Kennedy Graham

Coal and Sustainable Energy: An exciting essay topic

by Kennedy Graham

To the CEO of Solid Energy:

Dear Sir,

I understand that your corporation is sponsoring an essay competition for schoolchildren in Southland, West Coast, Canterbury and Waikato.  The essay, up to 1500 words, must address “The Role of Coal in Sustainable Energy Solutions for New Zealand.”

I am not sure if there is an age limit this year, but as a mature New Zealander I am excited at the chance to participate and would be most grateful if you’ll allow me to submit.  Any opportunity to stimulate young minds – any old mind – towards sustainable thinking is a priceless contribution to this country’s future.  It should be appreciated for what it is – a selfless act of communal service on your part.  I plan to alert the Minister of Energy to this example of corporate supererogation. I know how pleased he will be.

I shall keep my contribution under 1000 words – discounted for age, as it were.  Here is my submission:

In this essay I consider the role of coal in sustainable energy solutions for New Zealand.  As an aspiring young leader, I shall summon people – future followers of whom I know many – to support my vision.  To do that, I must combine intellectual rigour with emotional appeal.  So I begin with a definition of the main concepts in the essay title.

Sustainability is the capacity to provide for our present generation’s needs whilst ensuring that future generations can meet theirs.  An eco-centric perspective requires that we humans act as custodians of the planet for the sake of all species.  But the prevailing anthropocentric view is that other species are here on Earth to serve human needs, and if they appear not to be doing so, they become dispensable.  This applies particularly to those of small size – snails for example – but it can apply equally to larger creatures, including all higher primates.

A solution is defined as an answer, a ‘key’, to a problem.  In this essay, the problem would appear to be the implied lack of sustainable energy scenarios for New Zealand.  This excludes the rest of the world.  I am having difficulty with this since we have traditionally been import-dependent on heavy oil from overseas.  So it comes as a relief to know that the Government is encouraging the exploration of oil here, both on-land and off-shore, and that it sees one future scenario of New Zealand as a potential net oil exporter.  Bravo!

I suggest that oil and coal should not be seen as mutually competitive.  Each draws from past solar activity and remains predictable in its proven reserves.  If peak oil is as early as 2014 – the latest IEA report – then we must rely further on its older sister whose reserves are believed to last for several centuries more.  This will give us time to successfully deal with any climate change, and adapt to whatever extent we may need.

The emotional appeal of coal is, I submit, self-evident.  My grandparents used to speak wistfully of cosy evenings of times past with the open-hearth fireplace casting a warm glow around the living-room, generating human conviviality and good cheer on a dreary night.  Today’s clinically-modernised global community could do with some of this.  If the ensuing heat-loss of 85% warmed the heavens, then surely this was a cosmic good.  I do not begrudge my ancestors their simple pleasures; in fact, we should seek to recover them.  Solid Energy has a moral role here, I believe, in uplifting our flagging spirits.

But, it must be asked, is such a role sustainable?  I realise that the world’s coal reserves are finite, so at some future stage we must switch to renewable energy resources.  But in the meantime, there is more coal to extract and consume than any other fossil fuel source.  Oil and natural gas are, together, insufficient to double the carbon concentration in Earth’s atmosphere – with the goal of 800 ppmv.  We can only achieve this through coal-burning.

That is estimated to result in an average global temperature increase of some 8 to 10°C and a sea-level rise of 5 to 15 metres over the next two centuries.  Some timid souls may see this as a negative consequence of my energy solution.  But several qualifying considerations are, I think, relevant here.

First, a global average does not mean that New Zealand will necessarily share in those figures – our temperature increase could well be lower, at a congenial level perhaps, particularly for those of us in Southland.

Secondly, the time-span of two centuries raises the question of how far out the concept of inter-generational justice that underpins sustainability just has to stretch.  For my part, I think it is sufficient simply to worry about one’s children and theirs.  Beyond that, our mokopuna are just gleams in a fossil-burner’s eye.

We can, moreover, be confident that human ingenuity and technological prowess, of the kind that has generated such an economic miracle over the past 250 years, will see us through.  In the same vein, we should believe that humans will have learnt, over the next 3 billion years, to take leave of the solar system on which we currently rely, and bid our dying Sun adieu, when the time comes.  Nothing is beyond us, now that technology has allowed us to break free of Nature’s primitive grasp.

New Zealand has its part to play in all this, punching as always above its weight.  A hungry China is installing two Huntly-sized coal power stations each week.  GHG emissions are correlated with GDP on a per capita basis.  Ours are about 17 tonnes per annum.  Theirs are 3.5.  They have a right, and must be encouraged, to reach our level.  We must help.  It is our bounden duty.

Besides, if we do not supply them with the coal they need, someone else will.  So let us compete.  Solid Energy has a role to play in meeting China’s needs.  The export income we earn from this will allow us to focus here on climbing out of the economic recession and making our national economy grow again, as it has in the past.

Annual growth of 5% – surely a credible aspiration – enables us to double our economy within about 12 years.  As our population grows to the projected 5 million and Earth’s to 9 billion, we shall need all the coal reserves we possess.  Meanwhile, our Government will ensure that we balance economic opportunity with environmental responsibility.

Some are terrified that an atmospheric carbon concentration above 450 ppmv and a modest temperature increase above 2°C will spell disaster for humanity.  But I say, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We shall balance economic opportunity with environmental responsibility.

A sustainable New Zealand is a wealthy New Zealand.  A wealthy New Zealand has the capacity to ensure that we are sustainable.  Wealth thus equates with sustainability.  Coal and oil equates with wealth.  It follows that coal and oil equate with sustainability.

Sir, I trust these thoughts meet with your approval.  I hope to win a prize for this essay from Solid Energy that allows me to consider a career in your company.  Give me a child of seven, as they say, and I will show you the man of seventy.  That will be around the year 2075.  I foresee a bright future for New Zealand, with coal as the Key to its sustainable energy needs.

May Solid Energy grow from strength to corporate strength, delivering power and happiness to the people of New Zealand.

Published in Environment & Resource Management | Featured by Kennedy Graham on Sat, March 13th, 2010   

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