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- Despite the UN climate summit, fossil fuel firms are still in for the long term | Fiona Harvey
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Plans to ramp up fossil fuel exploration, coal mining and sea bed dredging have New Zealand environment groups worried.
It’s probably safe to assume that New Zealand’s conservative Prime Minister John Key likes the Lord of the Rings films and is probably partial to a little bit of Hobbit.
After all, ever since the short stumpy bloke with the hairy feet went off to try and chuck a ring down that hole in Mount Doom, New Zealand’s tourism bosses have been as happy as Orcs at an all-you-can-eat Elf buffet.
According to the New Zealand Tourism Board, about 13 per cent of overseas tourists between January and March took part in some sort of “Hobbit experience” while hanging around all those deep blue lakes, snow-tipped mountains and green, craggy valleys that are the cinematographer’s dream. The board credits the film for tens of millions of dollars in tourism income.
New Zealand has long pushed its international image under the signature “100 % Pure New Zealand” marketing brand. Last year the marketing people tweaked the brand to “100 % Middle-earth” to further cash-in on the film series’ international reach. The campaign saw a 23 per cent increase in visitors from the US, seen as a key market.
Filming for the third Hobbit movie ended in New Zealand only last week, with the final installment set for release sometime around December 2014. That leaves plenty more time for New Zealand’s tourism industry to playfully twiddle with Bilbo Baggins’ curly hair.
But just days before filming ended, National Party leader Prime Minister Key – who is also the tourism minister – delivered a YouTube address that made clear he thinks the future for New Zealand lies not so much in filming Middle-earth, but drilling it for oil and gas. He said:
New Zealand’s natural landscapes are part of what makes this country so special and unique. No matter where I am overseas people want to talk to me about how beautiful our scenery is…
I believe that energy and resources could well be a game changer for New Zealand. The next five years are crucial as we encourage further exploration. This is important because if we are to increase our oil and gas exploration by 50 per cent, we could potentially earn Royalties of up to $13 billion, which is huge…
Ultimately we need to grow our economy by increasing our earning potential. That’s the only way that our government can provide the resources that our families need and the jobs our families want.
Environment group Greenpeace New Zealand saw the awkward juxtaposition of their Prime Minister bragging about the country’s stunning scenery while pushing for a massive increase in oil and gas drilling.
Referring to the video, Greenpeace campaigner Nathan Argent wrote:
We considered mucking about with it, discussed how we might spoof it, critique it or counter it but then decided it was pretty much un-spoofable.
While an international audience might still think New Zealand is exclusively about bungie-jumping, wilderness hiking, sauvignon blanc and cavorting in The Shire, conservationists have become increasingly uneasy at the country’s environmental credentials and desire to boost mining and drilling.
Making good on a pledge to boost fossil fuel exploration, in April the government opened up 189,000 square kilometres of ocean for oil and gas exploration and a further 1,500 square kilometres onshore for fossil fuel hunting.
As well as offshore drilling, campaigners are concerned about plans to open up areas of ocean bottom to sea bed mining, with particular worries about the potential impacts on the already critically endangered Maui’s dolphin – the world’s smallest dolphin species. One Australian company has just lodged an application to mine ocean floor ironsands.
The government has also passed new laws to “protect offshore petroleum and minerals activity from unlawful interference” which were squarely aimed at discouraging protestors.
The move led to claims from environmentalists and the Labour opposition that Energy Minister Simon Bridges had pushed for the changes under pressure from oil lobbyists, which the minister denied.
Greenpeace campaigners hung a giant banner on a Wellington tower block, which in polite terms suggested they didn’t believe their minister.
Meanwhile, more than 44,000 people have signed a petition against the new laws.
On land, the John Key Government has rejected calls for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. In a report last year, Dr Jan Wright, New Zealand’s parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said “oil and gas exploration permits that cover vast areas of the country have been granted to a number of companies” but she said a moratorium was not justified.
Campaign group Forest & Bird is also fighting a proposal from an Australian mining company for an open cut coal mine on the Denniston Plateau – home to a carnivorous snail, the iconic flightless kiwi bird and a suitably Middle-earthy landscape.
On an international stage, climate campaigners have also been frustrated by what they see as the country’s lack of enthusiasm for an ambitious global deal to cut emissions.
Late last year as the United Nations climate talks in Doha wrapped up, the Climate Action Network International jointly-awarded its “Colossal Fossil Award” to Canada and New Zealand for their lack of ambition.
In 2006, after visitor numbers had jumped 40 per cent, one New Zealand tourism boss said Lord of the Rings was possibly “the best unpaid advertisement that New Zealand has ever had”.
