John Armstrong's opinion: As NZ tries to lead world on climate change, Jacinda Ardern’s failure to shut down coal-generated power is an ‘absolute cop-out’

If there was a valid reason for continuing to use coal to generate electricity, it would solely be to shine light on the somewhat cynical charade being performed by Labour and the Greens on climate change.

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"We know there are economic opportunities to being climate leaders," the PM said today. Source: 1 NEWS

Since becoming Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has been relentless in asserting that when it comes to tackling global warming, New Zealand is going to be a leader not a follower.

She has promised that her Administration will set an example which will be the benchmark for other countries to match.

She has insisted that New Zealand’s size on the world stage (or rather the obvious lack of it) cannot be an excuse for inaction. 

She has boasted that her Government's initiatives to stem carbon dioxide emissions are "unashamedly ambitious". 

She has issued numerous challenges to the leaders of other countries to step up to the mark. 

She has admonished, but stopped short of naming those countries which are undermining efforts to secure world-wide agreement on emission levels.

The latter behaviour was vividly evident in the brazen refusal of the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to "welcome" a landmark report detailing the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees which was presented to the latest United Nations-sponsored conference on climate change held in the Polish city of Katowice over the past two weeks.


As much as Ardern and James Shaw, the Climate Change Minister, might seem deserving of credit for confronting head-on the very difficult politics of climate change, there is a glaring hole in their argument which bucks them off their moral high-horse every time they try to clamber upon it.

When it comes to addressing one of the key drivers of global warming, they simply don't want to know.

If Ardern and Shaw were really serious about setting the right example, they would ban coal being used to generate electricity for now and all time.

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Nearly 90 scientists from 39 countries, including New Zealand, have spent three years on a planet saving plan, one that requires drastic action. Source: 1 NEWS

The canning of coal was supposed to happen this year. But soaring wholesale electricity prices as a consequence of lower-than-normal hydro lake levels, temporary disruption of gas supplies, extra demand from the South Island and the powering up of a fourth pot line at Tiwai Point aluminium smelter conspired to result in the exact opposite.

The shortage in supply prompted Genesis Energy to utilise its coal-fuelled power station at Huntly to make up the shortfall. 

The country's power generators are now citing 2030 as the target date for terminating once and for all using coal as a backstop.

It is absolute cop-out on Ardern's part.

Her lacking the gumption to shut down one of the largest contributing factors to global warming amounts to a failure of leadership.

It renders the international crusade being mounted by her and Shaw as hollow and hypocritical.

Why would other nations heed the holier-than-thou proselytising indulged by Ardern and Shaw when neither is prepared to practice in their own backyard what they have been preaching to a much wider audience.

Of course, the likes of China, India and other Asian economies are not going to take a blind bit of notice of what New Zealand thinks or says about their dependence on coal to fuel their addiction to rampant growth.

That is not really the point. Ardern has no hesitation to likening New Zealand's stance on global warming to the adoption of the anti-nuclear policy, granting women the vote and even the conquest of Everest.


It is absolute bunkum. It is a smokescreen. If those coal-dependent economies could be bothered, they might well ask why an advanced economy like New Zealand's, which also happens to be blessed with a welter of yet-to-be-tapped renewable energy resources such as wave power, cannot muster the wherewithal to wean itself off coal.

The answer is simple. The political idealism that Labour and the Greens wish the world to see would instantly melt away back home were electricity shortages to result in huge hikes in retail power prices or power blackouts.

There was, of course, no mention of all this in New Zealand's formal national statement delivered by Shaw at the talkfest in Katowice.

The Greens' co-leader instead took a bottle half-full view of progress achieved at the latest climate change summit.

A far bigger impact on the debate was arguably occurring elsewhere on the European continent.

The "yellow vest" riots in Paris over recent weekends were sparked by public fury over the imposition of extra taxes on petrol and diesel which had the express purpose of reducing emissions by creating a disincentive for using vehicles. 

The humiliating backdown forced on Emmanuel Macron by the protesters who turned central Paris into a near war zone would have sent a shiver down the spine of every politician who made it to Katowice.

Indeed the scale of the civil unrest in the French capital appears to have prompted the issuing of a formal declaration by those in Katowice that acknowledged, that while addressing climate change required a "paradigm shift" in thinking, the consequent change to economies brought about by having to operate within the confines of much lower emission levels also demanded a "just transition" for workforces through the creation of decent work and quality jobs.

That would not have been news to Ardern. 


There has been a gigantic shift in the argument about climate change over the past year or so.

The ranks of climate-change deniers have been all but wiped out. The focus has shifted to how best to handle the transition to a carbon neutral economy.

The current New Zealand government's worry is that things could turn out to be as cataclysmic as was the impact of the free market policies adopted by both Labour and National in the 1980s.

To avoid a repeat, the Cabinet has stipulated that a "just and inclusive society" must be one of the pillars in what must be a "careful transition" to a low emissions economy.

One of the other pillars is "leadership both at home and internationally". That pillar includes "holding ourselves and other countries to account in the meeting of international climate change commitments."

Were Ardern to truly hold herself, her party and her support partner to account, it would expose the glaring inconsistency between good intentions and really meaningful action on New Zealand's part.

The suspicion is that much, if not all of her talk about climate change is for domestic consumption. There are few, if any other issues which fit as snuggly with her carefully cultivated image as a politician motivated by principle rather than one driven merely by what is expedient. 

In portraying herself as Action Woman, the Prime Minister is selling herself as someone who recognises the despair and frustration of many at the sloth-like speed exhibited by the big players in cutting emissions.

Ardern is selling herself as someone who recognises the deepening worry of increasing numbers of people for the futures of their children and grandchildren.

Macron's predicament serves as a salutary warning, however. 

Ardern's answer is to at one moment veer between seemingly pushing for faster and firmer action on the climate change, while exhibiting caution the next.

That means being inconsistent. But then Ardern has not put a high price on that commodity during her 14 months or so as Prime Minister.

Her stance on tackling climate change might be summed up as more haste, less speed.

It is inherently contradictory. She wants to be seen as empathising with middle-class angst. At the same time, she is loath to provoke a working class backlash through pushing policies which will ease that angst.

In short, the Prime Minister is seeking to please everyone. In trying to do so, she risks pleasing no-one.