Labour is having its annual conference this weekend - something which is dominating political commentary at the moment - so I thought I'd highlight a piece of Helen Clark's keynote address. Speaking about climate change, she said:
I believe it’s time to be bold in this area.
Why shouldn’t New Zealand aim to be the first country which is truly sustainable – not by sacrificing our living standards, but by being smart and determined?
We can now move to develop more renewable energy, biofuels, public transport alternatives, and minimise, if not eliminate, waste to landfills.
We could aim to be carbon neutral.
I believe that sustainability will be a core value in 21st century social democracy.
- I want New Zealand to be in the vanguard of making it happen – for our own sakes, and for the sake of our planet.
- I want sustainability to be central to New Zealand’s unique national identity.
This is a strong signal that the upcoming New Zealand Energy Strategy (a draft version of which is due out in the next few months) will include a strong commitment to renewable energy, and possibly even the goal of 100% renewable or carbon neutral electricity generation mooted in the government's "way ahead" cabinet paper earlier in the year. This would be good news if it happens, but at the same time it displays the same flaw which has characterised New Zealand climate change policy from the beginning: excluding agriculture. The problem can be clearly seen in the graph below (taken from the Climate Change Office's annual report):
Agriculture is responsible for 49.4% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation is responsible for 8.1%. While reducing electricity sector emissions to zero by switching to renewables or requiring generators to plant trees would make a significant dent in our net position (and be a remarkable step forward), doing so while allowing agricultural emissions to continue to grow unchecked will make it a futile effort. We cannot continue to wall off agriculture and pretend that it is not part of the problem - it is the problem in New Zealand.
This doesn't mean that we need to start shooting cows and throwing them in a ditch. But it does mean that the government needs to do a hell of a lot more to target the agricultural sector. Taxing nitrogen-based fertiliser (responsible for both greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our waterways) so that farmers pay the full price of its environmental effects rather than dumping them on the wider community would be a good start. Capping stocking levels so that farmers couldn't overstock their land (which worsens both problems) would be another. On the methane front, there are currently few abatement options - so the government needs to work harder on finding them. Doubling the funding for research into reducing ruminant methane would improve our chances of solving this problem in the future. Unfortunately, so far they're not making much noise about any of these measures.
Finally, the agricultural sector has to come to the party on this. They are the problem, and they need to acknowledge that fact and start cleaning up their own mess rather than spouting denialist rhetoric. Otherwise, the rest of us just might get sick of the massive environmental subsidy we are paying them...