After all, you can’t argue that “100 % Pure” or “100 % Middle-earth” are far catchier phrases than “50 % more oil and gas drilling”.
Fellowship of the Drill, anyone?
Australia must stop investing in carbon-intensive industries, global climate campaigners announce as they take on the fossil fuel industry
The timely report underlines much that we already know. The climate is changing and the evidence continues to strengthen. The risks we were warned about are now happening. The effects of climate change endangers our “health, property, infrastructure, agriculture and natural ecosystems”. More needs to be done to stabilise the climate. And most importantly, “most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burnt if we are to stabilise the climate this century”.
McKibben was in Australia at the start of June as part of the Do The Maths tour. The tour came off the back of his Rolling Stone article that reiterated the fact the globe’s carbon budget was almost used up. While in Australia, McKibben appeared on the ABC’s Lateline and Q & A programmes, spoke to the National Press Club, wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, and was featured in The Monthly.
The message he was spreading: Australia and the world must stop investing in carbon intensive industries:
Absolutely, and for two reasons. One is it makes no sense to pay for your retirement by investing in companies that guarantee you won’t have a planet worth retiring on. And two, as we’re increasingly finding out, this is a bad bet economically, this industry … Australia’s not alone in causing this problem, but it’s punching above its weight because of its coal mining industry, so hopefully we can figure out how to keep it from expanding in those ways.
His argument is that sooner or later, investments in fossil fuels will become unburnable, as the 2012 Carbon Tracker Initiative report, Unburnable, explains.
As I wrote just before McKibben arrived in Australia, the new global climate campaign strategy, led by 350.org, is a divestment campaign based on the historic success of the anti-Apartheid campaign targeted at South Africa. It urges major Australian institutions with large investment portfolios, such as universities, superannuation funds and hedge funds, to sell their stocks in fossil fuel companies. Underscoring this strategy is the ambition to strip away the moral legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry.
Needless to say, the Australian Coal Association, which represents 24 black-coal miners, is unhappy with this. In April, the ACA released a report into the coal industry, which claimed that “nearly one-fifth of our economy is reliant on mining” and that size of the coal mining industry is around $43 billion. An opinion piece written by coal-funded researchers Sinclair Davidson and Ashton de Silva condemned Bill McKibben and other climate activists:
Foreigners coming to Australia to campaign against our national economy can do a lot of damage if their claims go unchallenged. So too will “uncivil” disobedience campaigns designed to sabotage local economies and cause property destruction.
Unfortunately for the Australian Coal Association, the respectable centre for debate in Australia, and elsewhere, is firmly shifting towards the recognition that we are facing a climate emergency. The “emerging consensus” is that fossil fuels, especially coal, oil and gas, are on the wrong side of a historic debate about our economy. A recent Commonwealth Bank “my wealth” article highlights this as well.
I had the opportunity to speak with McKibben about the Do The Maths tour, and his divestment campaign. I asked him why 350.org had decided to target the fossil fuel industry – McKibben himself describes the five biggest oil companies making a collective $1tn in profits since 2000 — rather than an easier target.
“Frankly,” he told me, “that’s where the carbon is. These guys own the carbon reserves. Our target is the carbon, not specific companies.” It just so happens that the majority of carbon reserves are controlled by a handful of companies.
In the USA, climate activists have been the target of conservative, fossil-fuel funded counter-attacks. The Koch Brothers for example, whose enormous wealth derives from their oil investments, have led the charge. The UK’s Independent paper reported in January that:
Together, the two brothers have given millions of dollars to non-profit organisations that criticise environmental legislation and support lower taxes for industry.
The Kochs have also contributed vast sums to promote scepticism towards climate change, more even than the oil industry according to some estimates. Greenpeace, for instance, has calculated that ExxonMobil spent $8.9m on climate-skeptic groups between 2005 and 2008; over the same period the Koch brothers backed such groups to the tune of nearly $25m.
In Australia, the coal association and the likes of mining magnate Clive Palmer have opposed measures to price carbon. A report in The Australian showed that the ACA claimed the carbon price would “cost 4000 jobs”, while News Ltd paper The Daily Telegraph wrote that Palmer “urged a rally of climate change sceptics to dig deeper into their pockets and spend more fighting the carbon tax.”
McKibben had a message for the fossil fuel lobby: “We will go right at them,” he told me. “We will fight them and name them.”
Divestment is the key to struggle. “Divestment works well,” McKibben said. “It goes on the offence.”
The Climate Commission report states: “From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit.” To stay below the 2°C limit, most fossil fuels reserves cannot be burned.
