Climate scientist James Hansen and Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder debate how to secure the future of coal, New Zealand, and the world

Dr Hansen wants coal left in the ground, to save the world, for future generations. However, it is Dr Elder's job to dig it up, to grow the cake: most of the world, he says, which is poor, has a right to a share of our wealth (and we can get richer, too).

I thought I heard Elder crying out for help, in a way, because, until someone tells him not to, he has no choice but to try to dig up any and all coal he can find. If he doesn’t, Solid Energy's competitors will.

Coal-fired emissions are 43 per cent of global emissions. If we don’t tackle coal, in short, as the Institute of Policy Studies and friends spent Tuesday doing, the emissions cuts project is extinct, along with a whole lot else.

Dr James Hansen, “grandfather” of climate science, who took the science to the US congress 20 years or so ago, gave the keynote speech.

The UN has an atmospheric CO2 target of 450 ppm, for a ‘safe’ level of 2 degrees C global warming — with a 50% probability of staying beneath that level: a throw of the dice. Countries’ emissions cut pledges (like our ‘50 by 50’) are inadequate, and will overshoot; but that, according to Hansen, isn’t the real bad news.

In his view, the science demands a goal of 345 ppm atmospheric CO2, this century, to stabilise the climate. The current level is 390 ppm. His view on a ‘safe’ level of warming is more in the region of 1 degree C.

His mission these days is doggedly explaining why, over and over again: laying out, piece by piece, the evidence for human-induced climate change, and all the other bits of the puzzle, that point to ‘350 by 50’.

If fossil emissions stopped today (or actually, in January, last January), atmospheric levels would peak, then begin to drop, and the target would be achieved in around 2050. If they ceased after 2050 — roughly, the UN goal — atmospheric CO2 would peak at over 500 ppm, and drop back eventually to the 450 ppm target. That sees global temperatures rising to unsafe, unprecedented (for humans) levels, and persisting there for more than a century.

Hansen therefore argues that it is not just about getting to the target, but when, without exceeding tipping points, like ice loss at the Poles, and release of frozen methane from the tundra. Both paleoclimatology, and contemporary ice melt measures, already show us in the red, if you like — pushing the danger zone.

He says it is not too late. It can be done, he thinks, if we act fast, with emissions cuts starting now, and reforestation, but not if we continue burning fossil fuel.

He calculates our remaining carbon budget would be spent, by burning all conventional oil and gas reserves. We must, he insists, leave coal, or as much coal as possible, and unconventional oil (eg, lignite, tar sands) in the ground.

The International Energy Agency backs him up, saying that the limit on coal is not scarcity, it’s how to reconcile its use with the growing global momentum to stabilise (and reduce, as per Hansen) atmospheric greenhouse gases.

According to economist Geoff Bertram, the entire debate hinges on whether carbon capture and storage, to sequester emissions from coal, “is a complete fairy story”. It does all hinge on that, and about half of Tuesday was about it, but I am parking it, because Dr Elder gave such an informative talk, and Bertram’s “hard constraints” were more fun. CCS would need regulation, too, so the basic point I'm about to make is the same.

Elder was reminded how, six years ago, he assured us CCS technology was just around the corner. Well, he said, it was. Still is; about where it’s been for thirty years, as others remarked. It’s a tricky corner, he said.

Geoff Bertram laid out some “economists’ ground rules” for picking projects. They included full social cost-benefit analysis; and fully costing environmental and other externalities, like strategic risks. He talked about the “risk of hitting global energy policy coming the other way”, having sunk billions of dollars in stranded assets, for lignite conversion.

By contrast, see posts here and here on Solid Energy’s Southland lignite approach.

Examples of economic costs being ignored might be those of floods, droughts and storms, or delaying adaptation (as per Lord Stern, et al). An example of a strategic cost was supplied later in the day, by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright: “The Chinese look at us, and say well, you’re quite rich. If you won’t stop burning coal, why in the world should we?”

If you really want to harness the power of capitalism, Bertram said, to revolutionise the economy, as we must, that depends on “hard constraints”, like Roosevelt’s war-time prohibition on auto-manufacture. Hard constraints force capitalists to innovate, and find new market solutions. That is the beauty of the market, and the whole reason it exists — for individuals to think creatively, in their different ways.

The market will work best, in short, if for some things we make a policy decision to just say “no”.

Elder, however, wanted all of the options on the table, and a smart public conversation about them, at the end of which people would say “yes”.

He wanted us to grasp the amount of wealth at stake; and, I’m sure, he was happy that we’d heard about the tiny size of New Zealand’s coal resource (and pollution risk), in world terms. His motive was twofold — humanitarian, as well as profit-driven; his starting point developing countries’ right to develop, using coal.

