• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

The climate change blame game

In spite of the abuse heaped on farmers by urbanites, the causes of climate change are a town and country problem.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern undersold New Zealand when she told the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York that we were “determined to show that we can be the most sustainable food producers in the world”.

By most key measures, and even counting food miles for our exports, we already are. But that message needs amplifying.

Never mind the world stage – farmers need defending at home against the current fashion for demonising them as the prime culprits for greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution.

The causes of climate change are a town and country problem. It is pointless to pit “their” dirty rivers and belching cows against “our” urban traffic and sewage discharge. Yet the abuse of farmers by self-righteous urbanites is becoming so severe that it is probably contributing – along with debt and isolation – to serious mental-health problems in rural New Zealand.

Read more: What role should dairy farms play in NZ's low-emission future? | New Zealand's incredible shrinking glaciers

Too many New Zealanders are unaware of how far ahead of the game our agricultural producers are by international standards. The sector has made considerable voluntary investment to lower its methane and nitrate profiles and faces much more as a result of regulation. It’s in no one’s interests, least of all the planet’s, for that pace to be so severe that it drives large numbers out of business, as some environmentalists advocate.

There are signs the Government will relent to some degree on two looming crunch points: the proposed methane reduction target and freshwater standards. Both targets and timetables could be made more flexible to avert mass bankruptcies, provided the pace of progress still meets the warming restrictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Reflexive cries of “soft on farmers!” ignore the green imperatives for carefully calibrating these settings. Were vast tracts of our productive land rendered uneconomic to farm or crop because of new restrictions, there is little to stop it being taken over by forestry. Carbon sinks are highly attractive for international investors. New Zealand needs a huge increase in forest-sink acreage, but to get it at the cost of arable farming would be the worst possible way to achieve it, according to the IPCC. It recently reiterated the primacy of food-producing land. To turn any over to trees would be counter to its blueprint for the optimal land-use change needed to feed a future population of 10 billion. Yet this is already happening, causing the Government to reconsider its forest-sink settings.

Our farm sector’s efficiency relative to its trading competitors is another vital environmental consideration. Any market share the sector loses will be taken up by foreign producers who farm less sustainably. Rather like the ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, it might improve New Zealand’s emissions profile and green credentials, but will only make the planet’s worse as the demand is met by countries with much less stringent environmental standards.

This effect, known as carbon leakage, will remain a risk until competitors’ green efficiency starts catching up with ours. For structural economic reasons – chiefly that most are heavily subsidised – this is highly unlikely any time soon. For example, despite the UK’s large population and guaranteed – for now – European market access, only a quarter of its farms are profitable without subsidies and supplementary employment.

Further, there is nothing to replace our agricultural sector’s economic heft – least of all more sustainably. Were it to come from massive expansion in tourism, unlikely though that is, our carbon emissions would rise as a result of burning more aviation fuel.

It would be instructive to poll those blackguarding the farm sector as to what they would give up in exchange for a much-reduced national income.

Agricultural exports make up 78% of our foreign earnings from merchandise and more than half of all earnings including services, which allow us to import prized – and not particularly green – items such as iPhones, computers, coffee, designer goods, e-scooters and cars that are bought primarily by city dwellers.

Those tempted to rejoice in farmer discomfort should also consider the social cost of a devastated farm sector: social dislocation, provincial business failures and unemployment.

No one argues the sector doesn’t need to improve, and urgently. It is working on it. Ardern also told the UN: “Dialogue is best. De-escalation is best.” That is a message that farmers would be pleased to hear her bring home.

This editorial was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.