Plentiful, cheap supplies and collapse in price of carbon permits set greenhouse gas emissions rising sharply
A surge in the burning of coal to generate Britain’s electricity last year helped reverse years of steadily declining carbon dioxide emissions, according to data released on Thursday.
Coal produced 39% of the UK’s electricity in 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said, up from 29% in 2011, as cheap supplies and the collapse of the price of carbon permits sent power firms rushing back to their ageing coal-fired stations.
With industrial and domestic use added into the figures, overall coal consumption was up by a quarter over 2011. In the same period, carbon dioxide emissions rose by about 4%, after years of steady falls. This will make it harder to achieve the government’s climate change targets.
DECC’s data also revealed a rapid increase in the proportion of diesel-fuelled vehicles, which has triggered fears over air pollution from the particulate matter released by burning diesel, which can cause respiratory problems.
Coal has become plentiful and cheap in part because of the effects of the extraordinary shale gas bonanza in the US. Gas prices there have fallen to as little as $2 a unit from a peak of around $10, and power generators have raced to build gas-fired power plants. That has led to large supplies of coal available for export, which has pushed down the price dramatically on the world market. According to the World Coal Association, coal’s share of global energy consumption is at its highest since the late 1960s.
The International Energy Agency has estimated that on the current trend coal will overtake oil as a fuel. In the European Union, coal was supposed to be penalised as a fuel because of its high carbon content. But carbon prices within the EU emissions trading system, under which generators must have a permit for every tonne of carbon dioxide they emit, have fallen to record lows because of a glut of free permits issued by member states. Though moves are still afoot to prop up the trading system, carbon prices are unlikely to rise far and fast enough in the near term to swing the balance further against coal.
Another factor behind the increased burning of coal in Europe is a separate set of regulations governing pollutants such as sulphur, produced by burning coal, called the Large Combustion Plant Directive. Under these rules, coal-fired power stations must either comply with certain emissions limits or opt out – and are then allowed a certain number of hours of operation before they must be shut down. Companies with ageing power plants due to be taken out of service under these rules are rushing to use their remaining hours while their fuel is so cheap. However, research by Greenpeace recently suggested that some generators may try to prolong the life of their coal-fired power stations to take advantage of the cheap fuel. This would push the UK’s emissions up even further.
Last year’s rise in the UK’s emissions made it the worst performing EU member state, according to data from Eurostat. It was one of only three where emissions rose – Germany, with a rise of less than 1%, and Lithuania, with a rise of 1.7%, were the others.
DECC’s energy statistics also showed that consumption of diesel for road vehicles exceeded the consumption of petrol by more than 8m tonnes. Until 2005, petrol consumption was always higher than diesel, but higher petrol prices and the perception that diesel is more efficient have fuelled the switch. For the last decade, petrol consumption has fallen by 4.4% a year on average, but diesel use has risen by 2.4% a year over the same period.
This has alarmed air pollution campaigners, because burning diesel gives rise to far higher rates of particulate matter than petrol. This can trigger respiratory problems in vulnerable people, and worsens the UK’s already poor record on air pollution control. The European Union has been urging member states to drop the favourable tax treatment for diesel that has encouraged drivers to switch, because even though switching can cut carbon dioxide emissions marginally, it is far outweighed by the adverse health effects.
Simon Birkett, founder and director of the pressure group Clean Air in London, said: “The government is stupidly continuing to favour diesel over petrol, and inaction instead of the abatement of tailpipe emissions, thinking it better perhaps to save 1% of carbon dioxide emissions [compared with petrol] than reduce carcinogenic exhaust emissions by 95%. Many lives could be saved if the government adopted technology neutral policies, as in the United States, which consider air pollution holistically [taking into account both] greenhouse gases and air pollution. It is time the government stopped hiding the facts and required CO2, PM2.5 [a measure of particulates in the air] and NO2 [nitrogen dioxide] emissions to be disclosed at the point of sale for new and used vehicles.”
Doug Parr, chief scientific advisor at Greenpeace, said: “Old coal power plants are dominating the energy mix and far from helping us get off the coal hook, the government’s energy bill could entrench the situation. Not only are old coal plants exempt from carbon pollution limits, but the government also proposes to use money from consumer bills to pay coal plants to stay open well into the next decade. The government needs to make good on its promises and reduce our reliance on this dirty fuel.”
A spokesperson for the energy department said: “International coal prices relative to gas prices mean that coal-fired power generation in the UK is currently cheaper than gas-fired. We have introduced the Carbon Price Floor and the measures in the Energy Bill will reduce the role that coal generation plays in our electricity system. We are also bringing forward investment in lower carbon forms of generation consistent with our decarbonisation objectives.”