He said we're responsible not just to ourselves, but future generations, and the developing world. I think he meant — this is my summing up, not his words, but you didn’t have to look very far between the lines — the responsibility of us all, to get rich.

He reiterated Solid Energy's definition of sustainable business practice, and its undertaking to meet global environmental “commitments”. It was framed in the language of “commitments”, instead of “moral obligations”, say, or simply “what the science requires”.

He referred at one point to the ETS, to describe his stance on regulation. He himself wouldn’t do the job that way; if a government felt that an objective was sufficiently important, to justify such a cumbersome scheme, it ought to simply regulate.

Pressed on what his commitment to environmental responsibility actually meant, he said it was naïve to expect that he could or would bind future boards and shareholders, by promising to permanently sequester all carbon. (As opposed to, presumably, binding future boards and shareholders by sinking billions into plant, which would be a different thing entirely.)

Solid Energy has, according to Bertram, told the ETS review panel in its submission that 'fugitive emissions' (such as venting methane out of coal mines) should be exempt from the scheme, because to include them would be a hazard to safe practice, using Pike River as an example.

Jeanette Fitzsimons, from the floor, asked what might the venue be, for that kind of intelligent, open public conversation, since she very much wanted one too, and agreed it was exactly what was required?

Partial accounts of the day's events — like this very blog, I daresay — would not be helpful, Elder said, sternly. He had been advised against attending the forum, but it was no part of his brief to duck that kind of responsibility. 

There were good reasons, he asserted, for Solid Energy's lawyers to write to the Southland local authorities, asking for their briquetting pilot plant resource consents to proceed non-notified; it was “no different, really, to you building a deck in your back yard”. There were reasons, too, for withholding information from the PCE, for her lignite report (though she worked it out by herself, in the end). It was “inappropriate” [corrected: ed] for Dr Hansen to come down to New Zealand and start [lecturing us about morality]. Other audience questions got a gruff report, for being asked too slowly, or too long.

For a man who exhorted us to nuanced open-minded conversation, it was shame then, that he went on to characterise his opponents as follows, in big letters, on powerpoint: “no mining in national parks”, NIMBY, and BANANA.

Any gaps or errors in the climate science part of this post are all mine.

Hansen's own explanations are here (a presentation, about the same as the one he delivered in New Zealand: “Human-Made Climate Change: A Moral, Political and Legal Issue”, given at Blue Planet award ceremony on October 27, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan), and here (a draft paper to be submitted for publication: “The Case for Young People and Nature”).

Comments (13)

by Gareth Hughes on May 19, 2011
Gareth Hughes

Good blog Claire.

I don't think it is Dr Elder's job to dig up the coal, I believe his job is to run Solid Energy and there are plenty of sustainable solide energy alternatives to coal, like wood chips, of which Solid Energy is already NZs biggest supplier.

I would love to see Solid Energy keep the coal in the hole and encourage its current coal customers to make the switch to modern efficient wood boilers for heat or energy


by Ralph Sims on May 19, 2011
Ralph Sims

Good summary Claire of an interesting debate. I was the one there reminding Don about his old promise that CCS was just around the corner! As I also said, the IPCC special report on Renewables, released last week (and that I spent 3 years working on)  confirms what we already know in NZ, that we don't need coal cause our renewable resources are so good. We can use them to produce the diesel and urea that Don wants to manufacture from lignin, probably at similar costs and certainly at far lower Carbon emissions.

by Claire Browning on May 19, 2011
Claire Browning

Yes, I enjoyed your contributions! Thanks. I wish you'd write a post for us, on the Renewables report. I went online to get it, but it's 900 pp I believe (?) and also not available, except summary, until the end of the month.

by Simon on May 20, 2011

For a brief moment I thought Don Elder was performing a satire of himself at the expense of those "enviro-wowsers" Simon Terry and Cath Wallace. (no offence intended, thats just how I assume Elder thinks of them).

As satire, he was almost had the same tone as John Clarke in the "The Front Fell Off (the supertanker)" interview. (

Then he declared publicly and with a strait face that  "processing large volumes of NZ lignite into fuel and fertiliser will reduce global emissions as NZ won't have to import Chinese fuel and fertiliser".

I had the sad realisation that Elder was serious and 150% convinced of his argument and that it wasn't funny, it was just disturbing.

by John Monro on May 20, 2011
John Monro

Thanks Claire.

I felt the debate missed acknowledging something important, and that was the titanic clash between two fundamentally opposed ideas and sets of reasoning that will map our future. It is bizarre when you think about it that two such highly intelligent and dynamic people can, with the same information,  look at this future and visualise a single course of action and and yet see two entirely irreconcilable paths diverging, one mapping out a glittering future of inexhaustible material wealth, and the other a catastrophic future of an unliveable planet and much of humanity's and nature's demise. And it didn't matter that this argument took place in parochial NZ, it's the same one around the world, only writ on a vastly larger scale.

