Time for turning back on using coal

Coal smoke threatens everyone. Photo: Getty Images
Coal smoke threatens everyone. Photo: Getty Images
The world is turning its back on coal and New Zealand needs to follow, writes Rosemary Penwarden.

What if New Zealand's coal industry executives and investors came to Dunedin to figure out a fair and morally just transition away from extracting and burning coal and towards a zero carbon economy?

Dunedin people might be sceptical at first. We know coal is the most polluting fossil fuel on the planet, but we also know how business works. Cigarette makers, knowing cigarettes cause lung cancer, still go for that bottom line. Two-hundred-plus years of burning coal, oil and gas have driven our atmospheric CO2 to levels beyond those ever experienced by humans.

Cigarettes kill people one by one; coal threatens everyone.

Even so, if this industry was genuinely concerned about our future, I'm guessing we Dunedinites would welcome them with open arms. We'd drag our university academics out of their offices to offer up-to-date climate science. We'd roll out data on job and investment opportunities in renewable energy.

After all, extractive industry workers have the skills to build the infrastructure needed for our zero-carbon economy. There will be jobs in electric public transport, solar installations, rail and coastal shipping upgrades and more. Not only is the move away from coal necessary for our survival, it makes economic sense.

We could even send them on their way with a slap-up meal of scrumptious local food. Who's betting they'll love that Southern Clam chowder gathered right here and processed in a factory run on Dunedin's biggest solar array? Not to mention our very own Ocho chocolate for dessert.

The world is turning its back on coal. For example, Australia's largest insurer, QBE, is about to stop insuring any new thermal coal projects and will get out of coal entirely by 2030.

Not before time. The latest IPCC report makes it clear; we need swift and massive change in the way we run our economy. If we want a future, business as usual can't continue. New Zealand's - and Dunedin's - emissions are still rising. It really is urgent.

New Zealand's coal industry executives and investors are indeed coming to Dunedin on May 28 and 29 for their second NZ Minerals Forum. They know how unpopular coal is, hence the name. Chris Baker of Straterra, coal's lobby group, said last year at the first forum: ''This conference will present our industry as a vital part of the economy and society, and will be valuable for investors and operators alike''. In other words, more investment, more coal, more profit. More business as usual.

Sessions this year's include one on ''Future Underground Coal Mining in NZ'' and another on expansion plans at Stockton, New Zealand's largest coal mine.

To be sure, it's not entirely about coal. Other sessions include expansion plans at Oceana Gold's Macraes mine and Plaman Global's Foulden Hills diatomaceous earth mining near Middlemarch. Foulden Hills is New Zealand's most precious fossil site of the Miocene age. Plaman Global want to turn the fossils into animal feed.

There's even a panel discussion on The Coal User/Climate Change Dilemma, the dilemma of course being how to keep profiting from the destruction of our future. It's a tough one.

The forum's main sponsor is the government agency NZ Petroleum and Minerals, recently condemned for using the company Thompson and Clark to spy on environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Other sponsors include Caterpillar and Komatsu, two companies linked to mining abuses in Myanmar.

Mayor Dave Cull is down to give a welcome address and a session on how local governments can give advice to mining companies working in their region.

The Dunedin City Council was challenged at a recent public forum to ban the NZ Minerals Forum from meeting in a council-owned venue. A letter signed by 13 Dunedin environmental groups including the NZ Climate and Health Council (Ora Taiao) asked the mayor to stay true to his commitment of a net zero-carbon Dunedin city by 2050.

As head of Local Government New Zealand and first signatory to the Local Government Leaders' Climate Change Declaration, Mayor Cull's council was one of the first to divest from fossil fuels and has repeatedly voted to strengthen its opposition to deep-sea drilling off our coast. He supported the Dunedin school Strike for Climate demand for urgent action on the climate crisis.

Hosting the coal industry in the heart of Dunedin is not taking the climate crisis seriously.

-Rosemary Penwarden is a Waitati grandmother and member of several climate action groups including Coal Action Network Aotearoa.


Around 2012 I went to an Otago Regional Council public meeting and asked why people could burn coal on their domestic fires in Otago (but not in Canterbury) and why I see bags of coal for sale at the Warehouse. The chairman Woodhead, stood up and said "It is a social issue". No further discussion.
Six years later, I see that coal is still for sale at the Warehouse. The ORC have had they power to make this simple change in Otago and have not. Why not?


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