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Pragmatism needed on agricultural emissions - climate change committee

Thursday 6th December 2018

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An overly purist treatment of agricultural gases in climate change policy risks slowing this country’s response and politicising the process, the chair of the Interim Climate Change Committee says.

Debate over the relative contribution of methane and nitrous oxide, and whether the former is a flow gas, risks distracting from the more pressing task of getting emissions from agriculture into the climate regime somewhere, David Prentice said in Wellington yesterday.

While the country’s climate change polices need to be science-based, he said there is also a need for pragmatism and buy-in, given the pace of action needed.

Five scientists would give five different answers on how agricultural gasses should be treated, he told delegates at the New Zealand Emissions Workshop. What is needed is action.

“We must de-politicise the issue as much as we can to move forward,” he said.

“We must use science as a base for any decisions that we make, but any decisions now need to be done on a pragmatic perspective,” he said.

“That methane argument - it is important, but we must not let ourselves get caught in it.”

The Labour-led government has pledged to get the economy to net-zero emissions by 2050 and is trying to get cross-party support for a new legislative framework.

But it has already damaged its policy credibility by persisting with a pre-election target for 100 percent renewable power generation by 2035 – against the advice of the already highly renewable industry – and by banning new offshore exploration.

National has already said it will repeal that latter policy, which will do nothing to reduce emissions and could actually increase them.

Prentice said his biggest fears for the current process are politics and complacency.

He said Climate Change Minister James Shaw is leading “furious conversations” with the other parties in Parliament to find common ground on the proposed Net Zero Carbon Bill.

If that isn’t achieved, Labour will push the bill through regardless, Prentice said, at which point it will just become “another political football” and allow future governments “to come in and change things willy nilly.”

The committee was appointed in April to make progress on key policy choices pending the formal creation of the Climate Change Commission next year.

It was specifically tasked with advising the government on how to implement the renewable generation target and how agriculture – which accounts for close to half the country’s gross emissions - can be brought into the emissions trading scheme.

Prentice said polling as part of the Net Zero Carbon Bill consultation was encouraging and showed broad consensus on the need to include agricultural emissions. Even farming groups understood the need to take action.

What farmers particularly wanted, he said, was something that was relatively simple, that set a clear direction on what was required and guidance on how best to minimise those impacts.

He said he’s not sure it makes sense to rush to try to include agricultural gases in the emissions trading scheme, given it is not working well and is going to be reformed anyway.

“There are other ways of accounting for agriculture emissions that we believe are fair, that deal with the distributional impacts, and are significantly cheaper to implement across New Zealand and would provide better benefits back to farmers,” he said.

The committee is taking a “far wider perspective” than just looking at the ETS and is also trying to put together a suite of “companion measures” that would help minimise the impact on-farm.

“We are trying to take a more pragmatic, hopefully common-sense view to that.”

Prentice said whatever the country does on climate change, it will cost billions of dollars and there will be winners and losers.

While technically possible, he said spending those sums trying to get generation 100 percent renewable by 2035 makes little sense given the sector is already more than 80 percent renewable and accounts for only about 5 percent of the country’s emissions.

He said the country will be better off to pursue emissions reductions in agriculture, transport and industrial heat.

Earlier in the workshop, business leaders told delegates they mustn’t let the risk of political “flip-flops” deter their organisations from getting on top of their emissions exposure.

Ngai Tahu Holdings chief executive Mike Sang said politics doesn’t help, but nor should it become an excuse for inaction, given the growing calls from consumers and voters for progress on emissions reduction.

His organisation is part of the Climate Leaders Coalition, whose 76 member-companies are responsible for about half the country’s emissions.

Sang said it is not the role of business to ‘lobby’ for action from government. Taking a position, delivering action and showing government by example what can be achieved will be more effective in getting and keeping political parties on track, he said.

David Meates, chief executive of the Canterbury and West Coast District Health Boards, observed that change can only occur at the speed of trust and that policy “flip-flopping” erodes confidence.

But he said that need for certainty is more about the direction of travel, rather than policy specifics, and he said firms and the country can afford to be more adventurous in the targets they set themselves.

(BusinessDesk)

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