Where there is no vision … Climate change and energy policy in New Zealand

It is not possible to have vision when your head is in the sand. Exhibit 1: climate change negotiations minister Tim Groser, speaking about this year’s climate change conference in Copenhagen

“The idea that Copenhagen could, in the language used at the [2008] Poznan conference, result in a ‘full and certifiable international agreement …’ is Noddyland stuff.”

One can almost hear the heavy sigh before he speaks. And in his words (reported here) we hear the voice of the veteran trade negotiator, the foreign affairs insider, the former WTO ambassador thoroughly versed in the realpolitik of international conferences. We hear the tired and cynical voice of global diplomacy.

Yet, behind Groser’s evident desire to minimise our expectations lies something far more pernicious: a massive failure of vision and of leadership on climate change. Indeed, I sympathise with Groser for having to be so frankly disappointing. The fact is that the failures he speaks of are failures of vision and of leadership on a global scale.

And now, exhibit 2: energy minister Gerry Brownlee, speaking to a New Zealand power generation industry gathering (transcript here):

“The Government wants investment in new electricity generation to occur on the basis of sound economics, rather than through ruling out particular options on the basis of ideology.”

As with Groser, Brownlee is unable to offer any sort of fresh thinking or any optimism beyond the prospects for corporate profits. In outlining the energy agenda for the government’s term, he makes a few cursory remarks about the environment, but the clear message is that “the overriding goal [is] maximising economic growth.” Determining energy policy on the basis of climate change and other environmental concerns is “ideological” and this must be rejected.

Of course, this is pure rhetoric: they have ideology but I have sound economics. Within this rhetorical frame, though, is the desperate knowledge that We Must Never Question Growth. Growth is the ideological lynchpin of modern society but it is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that we can’t even recognise it for what it is.

Within the ideological straitjacket of maximised growth, the policies outlined in the rest of Brownlee’s speech are both unsurprising and scary. Brownlee mocks the previous government for its heavy emphasis on “sustainability”. He may well be right in the sense that all the talk lacked any real substance, as I have discussed before. But Brownlee makes no pretence at all in that direction: There’s delight in his promise of new fossil-fuel burning power stations, with natural gas being the preferred energy source. And we can also thrill to a petroleum drilling, mineral extracting, coal mining frenzy up and down the land, because New Zealand possesses:

“As much as 24 billion barrels of oil equivalent”;

“$28 billion of non-metallic and $5.2 billion of metallic mineral deposits” identified in Northland alone; and

“approximately 15.5 billion tonnes” of coal deposits including “at least 6 billion tonnes of economically recoverable lignite.”

When the choice is between the money and the environment, there is only one winner.

Brownlee suggests that the potential extractable coal equates to 74,000 petajoules or the energy content of 20 Maui gas fields. What he doesn’t tell us is how much carbon dioxide that will add to the atmosphere – he simply pins his hopes on scientists to fix that little issue with carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems. And if the technology doesn’t come through? Or if the coal buyers overseas can’t be bothered with it because it is so expensive? Will the “overriding commitment to economic growth” take second place to environmental crises such as massive climate change?

Not if the growth ideology maintains its hold over our imagination.

And even if CCS works like a dream and is adopted worldwide, how will we repair the shattered ecology of this fragile land and its surrounding seas once all those billions of tonnes of petroleum, ironsand, lignite and everything else have been extracted and shipped away? And how will it be paid for?

Brownlee doesn’t say. The future ecological costs of this mining free-for-all are so heavily discounted that they do not figure in the calculations of “sound economics.” But, in spite of the alleged soundness of the economics, the environmental cost will have to be paid. And the response of our grandchildren to our lack of vision and failure of leadership will be far from ideological. If we go down this road, the anger, tears and grief of future generations will be very real.

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