The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton released a ground-breaking, important but ear-bleedingly complicated report on greenhouse gas emissions this week.
The responses to his paradigm shifting ideas were disappointing. Greenpeace happily cemented their brand as Farmer Enemy #1 by claiming that Commissioner Upton had been influenced by Big Ag. The Government also dismissed it instantly, releasing their own ideas on how to tinker with forestry emissions trading settings the very next day.
They probably hoped that nobody would understand the report and so it would be forgotten by the next news cycle. Indeed the world may not even have noticed that the report was released if RNZ Morning Report presenter Guyon Espiner hadn’t roasted Climate Change Minister James Shaw about his lack of wins as part of this Labour-led Government.
The report is worthy of considerable further debate and thought, and not just by the agricultural lobby. There are many long-term issues in the report which should be carefully considered.
Commissioner Upton’s main points are:
- Agricultural greenhouse gases aren’t as bad as we think. We need to stabilise and reduce them but not get them to zero.
- Fossil fuels are worse – we need to get them to zero ASAP.
- Trees aren’t as great to lock up carbon as we think. Therefore we should use trees to offset biological emissions but not fossil fuel ones.
Commissioner Upton’s report is complex, but he is taking a sound long-term view. Not only is he presenting a pragmatic way to bring agriculture into an emissions reduction framework, but he is focussing on the real issue – fossil fuel emissions need to fall to zero.
The report includes quite a lot of philosophical and scientific perspectives about the difference between the geological and biological cycles, and why they should be treated differently. I have to say so far I am less convinced by this than the difference between a short-lived gas like methane and long-lived greenhouse gases. After all an atom of any long-lived atom of greenhouse gas will have similar warming effects, whether it came from a cow, coal or cutting down a tree.
But when you think long-term the argument becomes more convincing. If you use trees to balance balance biological emissions and deal with other local problems like soil and water you will come to some sensible land use decisions. If you use trees to balance a potentially endless stream of fossil emissions you could end up with a carbon price so high the whole country will be covered in trees and you still won’t have dealt with the real issue. No one wants that.
The political problem Commissioner Upton’s report poses is that the current Government focus is on planting trees when we really need to reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero. That is why Minister Shaw responded to Espiner saying that cutting emissions is really really hard and the short-term solution is to plant more trees.
It’s a pretty weak response, but Minister Shaw is in a bind because planting more trees is about the only solution this Coalition Government can agree on. New Zealand First might agree to the Zero Carbon Act (if he is lucky) but they won’t put in place any of the changes that would actually reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Of course Government points to the new oil and gas exploration ban as reducing emissions, but that is very far from certain. In fact if the carbon price doesn’t rise soon to encourage more renewable electricity generation we could end up importing more fossil fuels instead.
The other more reasonable problem raised by Commissioner Upton’s report is how to provide some certainty to forestry operators in the Emissions Trading Scheme. However this is solvable – simply keep the carbon subsidy for forestry fixed at the current level $25 per tonne while the new system is put in place.
The point of Commissioner Upton’s report is that if we really let this Emissions Trading thing work properly it will have a huge impact on the country this century. We need to think carefully about what we want to achieve now before we really let this system rip.
So what needs to happen? Here are a few no brainers. If we remove the price cap on the Emissions Trading Scheme the carbon price should double, at least. That should push electricity generators to invest in more renewable energy. We need to plant our marginal, erosion prone land in native trees, ASAP. Other farmers and land users can help pay for that as a way to offset their biological emissions as Commissioner Upton suggests. We are also way behind the rest of the world on investing in energy efficiency which can save money and help reduce emissions.
Finally we also have to face the fact that the world looks pretty unlikely to reach its target of limiting warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees. Our investment in climate action should focus as much on preparing for this outcome as much as reducing emission.
The Opportunities Party will certainly be looking at Commissioner Upton’s report in some detail in thinking about our climate policy for the next election.