It sums up much of what is wrong about New Zealand’s understanding of mining, and our response to climate change, when the media describes as a ‘dirty secret’ revelations that more than 60 schools are still using coal-fired burners to heat classrooms.
There should be nothing secret about the financial realities many schools face. And that reality is that paying for alternative heating methods will likely take funding directly out of classroom educational resources, or sports equipment or the myriad other expenses schools and their Boards of Trustees must pay for.
In a recent article on Stuff, environmental health expert Dr Alex Macmillan of Otago University displays simplistic and blinkered views about the economies and ethics of fossil fuel use, coal use, and the tradeoffs we must assess as we transition to lower emissions options.
Macmillan claims the behaviour of schools still using coal burners is “morally inconsistent and unethical”.
Of course, that’s rubbish – how can using fossil fuels for transport be ethical but for heating schools unethical? Will driving children to school be next on Dr MacMillan’s agenda? Does she want students to stop drinking milk because it’s likely produced in a factory using coal to heat industrial boilers?
Thanks to bulk funding, schools must carefully choose how to spend their budgets. Replacing coal will incur a significant capital cost for new heating systems, and ongoing additional operating costs for the more expensive alternative fuels (wood pellets or electricity) and such a decision would divert scant funds away from classroom teaching. A school board might choose to do that but they will weigh up these competing priorities and they can seek moral advice if they choose.
Unfortunately, Dr Macmillan’s simplistic view of coal mirrors many New Zealanders views on mining and minerals generally. Of course, in an ideal world envisaged by academics like Macmillan from their well-heated campus offices, all our energy needs – domestically and globally – would be met with renewable energy – but at what cost? Again, these competing priorities would have to be assessed. As importantly, wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and e-scooters all require minerals, including coal, to be manufactured and operated.
And minerals can’t be purchased in stores or online – they have to be mined.
So, instead of treating coal-fired school boilers as dirty secrets, why not use the reality of economics, and the world’s insatiable need for minerals, as an educational tool so young New Zealanders learn that minerals support our modern lives, that we, in New Zealand, manage the impact of mining on the environment well on any global measure; and while everyone knows the world must lower it’s carbon emissions it’s a complex topic that captures many competing priorities.
Coal use in New Zealand comprises around 5% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Coal might be the single biggest source of emissions internationally, but it is not here.
Domestic demand for coal comes from the agricultural sector, steel manufacture, generation of electricity at Huntly as a back-up to maintain security of generation, and to heat schools and hospitals – mostly in the South Island where reticulated natural gas is not available. Of the 2.2 million tonnes of coal consumed in New Zealand annually we estimate schools’ share to be less than a few thousand tonnes.
Agricultural exports have limited ability to pass on costs. These businesses will transition from coal as technology, costs and business strategy allow and broadly in line with progress made by international competitors. To do otherwise would likely result in job losses with no environmental benefit.
Government-owned institutions such as schools and hospitals can more easily transition to lower emission fuels but, as mentioned above, an explicit allocation of funds would need to be made. These additional costs are not trivial and I don’t imagine government policy would want to compromise health or education outcomes to reduce these emissions.