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The Nation: Environment Commissioner Environment Simon Upton

On Newshub Nation Emma Jolliff interviews Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton


Welcome back. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, released a report this week recommending a re-think on how greenhouse gases are treated. He said we were depending too much on planting trees to offset emissions - particularly carbon dioxide. I spoke to Simon Upton and began by asking him about the UN's warning we only have twelve years to avoid climate catastrophe.

Simon Upton: Okay, the Paris Agreement talks about the second half of the century to reach a balance between sources and sinks, and that’s really what I’m aiming at. If you could do better than that, fine. In fact, Paris talks about well below 1.5, I think that is an extraordinary stretch. But, yes, of course, there is urgency, but the reality is that it takes time to put investment into these new technologies to build entirely new systems.


If it’s only farmers who can offset the emissions using the trees, where’s the incentive for farmers to actually reduce their emissions, because that’s ultimately what we’ve got to do, isn’t it?

No, no, farmers do have to reduce their emissions. And my report’s quite clear on that. We can’t leave agricultural greenhouse gases where they are either. There has to be a reduction. And I am not one of those people who say, ‘Well, look, let’s plant some trees, and you don’t have to worry about agriculture.’ We do. I think the two fit together nicely, but the government would need to develop a mechanism similar to the Emissions Trading Scheme that we have for fossil carbon. It would need something similar in the agricultural space.


This month Air New Zealand, Contact, Genesis and Z established a forest portfolio to sequester carbon and help meet their targets under the ETS. Isn’t that at odds with what you’re suggesting?

Look, what they’ve done is perfectly rational in the world that currently operates. Forest sinks are available. They’ve been on the table for the last 25 years. And so what they’re trying to do is to purchase a future supply of units that they can surrender. So they see the carbon price going up, so if they can plant some forest today, they can get some units.

And in the future, they can hand over those units and say, ‘We’ve met our obligation.’ So they’re doing a perfectly rational thing. The question I would ask is, whether that is actually the best thing for them to be spending money on?

Wouldn’t it be better, maybe, to be spending money on reducing emissions? Or if they can’t, then they’re going to have to pay the full price. And that will be passed on to consumers.


Just one final question — how would you describe the scale of our warming emergency?

At the global level, I think it’s very grave. I have not seen anything comforting, either about what will happen with climate or, to be honest, what will happen in terms of the human response. I think it’s a very significant problem, and it’s going to affect us probably in ways that we haven’t thought about. People say we need to adapt, and adaptation is going to mean being resilient, being in a position to cope with the unexpected. I’d really make this point — this economy, more than most developed economies, is absolutely reliant on what nature provides, in terms of ecosystem services; we are reliant on what comes from the ocean, we’re reliant on what comes from the land. And so it’s very much in our interests that we can hang on to the best of what we’ve got there. Because we’re not Singapore, we’re not all living in buildings doing work virtually on things; we’re actually out there in the environment. And if that environment is no longer as friendly as it was, we are going to be severely hit.


All right, Simon Upton, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much.

Thank you.


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