000 in the last three months of the year.

Those are the lowest levels recorded since March 1989 and December 1990, respectively, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s coal use data.

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“These latest statistics, showing the plummeting use of coal is yet more proof that this Government is serious about climate change, that we have a plan to reduce demand for coal for process heat and electricity generation, and it is working. It also shows that New Zealanders don’t want dirty, polluting, and expensive coal either, and are turning to renewables when they can,” Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods said.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the pace of the transition away from fossil fuels needed to increase.

“If anyone needed a basic rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be this: stop burning fossil fuels. It will be clear to anyone that we’re better off if we’re burning less coal. That most harmful of fuels that we’ve used since the industrial revolution began. Clearly, we are making progress, but the pace of change needs to pick up until we can end our reliance on fossil fuels, including coal, forever.”

The slump in coal use was led by a reduction in the amount burned for power. In the midst of winter 2021, when hydro lake levels ran low, New Zealand combusted nearly 600,000 tonnes of coal to keep the lights on across three months. In the last quarter of 2022, however, just 4500 tonnes were used for electricity generation – the second lowest level across 33 years of records.

It was further aided by a reduction in the amount of coal burned for industry (including milk drying) and coal transformed during steel production.

The decline in coal-fired power was accompanied by a surge in renewable electricity, Woods said.

“The renewable share of electricity generation was at its highest level on record for the December 2022 quarter. Electricity generation from wind was the highest on record in the December 2022 quarter, with the wind farm at Turitea North now fully online.

“Electricity generation from wind was up 7.1 percent during the September 2022 quarter and 1.1 percent during the December quarter compared to the same quarters in 2021. Wind generation continues to increase as more wind farms are built.”

Coal production from mines in New Zealand also fell to the lowest levels since 1990 last year. Imports of coal in the December quarter were at their lowest since 2013.

Separately, annual greenhouse gas emissions figures for 2021 were released on Thursday. They show climate pollution decreased for the second straight year in New Zealand, after a Covid-19-related 3 percent fall in 2020.

Most of that was due to a reduction in agricultural emissions as farmers reduced herd sizes and fertiliser use to comply with new freshwater protection regulations. Fossil fuel use rose in 2021, in part because of the additional coal burnt for power.

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

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