Friday, August 06, 2021

Climate Change: Should we buy out dairy polluters?

Farmers are New Zealand's biggest source of emissions, producing just under 40 million tons a year, mostly in the form of methane from livestock. Dairy farmers are responsible for roughly half of those emissions, making them our single largest polluter. And now, there's been a radical suggestion: just pay them to stop:

Farmers should be gifted a one-off $12 billion payment to stop dairying and convert to industries with a lower carbon footprint, an environmental researcher says.

Speaking at the Environmental Defence Society conference in Christchurch on Thursday, Dr Mike Joy said the dairy industry's yearly $12b export earnings were effectively a government subsidy that allowed harmful land use.


Joy believed the only way to turn the tide was to pay farmers in high-risk areas like Canterbury to stop dairying.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would say this, I would not have believed you. Pay the $12b and get the cows off there.”

Turning $12 billion into a currency that matters, its 80 million tons of carbon at the government's internal cost of $150 / ton. That's roughly four years of dairy sector emissions. So if this actually happened, the investment in decarbonisation would pay off after just four years. Which seems like a bargain (killing Huntly has a longer payoff, killing Glenbrook a shorter one).

There are two problems: farmers probably value their polluting lifestyle at more than a single year's exports. And paying them off is going to be a hard sell when they've basicly exported any social licence they once had. Why pay these polluting fucks? Why not just regulate them into oblivion, and shrink the industry that way? But obviously, we can do both, using regulation as the stick to break their spirit and lower the price, and then eventual buy-outs as the carrot to shrink this industry to a sustainable size.

What is a sustainable size? That depends on the catchment, but half seems like a good ballpark to aim for in the medium term, and would help meet our international climate commitments. And no, that doesn't mean less food - they export 90% of their product, so there is scope for significant reductions. If farmers are worried about making less money, maybe they should move to a higher-value export model, rather than the current model of bulk low-value commodities and trying to make it up on volume.