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Farmers vs industry on day one of Zero Carbon bill hearings

Farmers vs industry on day one of Zero Carbon bill hearings

By Pattrick Smellie

Aug. 1 (BusinessDesk) - Farming communities' fears of mass tree planting ran smack into industries with big carbon footprints on the first day of hearings on the government's zero carbon legislation.

Parliament's environment select committee heard from a brace of heavy-hitting lobby groups, including Business New Zealand, the Insurance Council and Local Government NZ, and two of the country's biggest sources of greenhouse gases, Fonterra and NZ Steel, on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill.

The bill proposes that carbon-emitting industries should only be able to offset their carbon emissions in New Zealand, making tree-planting on farmland an attractive option in a sector where the government's Billion Trees programme is already snaffling grazing land for new forest planting.

LGNZ submitted that rural areas feared a massive shift to tree planting would hollow out their communities.

"What we're signalling is the downside of allowing people to willy-nilly offset and not take any other measures and the detrimental effects it could have on rural communities," said LGNZ president Dave Cull. "We're getting a lot of concern from our rural councils about the effect on population, on job loss, that kind of thing."

Executive director Malcolm Alexander said planting trees on erosion-prone land was fine, but LGNZ supported proposals from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that would only allow farmers to plant trees to offset emissions of agricultural greenhouse gases, which he said was a "nice match".

Climate Change Minister James Shaw immediately ruled out the PCE's recommendation earlier this year, but Alexander claimed ministers were indicating "openness to tweaking the settings ... As you get more facts on the table".

Business New Zealand's John Carnegie responded acidly, saying it was "very generous of LGNZ to suggest business shouldn't have access to forestry offsets".

"The targets are challenging and ambitious. We need to be saying yes to things, not no. There's no way it's a 'get out of jail free card'. It costs money to buy those credits."

Action on climate change would "fundamentally change the shape of the economy" and a "high enough carbon price will drive land use change", Carnegie said. "Are we saying we shouldn't reach the target and we shouldn't have an economic transition?"

There was underlying tension also between Business NZ, whose written submission on the bill proposes removal of reference to climate change adaptation from the responsibilities of the Climate Change Commission, leaving it only with a mandate for mitigation of climate change effects.

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton opened his comments by saying it would "foolish not to have regard to adaptation".

Changes caused by climate change "will happen regardless of whether New Zealand meets its targets," said Grafton. "Adaptation and mitigation are two sides of the same coin."

The chair of the 110 companies that make up the Climate Leaders Coalition, Malcolm Johns, faced questions from National MP Nathan Guy, who said there were "thousands of farmer CEOs" who were not from "the big end of town" and whose lifestyles were threatened if big-emitting industries were allowed to offset emissions with large-scale tree planting.

Providing some of the best quotes of the morning, Johns said: "First of all, the farmer I know best I call Dad and if you want to see the fiercest debate in the world around this, bring my 18-year-old daughter in with my father."

Forest planting was no more than a 30- or 40-year breathing space. Longer term, industries would need new, low-emissions technologies.

"If technologies don't turn up, then quite frankly, you're asking a fish to climb a tree and the sector's going to fail. We have to be honest about that," he said.

In the meantime, "marginal farmland may ultimately turn out to be more profitable farming carbon than farming protein".

NZ Steel chief executive Gretta Stephens argued for big emitters to be allowed to offset emissions using international sources.

The youth-led Generation Zero submitted it was vital to start to reduce emissions immediately rather than focusing on target dates far into the future.

"The dates are a bit of a red herring," said policy lead James Young-Drew. "What matters is cumulative emissions reduction. The next five to 10 years action has more impact than what we do 20 years from now."

Challenged by National's climate change spokesman Scott Simpson on whether New Zealanders should be open to potentially controversial technologies like gene editing to reduce agricultural emissions, Young-Drew said: "We need all options on the table. If that means having an adult conversation about tools such as gene editing, then we should."

But the same quality of debate should also occur on whether "transition to a plant-based diet would have massive health as well as environmental benefits".

Fonterra's sustainable dairying programme leader, Andrew Kempson, sounded a cautious note on gene editing, despite its apparent benefits, because its use could have impacts on "how consumers around the world view our status" as dairy producers.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick asked Johns whether there was a danger the New Zealand electorate could reject climate change action, as happened in the Australian federal election in May.

"The tension you have to reconcile as politicians is: if you ask the electorate the question: 'should we save the world?', the answer's 'yes'," said Johns, who is chief executive at Christchurch airport. "But if the question is 'should we save the world by destroying your personal world?', you're going to get an outcome like Australia."

One area of common agreement among submitters was concern that the bill does not give the Climate Change Commission sufficient independence from political influence.


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