Together with friends from OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health Council, I spent a wet, cold winter morning in July 2016 leafletting staff as they arrived for work at the Ministry of Health in Molesworth St, Wellington.

The reason CANA, OraTaiao and also 350 Aotearoa were putting pressure on the Ministry was to persuade it not to choose coal for heating Christchurch Hospital. Coal was the cheapest option, but also the most polluting – not only in terms of local pollution, but in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But coal is only cheap because coal miners and users don’t have to pay for the pollution they cause.

The  leaflet was addressed to Ministry of Health staff – most of whom were happy to receive it – and it called on them to encourage their bosses to decide to use wood waste, not coal, to fuel the planned new Christchurch Hospital boilers. We said:

It seems to us particularly strange that a government department charged with promoting and protecting public health would use a fuel known to damage public health, in contravention of the Ottawa charter which requires health authorities to put health first in all decisions; and of Section 22 of the Health and Disabilities Act 2000, which requires DHBs to exhibit a sense of social and environmental responsibility and to uphold expected ethical and quality standards.

We have been working on this issue for a while now.  In 2016, after visiting Burwood Hospital’s fabulous new biomass boiler system, CANA’s Jeanette Fitzsimons published an article in The Press in Christchurch about the hospital’s plan to continue with coal. “There is still time to see sense” she said.

Last year, Christchurch rekindled its district energy scheme for the city, led by Roger Sutton.  However, Christchurch Hospital departed the scheme, saying it was too expensive, and opted instead to burn coal, prompting Mayor Leanne Dalziell to say she was “heartbroken” at the decision. 

We have all chipped away at this issue, and it looks like the campaign has finally worked.

Christchurch Hospital has now published its call for bids for a new biomass (such a wood waste) plant rather than coal to fuel the new hospital boilers.

The bid for the new biomass boiler house.

Given the risks that burning coal poses to public health, why did it take a whole lot of letter-writing, lobbying and standing in the rain to persuade the Ministry that these boilers shouldn’t run on coal?

The problem was partly mindset, and partly money. Public servants are ultimately responsible to the Government of the day, and the previous National-led Government’s record shows that it didn’t give two hoots about pollution, the environment or climate change – it just wanted to squeeze public expenditure as far as possible.

In turn, that cost-cutting mentality – the same mentality that has led to the disastrous state of Middlemore Hospital – led health bodies to choose coal or gas, rather than carbon-neutral renewable sources, to fuel their boilers.

While one-off decisions like this can go a long way, we need a high price on carbon to ensure that coal is not only the dirty choice but also the expensive choice when all such decisions are being made.  Signs are looking good for the new Dunedin Hospital, where the the new site has now been chosen. Chair of the committee in charge of the rebuild, Pete Hodgson, has made some encouraging noises about moving away from coal, telling the ODT:

”The opportunity exists to switch to renewables, perhaps wood chips, and it is almost certain that the new hospital will therefore be heated with renewable energy…. but we can already be pretty sure that the new hospital will not be using fossil fuels as a heating source.”

Though the company was good, that July morning in Molesworth St was cold, wet and unpleasant. But by helping to create enough pressure to ensure that the wrong decision couldn’t be made under the previous Government, CANA and its allies have created the conditions to ensure the right decision would be made under this Government. Let’s hope there’s more of them.