Climate change: Science vs politics

27 Mar 2019


Worldwide, there are protests demanding action on climate change and in New Zealand, the report of our Interim Climate Change Committee is soon to be released. At the same time, there are countries around the world getting “cold feet”. 

Stuff reported on 23 March that European Union leaders pushed back a decision on the bloc's long-term efforts to fight climate change, with some countries opposing a pledge to end most emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. The European Parliament recently voted in favour of raising the targeted emissions cuts to 55 per cent by 2030, but leaders of the bloc's 28 members have so far refrained from following suit. Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic were among those EU nations reluctant to explicitly cite the year 2050 for curbing emissions, according to position papers obtained by The Associated Press.  

French President Emmanuel Macron was reported as saying: "Today, we are not giving a clear answer to the commitments we made in Paris in 2015, to the scientific challenges pointed out by the best experts, and to the legitimate impatience that youngsters are expressing in demonstrations every week in our capitals. We will need to wake up, but we have not really seen that yet."

On 26 March, New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, released his report Farms, forests and fossil fuels: The next great landscape transformation? about taking an alternative “landscape approach” to Aotearoa New Zealand’s long-term climate change targets. His alternative approach is to separate fossil emission from biological emission and push out the time-frame from 2050 to 2075, ostensibly to allow for further technological development. New Zealand’s fatalistic reliance on forests as the solution to our biological emissions is questioned in the report as in essence, forests are not a long-term solution and trees do not take up methane. He notes that managing a long-term problem with a short-term “fix” is risky. He notes that there is a different profile with biological emissions as they are short-term gases, but the key issue here is that we need to reduce the production of these short-term gases. The facts are that the amount of methane produced is directly related to how many animals are eating grass – and of course how much grass they are eating. 

My point is, that the answer is long-term land use change that is not exclusively reliant on forests, but which tackles directly the issue of methane and additionally provides healthy food to feed New Zealand – i.e. more horticulture as a mixed farming model.  To this end, we have a bid in with Government to fund a programme to map all of New Zealand’s land to identify what horticultural crops - both existing and new - can be grown across the entire country. This will then permit consideration of changing some land used from animal production into plant production as a long-term climate change solution.

The Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, in his reported comments notes that Simon Upton has provided a thought-provoking document that questions some of the fundamental design principles of the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS). Minister Shaw further stated that the Government is committed to retaining the use of forestry off-sets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emissions. He said the priority must be actual gross reductions in emissions.  In other words, long term solutions.

So, the question needs to be asked: is it sensible to pursue a short-term solution that will ultimately see New Zealand not reach its ETS targets? Should we adopt long-term solutions, adopt Commissioner Upton’s suggestions of separating fossil emission from biological emission, adopt a time-frame that will permit long term land-use change and allow technology the opportunity to also develop solutions? One compelling reason for such an approach is that through our climate change adaption, we will need considerable finance to achieve it given that the way in which New Zealand earns the majority of its income is from our primary and tourism sectors, basically, our rural environment. 

I do not however agree with Commissioner Upton’s focus on forests, when forests are not the long-term solution. At best forests can be used as the first step in a two-step process to long-term land use change, so that New Zealand can sustainably reach and maintain its ETS targets. Therefore, I believe that a science and fact based, long-term approach, is the only option and that political considerations need to give way to pragmatic, financially viable answers.

- Mike Chapman, CEO