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NZ is facing a climate crisis – so why are our politicians posturing?

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As climate change threatens to render New Zealand’s economy a stranded asset, the public needs more than political bickering.

It was a milestone in New Zealand’s journey towards greenhouse-gas reduction when farm leaders last month agreed to their sector being measured up for transition into the Emissions Trading Scheme – much earlier and with less cavilling than predicted.

That’s what makes it so disappointing that our political parties are returning so rapidly to the fray.

National’s new petition against what it insists is a punitive “car tax” is disingenuous. No less disreputable, however, is the Green Party co-leader James Shaw’s labelling of National leader Simon Bridges as a climate denier. He’s not. As transport minister, Bridges launched the first electric vehicle incentive scheme in 2016, and both he and the current National transport spokesperson, Chris Bishop, drive electric cars. Certainly, National is entitled to make its point about the fairness of the government’s scheme, with the price of New Zealand’s most popular car increasing by about $3000 and potentially hitting some Kiwis – including farmers and low-income earners with a number of kids to transport – more than the executives who can afford a subsidised Tesla 3 or BMWi3. But, on the other hand, National must know the electric vehicle (EV) feebate system is such a mild, gradual and technologically pragmatic grandfathering-out of high-emission vehicles that, if anything, it’s open to the opposite charge – that it’s too soft.

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The Prime Minister doesn’t escape the fray, with critics suggesting that she is “visiting New Zealand”, after so many trips on carbon-emitting jets that she recently spent three out of four weeks overseas. The Greens, too, are targets, for a failure to focus on family size as an issue. Environmental research suggests that every child is the equivalent of 58.6 tons of carbon emission per year. Not having an extra child could save as much carbon per year as 73 people going vegetarian.

Yet, despite all the posturing, our main political parties are in broad agreement and probably accept most of what’s ordained in the Zero Carbon Bill, which is currently before a parliamentary select committee. No one argues the bill, which sets us on a path towards net zero emissions, is perfect. And there remain genuine and fierce areas of political disagreement, chiefly over farmers’ methane targets and the role of forestry. But, unlike the bickering over EVs and which leader’s commitment to climate-change issues is the greatest, these debates are very much worth the political air space.

It is critical that Parliament sets targets, but without seriously damaging our farm sector’s viability, productivity or competitiveness. Farmers are not being unreasonable in asking that sacrifices towards climate-change mitigation are borne as fairly as possible.

Forestry is also worth expending political rubber on. The legislation’s heavy reliance on forestry for carbon sequestration exposes us to a risk of unwise land-use decisions – driven by overseas investors oblivious to domestic needs and values – which will be hard for later generations to reverse.

Using political oxygen for lesser issues, let alone trumped-up non-issues, is blatant vote mining. Moreover, political squabbling is dismaying to young people, who find it hard to believe our leaders are in broad agreement.

That makes it all the more irresponsible of Shaw to misrepresent a person who could be our next prime minister as someone who opposes action to save the planet. But how are young people to get their heads around National’s petition to curb the favouring of green transport over carbon-pollution?

The urgent question facing New Zealand is how to prevent this whole economy from becoming a stranded asset, given agriculture and tourism – both under threat from climate change – are our economic powerhouses. For now, we can defend the “food miles” argument against New Zealand exports, with clear evidence we lead the world in sustainable and efficient food production, even allowing for the transport costs. But maintaining that advantage and keeping that message heard will take political focus and strong action.

Given that Sweden has recently given the world a new word – flygskam – for flight guilt, our tourism industry faces tough portents. Again, this needs New Zealand’s urgent focus.

The world has just experienced its hottest-ever July. New footage shows the Arctic ice cap’s melt is torrential. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is continuing at an alarming pace and 50% of the Great Barrier Reef is already dead.

As the planet burns, political bickering is simply unsustainable.

This editorial was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.