As we sit here with a humming computer that trickles away kilowatt-hours of energy, we have to decide what we believe in.

I was working hard to raise funds for a project about four years back and considering whether it would be a good idea to approach a big coal producer for partnership.

This presented a fairly serious dilemma: many people consider the cause I work for to be environmental (I actually consider it to be more about behaviour and therefore social, but that is semantics) and would we dare to associate our hard-built brand with a company that sells coal?

A friend asked me the question: would you stand up on stage, in front of a group of school students, hold up a piece of coal and promote it to their impressionable minds?


My answer was of course no and we quickly ditched the idea without thinking about it much more.

But after reading in Wired Magazine about the role carbon capture from coal-fired power plants is starting to carve out in the climate change debate, today, even though my answer may still be a no, it might not be quite as resounding as before. Now, I would at least have to stop and think about it.

The simple fact is that if we could use coal for energy without the negative health and environmental outcomes then it would make more sense than renewables.

This is because our society is already set up to burn coal - if we could quickly clean up its use, then less materials and money would be required to meet our energy needs.

Before I get crucified by people thinking that I am going to the dark side, let me put a serious qualifier out there: renewable energy is - now and forever - a key part of the solution and it is truly beneficial to invest in, particularly in New Zealand where we can make an example to the rest of the world.

But on a world scale we must consider that there are 350 million people living in China on less than $2 per day. Even though China is developing more wind, solar and nuclear plants faster than any country, to provide all those people with electricity to heat their homes (which may well be required for their very survival), coal is the only viable option right now.

Wired says that coal is also the only way that we can make industrial steel and cement - materials that even the greenest of the green in New Zealand use and often take for granted.

But let's not escape the fact that without widespread change to the coal-fired systems (which will be a gargantuan challenge to achieve), it is a nasty beast of a fuel. If all of it was burned tomorrow the predictions are that the planet would get on average more than 6.5 degrees hotter than it is, causing widespread chaos and misery. Air pollution (which is largely coal-caused) causes about 1.2 million premature deaths in China alone.


The scary part is that despite its obvious problems, coal consumption is increasing at an alarming rate.

But the bright side is that some very clever people may just change the energy landscape by cleaning up what we have got. Take a look at Sean Simpson at Lanzatech - who is mimicking ancient gas-fermenting bacteria to capture carbon - and those who are making rapid developments in carbon capture and storage. While the multi award-winning Lanzatech seems to have cracked it and is really started to close the loop, the carbon capture industry continues to be criticised by environmentalists who quite rightly I think, call coal burning "the single biggest threat to our climate...">.

In little old New Zealand, many say that most of our energy is renewable anyway and what difference can we make when China is opening new coal-fired power stations on a seemingly weekly basis?

I personally detest the cynicism in this type of statement and I can't stand the inaction that saying this breeds. Theodore Roosevelt once said "In any moment of decision, the best you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing."

I think that even if New Zealand's small population is only a small drop in a vast Pacific Ocean that has a minimal cumulative impact on climate change when compared to others, that we would reap the tourism benefits from discerning visitors that care about such things if we made an example by going 100% renewable. If we extended our wind and solar so much that we could use dams as energy storage rather than for irrigation then it might actually be possible for us to be world leading in this space.

I also think that if carbon capture and storage attached to coal-fired power plants is the only feasible way for developing countries such as China bring their people out of poverty (and it can be done without poisoning people) then so be it and I hope that we make progress on it quickly. Many would say that developed countries like those in Europe who are now investing in clean energy, have already reaped the benefits of fossil fuels, so why can't the new players do it?

What sort of energy future do you want to see for New Zealand? And what do you think is fair for developing countries with a poverty-stricken population?

Debate on this article is now closed.