An overwhelming number of NBR ONLINE readers say New Zealand's agriculture industry should never be included in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
A poll run last week shows 62% never want agriculture to be included, while 17% believe it should be included once trading and economic conditions allow.
Twenty-one percent of respondents say agriculture should be included as soon as possible.
Last week, the government announced changes to the scheme, including delaying the introduction of agriculture until 2015.
OPINION: Waikato University head of agribusiness Professor Jacqueline Rowarth explains why the government was right to delay the inclusion of agriculture in the ETS.
New Zealand needs a scientifically literate society. We don’t all have to be scientists but we should all have some understanding of biology, physics and chemistry.
These affect our lives – we’re human, we move things and we eat and drink.
Knowing something about the way things work would save a huge amount of time in arguing.
We have ongoing arguments about water quality and whether a change endangers river
We’ve had arguments about land use and whether development replacing introduced species (hieracium, rabbits and wildling pines in the Mackenzie Basin, for instance) should be allowed.
“It’s brown, it’s beautiful” was the cry, forgetting that it used to be native trees.
The latest misunderstanding is in the announcements around the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
The ETS is New Zealand’s way of meeting the country’s commitments in terms of reducing carbon emissions.
Not reducing them will, under the Kyoto Protocol, lead to a bill for the government.
Over the past few years New Zealanders have been paying part of the ETS on power and fuel.
The consequent increase in price might have made a few people modify their behaviour when it first occurred but most people have forgotten that they are paying it – the tax has been subsumed in the general concern about expensive power and fuel.
Taxes rarely change people’s behaviour. In fact, paying the tax sometimes leads to a sense of entitlement: “I’ve paid the tax so now I can turn up the heating and take a Sunday drive.”
In New Zealand, the ETS has resulted in a focus on agriculture because, in marked contrast to developed countries, biological emissions contribute half of the total.
Reports that farmers are escaping the ETS are, however, simply mischievous.
Farmers, like other individuals and businesses, pay the ETS on power and fuel – in their homes, in their
milking and shearing sheds, and in their cars, tractors and quad bikes.
The government has announced a delay in full implementation of the ETS and that agriculture won’t be brought in to the scheme until the science exists to mitigate their emissions, or until our international trading competitors put a price of carbon on their agricultural sectors.
This move would seem to be highly sensible given complaints about the price of food.
Yet opposition parties have already been vocal.
Concern appears to be focusing on that fact that no other major emitting sector was given concessions.
This overlooks the point that agriculture involves biological systems and has developed over millions of years.
Scientific research is trying to find ways of assisting in reducing emissions but changes will need to be evaluated over some time before they can be recommended.
The other major emitting sectors are power and fuel, which are chemical rather than biological, and can be
developed in renewable fashion.
At least part of the reason for delaying full implementation of the ETS is uncertainty in the global economy.
The government recognises that extra costs in business will suppress innovation, which will lead to developments in sustainable business and renewable energy.
Although the opposition has accused the government of having “zero commitment to curbing New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions”, the reverse could be argued.
Green growth will not occur if budgets are squeezed; the ETS will squeeze budgets everywhere as extra costs are passed on at every level.
Similarly, statements that the government’s “latest cop-out further subsidises polluters at the expense of taxpayers” misses the point that taxpayers are just as big in terms of “polluting”, or creating carbon, as farm animals.
Of further note is that farm animals are doing what they have always done.
Efficient production systems mean New Zealand agriculture is a low emitter per unit of product in comparison with other countries.
Research both here and overseas supports this. The only significantly more efficient producers are those using feedlots and housed systems.
New Zealand farmers are mostly free-range, which is what society says it wants. We should be lauding our farmers, not beating them up.
A scientifically-literate society would understand the issues.
The point is to separate the facts from the emotion.
For New Zealanders, anything to do with the environment is an emotive issue.
It is argued that people overseas won’t buy New Zealand food if we aren’t environmental leaders.
The facts are that all people focus more on value and price. They buy food that meets their cost-quality requirements.
New Zealand food is at a premium in some countries because it is safe – carbon is a secondary issue.
Climate Change Minister Tim Groser is not a scientist but he is right when he defends delaying agriculture in the ETS.
If members of other parties took the same trouble, the airwaves might be refocused on fact-based issues rather than inflaming emotions.
Huge amounts of time and energy would be saved – but if we stuck to facts, what would politicians have to argue about?
Jacqueline Rowarth is Professor of Agribusiness at the University of Waikato
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