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Lignite and James Hansen - Gareth Hughes' general debate speech

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GARETH HUGHES (Green): Kia ora, Mr Assistant Speaker Robertson. Two nights ago, along with maybe 500 other concerned Wellingtonians, I attended atmospheric physicist and National Aeronautics and Space Administration director Dr James Hansen's lecture on climate change.

Dr Hansen is in New Zealand to highlight the risk of climate change to our planet and to future generations. He says our global climate is nearing the tipping point. Changes are beginning to appear and there is potential for explosive changes, with effects that will be irreversible if we do not rapidly slow the growth of fossil fuel emissions over the next few years.

In particular, Dr Hansen is here to raise awareness on coal, which he describes as the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet. Coal is the biggest threat because it is the largest source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the one easiest left in the ground.

His tour coincides with an important part of our New Zealand future. The Government is actively encouraging, through its draft energy strategy, the hugely expensive Think Big plan to destroy valuable Southland farmland, to dig up dirty lignite coal that will destroy our climate credentials and our valuable clean, green brand.

Over the last 10,000 years the Earth's climate has been remarkably stable, fluctuating by less than one degree centigrade over that period. This has enabled civilisation to develop in a safe, constant environment. This has led to the society we see today. Preservation of life as we know it on this planet requires us to stabilise emissions at or below 350 parts per million. We are currently at 391 parts per million and rising by two parts per million a year.

This Government has an inadequate emissions reduction target of 50 percent by 2050. However, even this lowly emissions target will be impossible to meet if the Government allows the lignite plans to proceed. This is the height of irresponsibility, and as Dr Hansen repeatedly points out, climate change is a scientific issue but, more important, climate change is a moral issue requiring us in New Zealand to keep the coal in the hole.

What does all this mean for New Zealand? We market ourselves as clean and green on the world stage. However, Dr Hansen says of New Zealand the fact the Government is even thinking of digging up the lignite shows there is a huge gap. Lignite is at the coalface of the New Zealand environmental crisis. It is estimated that New Zealand has around 6.2 billion tonnes of economically recoverably lignite. The trouble is lignite is the most inefficient and amongst the most polluting types of coal there are. Nevertheless, Solid Energy and others are pushing their proposals to mine it, ignoring the critical report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that claims mining just is not worth it.

We are dismally failing our current climate change target, and allowing the lignite conversion to go ahead will signal to the world we give up on our emissions reduction targets and our valuable "clean, green" brand. If the proposed lignite mining goes ahead, our emissions look set to rise drastically—as much as 20 percent of our country's emissions from one lignite to diesel plant. Lignite trashes our "clean, green" brand and our international climate treaty credibility.

Under this National Government's emissions trading scheme, the plans could potentially cost the taxpayer $275 million a year from carbon credit subsidies that the miners would receive. Over a lifetime, the cost of just one lignite to diesel plant is likely to be in the order of billions of dollars. It is clearly bad for the Government's books, and bad because it locks in polluting industries.

In oral questions today the Acting Minister of Energy and Resources attested there would not be subsidies. However, either she has not read the report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment or she has changed the rules without telling anyone else. Lignite coal has environmental costs, fiscal costs, and also significant opportunity costs. The capital invested in these projects should be going to cleantech, greentech projects that are greener, cheaper, and will last us for ever.

Dr Hansen is in New Zealand and is talking about his grandchildren as his motivation for tackling the climate crisis. By the time my son Arlo, who is now 3 years old, starts school we could have an ice-free Arctic in summer. By his 10th birthday we will have likely increased the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations more than in the preceding 150,000 years of natural emissions. By the time he starts high school we could have lost more than 3,000 cubic kilometres of ice from Antarctica and Greenland.

I want my son, his children, and the children and grandchildren of everyone else in this room to grow up in a world with a stable climate. In this Chamber we will not be the ones to bear the impact of our irresponsible actions. It will be our children, and their children, and every generation to come, not to mention every other species with which we share this, our only planet. Kia ora.

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