I didn't want to warm to Don Elder, my preconceptions were very strong, and it was only really at the end of the meeting that I realised he was all show and no substance, glib and condescending, and impervious to reason. At the very start he tried to get us on his side by stating how open minded he was in coming to face what he knew would be an antagonistic audience, his friends and colleagues apparently tried to put him off. But at the end of the meeting, when he petulantly lost his temper with the mild-mannered professor from America, one realised his skin was rather thinner than he had previously let on, and that his stated openness to discourse apparently only applied to native New Zealanders. (Which was a bit rich, as he had earlier fatuously suggested that the opposition to  using coal was from the same sort of people that might be opposed to Asian immigration, perhaps he should have added Americans to his list, for his own benefit).

The meeting also got rather bogged down around the discussions on CCS because we missed discussing the vital point that it's all very well capturing carbon from a solid to liquid fuels plant, but what about the CO2 arising from burning the diesel? At the most, only a small fraction of the CO2 consequent of this massively damaging proposal would be captured, even if it does prove to be technically and economically feasible. Shannon Page's presentation was a useful sceptical antidote to unrealistic commercial optimism in regard to this technology.

Also, no-one took on Don Elder in regard to his obvious personal financial interest in all this. He runs a company that has already invested millions of dollars in buying up expensive farmland above these lignite deposits. If Solid Energy isn't allowed to develop these assets, they may stand to lose money (though perhaps not, the land may well have been quite a good investment in any case), but otherwise, especially if Solid Energy is privatised, he may be looking to his own personal enrichment by millions of dollars.  Don's stated concern for the appalling inequities in the world was touching, the pity was that the appalling inequities in this country, and many other wealthy countries, wasn't then addressed as well, nor was there any examination of improving the lot of the poor by simple redistributive economic and taxation policies.

I came away from this meeting profoundly depressed. I opened my remarks by calling this debate a "Titanic Clash" of ideas. I look back to previous episodes of human history for similar clashes, the abolition of slavery and the American Civil War for instance, the French and American Revolutions, the Independence of India and the bringing down of Apartheid all eventually required a measure of violence and major societal upheaval to achieve. Humanity regularly gets itself into such difficulties and the results are almost invariably unpleasant. I believe we are on the cusp of such now, as humanity's increasing hoards march full tilt into a depleting future with depleting oil, depleting water, depleting raw materials, and a depleting ocean and atmosphere into which we continue to pour our poisons.

My wife, Tess, summed up Don's position very well, he is a cornucopian. He was entirely unapologetic for suggesting science and technology and the use of all the planet's resources, including deep sea oil, coal and methane hydrates, would allow us to achieve whatever wealth we desired - "We are the luckiest country in the world!!" he extolled in his sermon on the virtues of greed. My wife wondered if this wasn't an infantile way of looking at humanity's needs, and my own thought is perhaps that humanity will eventually achieve a level of wealth rather less what we desire, rather more what we deserve.

by Claire Browning on May 20, 2011
Claire Browning
Wow. John, I don't agree that the meeting missed acknowledging the ''titanic clash'' of ideas; I guess I thought it was implicit, and fairly self-evident, both on the day and in the post. But in case not, thanks for clarifying. And yes - it's fortunate (or not) that I'd forgotten the ''too many Asians?'' bit, or I'd have added it to the list. Thanks for your thoughts.
by John Monro on May 20, 2011
John Monro

Thanks for your comment Claire. Of course, for interested parties like ourselves, we understand the implicit wider debate, but I'm not sure this was spelt out in the fundamental terms that it could have been. But I omitted to acknowledge properly your contribution here, which I enjoyed. Thanks.

by Claire Browning on May 20, 2011
Claire Browning

You're welcome. And good point. A wee afterthought about Dr Elder, and those who tried to dissuade him. I suspect that, knowing Don better than we do, they may have been more worried - and quite rightly - about what damage he would self-inflict.

by Simon on May 21, 2011

I have rewritten Don Elder's speech as a John Clarke and Bryan Dawe interview.

Bryan Dawe. Dr Don Elder, thank for you being here to talk about coal, lignite and climate change.

John Clarke. You're welcome Bryan. I think its really important that New Zealand has a good open discussion about our future. I am very open minded about this. So I came here, against advice that it would be 300 to one with a lot of unthinking NIMBY proponents. Its all too often that a debate is started, such as last year's debate about further mining under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act to grow the economy. And that debate just becomes dominated with unthinking slogans such as "No mining in National Parks".

Bryan Dawe. But Dr Elder, the Government did in fact propose to remove protection from thousands of hectares within Paparoa National Park that is on top of a coal seam!

