Winning on climate change - tipping the scales

Feature story - September 14, 2005
Burning fossil fuels like petrol, coal and gas produces greenhouse gases which, cause global warming which, in turn, leads to climate change. This is the concensus of the global scientific community.

Climate change causes many things and very few of them are good. One of the scariest is 'extreme weather events' but sea level rise, melting glaciers in the South Island and new pests and diseases will mean that climate change will severely impact on all our lives.

There are big industries and vested interests involved, so progress in the fight against climate change can seem glacial but recently in NZ we've seen some big steps forward and - coming so soon after Hurricane Katrina's chilling demonstration of what extreme weather can do - this seems timely.

Using a classic pincer movement, Greenpeace has been confronting climate change from two angles simultaneously. By tackling the powerful electricity generation sector on coal, accompanied by a strong advocacy of renewable wind energy,  we have both confronted the problem and pointed to the solution.

Stop Marsden BMarsden B

Mighty River Power's Marsden B coal-fired power station  has been the main focus of our coal campaign. Firing up the mothballed station to run on dirty old coal would make it NZ's first coal-fired power station in over 25 years.

In the current climate and in light of New Zealand's Kyoto commitments, Marsden B defies all logic and would be a giant leap backwards. NZ has a huge wind energy resource and other renewable energy sources - there is no need for us to turn back to dirty old coal.

Greenpeace's fight against Marsden B began with a 9 day occupation of the site and saw a record number of public submissions, a long and detailed submission hearing and a  groundswell of opposition both locally and nationally. The fight over Marsden B continues and we await the result of the hearing due at the end of September 05.

The domino  effect

At the beginning of 2005 we were faced with a whole line of new coal fired power station proposals - Mighty River Power's Marsden B, Genesis was looking at two more for Huntly, Comalco was considering one at Tiwai Point near Bluff and Solid Energy was  drawing up plans for one in Buller.

But in another fantastic win for the climate, Comalco now appears to be backing away from its plans to build a new 600MW coal fired power station to supply the  Tiwai Point  Aluminium Smelter.

And even more encouraging is that the Comalco General Manager cited these reasons: "the political climate around coal", global concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and the realisation that the company could face opposition if  it decides to go down the track of coal generation.

From such a big player (Comalco uses 15% of New Zealand's electricity) this is highly significant and  is in no small part due to both the strong, national public opposition to Marsden B led by Greenpeace and Whangarei community groups and the great work against coal done by other groups around the country such as the 'Save Happy Valley' campaign against the cypress coal mine.

Through this work the coal industry, the electricity sector and the Government are getting the message loud and clear: Kiwis don't want coal and, if companies go down that path,  we'll fight them every step of the way.

This campaign against coal has sent reverberations throughout the energy industry. In the last few months we've seen several coal fired power station proposals dropped before reaching the resource consent stage. Genesis ditched plans for its two new power stations earlier this year and has stated it is not looking at new coal plants until it can address carbon dioxide emissions. Comalco is now backing off coal and Solid Energy's coal plans at Buller seem to be in limbo but also, the move to wind is gathering momentum.

Yes to Wind!

Greenpeace's work in support of wind energy has also paid off. The Environment Court has allowed the Awhitu wind farm, at Waiuku near Auckland to go ahead. A comment from the final decision stated that "this project, if approved, would provide clean and renewable energy to provide essential electricity and to prevent CO2 emissions that would have been created by generating electricity through the burning of coal or gas."

Greenpeace joined the appeal in support of the wind farm as we are very concerned about climate change and consider wind and other forms of renewable energy to be very important components to address global warming.

Others who joined the appeal included the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, Auckland Regional Council, the New Zealand Wind Energy Association, Mighty River Power and the Environmental Defence Society.

Perhaps the most significant member of this group was Charmaine Watts, a Waiuku local resident, who leads the Waiuku in Support of Wind Energy (WISE) group.  She says the majority of people living in the area support the plan.  This has been backed up by an Auckland University of Technology survey  which showed that 70% of locals support the wind farm.

This is somewhat contrary to the media's portrayal of widespread local opposition to wind farms.  We often find that those who speak out against a proposal often drown out those who want to support it, even if, as in the case of Awhitu wind farm, most locals support the project. Unfortunately, positive stories often don't make it into the media..

This is a great victory for WISE and local supporters as well as for wind energy development in New Zealand and the climate. The Waiuki decision is a precedent-setting case for wind energy in New Zealand. This is the first time that the Environment Court has considered a wind farm.  The decision therefore  sets an important and positive precedent for balancing sustainable development and the need to tackle climate change with mitigating local impacts and for allowing appropriate siting of wind farms in coastal areas.  

The icing on the cake is that Comalco is now looking at a wind farm proposal with Meridian instead of a coal fired power station.

So while coal is becoming a dirty word - wind is really setting sail.

The Yes2Wind website has been very popular and, we hope,  has played an important role in supporting wind energy. It provides answers to questions about wind farms and a resource for people to campaign for their local wind project.

The West Wind project near Wellington which would provide enough clean renewable wind energy to power all homes in the Greater Wellington Region, had a Wellington Regional Council record of over 2,000 submissions, the overwhelming majority of which were in favour of the project.

Policy Progress

Another step forward came in the Labour Party's energy policy announced on 13 September. With this policy Labour has committed to increasing the proportion of electricity from clean renewable energy sources like wind, research New Zealand meeting all future demand growth from renewable energy and to develop a National Energy Strategy.

For three years, Greenpeace has been calling for a long term sustainable energy strategy for New Zealand to help stop dangerous climate change and it is encouraging that Labour has taken up the challenge, at least partially. However we are disappointed that they have fallen short of the vital step to stop new fossil fuel developments like coal or gas and to phase out existing plants.

We are tipping the scales in favour of wind energy away from dirty old climate change causing coal. But we've still got a long way to go.

Greenpeace, together with our supporters all around the country, will continue the fight to stop Marsden B coal-fired power station until Mighty River Power discards it for being the bad idea that it is.

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