Bennet Tucker, Market Security Services Manager for Transpower New Zealand
I was perusing our local energy news this morning, and once again I see another article from another high emission industry spouting their usual position on climate change. This is how it usually goes:
[Latest policy aimed at reducing impact of climate change] risks [economic downturn/drop in GDP/net increase in emissions] caused by decreased international competitiveness of [high emissions industry] – states [high emission industry participant/lobby group/paid consultant]
It’s the same argument that has been used time and again, and unfortunately it seems to work quite well.
The reason it works so well is it’s a pretty rational argument: yes, tougher carbon neutral policies will reduce international competitiveness of many sectors in developed countries (and may very well increase emissions in the short term) because a lack of international parity in carbon policy.
But I can’t help but believe this kind of response to carbon neutral policy is doing us great harm – it’s avoiding taking ownership of the problem, and ensuring we maintain a high emissions culture in the first world.
The claims are both rational and legitimate, but this does not equal smart
The farming industry is one of the backbones of the New Zealand economy, in fact it is more than that, it is part of our culture, part of our history. Without agriculture, New Zealand wouldn’t be the country it is.
But they are also one of the worst offenders when it comes to implicitly accelerating climate change (while ironically enough explicitly fighting climate change in their development of new technology and processes…). The latest climate change policy is still very light-handed when it comes to agricultural emissions, yet our farming lobby groups are railing against it.
And this lobbying is effective – it’s the reason why the latest policy is so light-handed, and it will probably be successful in watering it down some more. This is because it will mean hard times ahead for some farmers; it will mean the New Zealand economy suffers (which hurts everyone) and it very likely will result in a short-term increase in emissions.
So really, the position of these lobbyists, and others like them isn’t so bad right? No.
Firstly, the time has come and gone for half measures. We must take bold actions now if we want to avoid irreversible climate change. And arguably without bold action, without strong leadership, we risk – in a whole of system sense – no action. Secondly, it may very well not be all bad – with every challenge comes and opportunity. Has the productive sector assessed what the consumptive sector actually wants? They may be surprised.
The time for half measures has come and gone
We are doing irreversible damage to our environment right now. The consequences of this damage are still highly uncertain, but one thing is sure: we are hurting the planet and need to stop hurting it as soon as possible.
We could listen to the lobbyists, keep watering down policies, and hope for the best. But that is not a particularly strategic approach.
Sure, it might reduce emissions in the short term by attempting to constrain emissions to more efficient processes (for example, animal protein production in the New Zealand is some of the most efficient in the world and comes with relatively low emissions). But it also perpetuates our cultural reliance on high emission food and energy sources, and therefore very likely increasing emissions in the long term due to our continued use of these high emission societal necessities.
Similarly, when a developing nation looks to its developed peers for policy inspiration and sees a general reluctance to seriously tackle emissions, do you think they will consider change? No chance. There may be little chance of change anyway – a developing nation is likely facing much more short-term challenges than climate change – but without any kind of leadership from developed countries, there is zero chance of change.
What’s worse is as these countries become more developed, their system will be based on a foundation high in carbon emissions. And the current geopolitical situation shows how hard it is to wean ourselves of our dependence on carbon emitting industries.
And the real kicker is: there’s great opportunity in climate change avoidance
What I think bothers me the most is the lack of proactivity – instead of evolving and adapting in consideration of climate change, high emission industries have often double downed on investment into traditional products with a heavy focus on efficiency. Now don’t get me wrong, becoming more efficient is a great thing, and I do applaud those who have made great advances here, but it doesn’t really make the cut in terms of avoiding or mitigating climate change.
It also ignores the opportunity they have in front of them as well: The world very much cares about the environment – there is growing partisan support for climate change action, and consumers world-wide are starting to demand low-carbon products from companies who genuinely care about sustainability.
SO why then are companies not flocking to production of low-carbon products for a premium market? Why are we so wedded to traditional approaches and products?
Tradition is not going to avoid climate change. In fact I’d go as far to suggest that if we stick with the tried and true, if we don’t break traditions and shift our cultural foundations, we are almost certainly doomed to suffer the consequences of 2+ degree climate change.