John Clarke. We were just trying to start a discussion!  The response was unthinking slogans like "No mining in National Parks" and "Keep the coal in the hole". To me that is the same level as "Leave the Asians in Asia". It was meant to be a discussion.

Bryan Dawe. But Dr Elder, isn't Jeanette Fitzsimons correct when she observes that seeking non-notified consents for your lignite briquette plant at Mataura shuts down any discussion or debate?

John Clarke. Well, she would say that! It's ridiculous! We are just trying to get a resource consent. Everyone wants their consent not notified. Everyone gets their lawyers to write to the council. Its just the same as you getting a consent for your garden trellis!

Bryan Dawe. Dr Elder, Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, points out that you refused to give her information on the carbon content of your lignite process. How does that help with the discussion?

John Clarke. Well, Bryan, that was commercially sensitive information. Dr Wright may have set a competing lignite to fuel plant. She has qualifications in physics and chemistry, you know.

Bryan Dawe. Dr James Hansen, of NASA, has just presented the climate change case for the rapid phase out of coal and non-traditional fossil-fuels such as lignite, tar sands and oil-shale. What is your response to this?

John Clarke. Bryan, I am glad you have asked that, as are no doubt half the people here who now agree with me. We need to understand that there are a couple of billion poor people in less developed countries - who have not enjoyed several generations of energy-intensive wealthy lifestyles as we have - who want lignite briquettes but can't afford them. In light of that need, who are we in New Zealand, not to process the lignite into diesel and fertiliser that we can then substitute for imports from China

Bryan Dawe.  Dr Elder, won't the development of a large scale lignite industry increase New Ziealand's annual carbon dioxide emissions by 25%, depending on the number of plants? Won't that contribute to global warming.

John Clarke. No Bryan, not at all. We have to think about this globally as Soild Energy does., We make the lignite into fuel and fertiliser in Southland. We stop importing fertiliser made from coal in China. Globally, there are less emissions as we have saved the transport emissions!


by on May 22, 2011

Brilliant Simon !

Don Elder's comments are interesting in light of likely, at least partial privitisation, of Solid Energy, (if NACTs win 2011), next year.  Chinese multinational Qinghua Corporation is the probable partner.  China is already doing much to move away from fossil fuel dependence towards renewables within its borders, and Dr Jim Hansen has suggested that it could be a leader in imposing a carbon tax at source on the fossil fuel industry there. He says that if China and say the European Union, imposed a carbon fee on fossil fuel producers, they could then have a free trade agreement between these blocs that would impose a carbon tariff on countries trading with them, that don't have a carbon fee.  This powerful trading block would force other countries around the world to impose what would soon become a global carbon market.    Suggestions are $20per tonne of carbon, though Canadian discussion of the British Columbian carbon tax suggest that it would be more effective at $200+ a tonne.  Although the revenue from this is supposed to be redistributed (at least in the BC example), it's been suggested that so far the redistribution mechanism is inequitable and people on low income and the poor will suffer most from the impact of the carbon tax. (See Progressive Economic Forum

My point is that this NZ Government will blithely welcome the Chinese in to mine our lignite and coal (via whatever Australian shell companies the Chinese choose as Trojan Horse) with most of those mining profits going off-shore, but leaving us with a massive CO2 emissions burden.  China may then be instrumental in creating a global carbon market that will see this country paying a huge price again, this time for it's CO2 emissions in a global market place.  China is setting NZ up for a triple whammy of resource exploitation, economic loss and environmental degradation !  It's about time the scales came off the Government's eyes.  Coal and lignite mining is not a win-win !


by Claire Browning on May 22, 2011
Claire Browning

It's like the gold standard of satire, or something: just write what happened, because really, you couldn't make this [stuff?] up.

Of course, Dr Elder is quite right: it was never just about the national parks. I mean, never mind Paparoa: if anyone had suggested, even in a private moment, removing 400,000 ha, give or take, from Mt Aspiring, that would have been absurd. It was never about them at all. It was the ecological areas. And the Te Wahi Pounamu UNESCO World Heritage Area, that falls outside Schedule 4, and won't be added, because that could stop prospecting.

And to be fair, I thought it was perhaps the briquettes, that would help out the Asians, in Asia. Or the CTL diesel, for all our old second-hand cars, that they'll drive, once we help them get rich. Except ... oh, wait a minute. They'd have to be exported, wouldn't they, and we know that's bad: it's the reason for bringing home the fertiliser. Perhaps it's the rising tide, then, that lifts all boats. Like this.

by Claire Browning on June 02, 2011
Claire Browning

A friend, who knows stuff, writes:

"Hansen talks in ppm of CO2, the UN in terms of all 6 Kyoto gases - close to all GHGs.  So Hansen's 350 CO2 is closer to 400 ppm all gases."

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