Transition to a low carbon future… how will New Zealand do it?

Guest article by Suraya Casey.

Thanks to my friend at Access Radio Taranaki who couldn’t use her ticket, I was lucky to spend 9 and 10 May 2019 at the Just Transition Summit. It was a gathering of politicians, union, business and community leaders to talk about how New Zealand can meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by 2050, in a way that is raises standards of work and life among everyone in our communities.

MBIE chose to hold the Summit in Taranaki, where I live, because our major industries are oil, gas and dairy. We have the most to lose, and perhaps the most to gain, from the transition.

Gosh, did I learn a thing or two.

Which industries emit greenhouse gases?

New Zealand’s emission reduction challenges are unique in the world. For us, electric cars and wind farms are awesome, but will do little for our big problem.

Our biggest greenhouse gas emitter, by a country mile, is farming sheep and cattle for dairy and meat. This is largely methane and N02, which cannot be sunk in trees.

We need to, either:

  • find technology that can drastically reduce these animals’ methane output, or
  • convert ruminant farms to plant-based agriculture or forestry.

It’s sobering stuff, but nobody was saying veganism, other than media who reported on the event. The message was that reducing dairy and red meat intake (seafood, chicken, pork and eggs are much less of a climate problem) will make an astonishing difference. But for New Zealand, it’s not about our personal choices so much as those of our major export industries.

Changing land use?

As the summit unfolded, we heard from farming industry and rural sector businesses of many kinds. I felt they had been almost back-footed by the message now apparent to everyone in the very big room: we cannot do this without a revolution in New Zealand’s social and economic backbone.

There were some sharp intakes of breath as the farming industry representatives assured us that farmers were widely adopting regenerative agriculture practices, and these would be enough. They were confident there was no energy among farmers for changing land use. I wondered if they really understood the sums.

One expert (I think it was Tim Morris of Coriolis, but can’t be sure) pointed out that meat and dairy doesn’t even make economic sense for New Zealand, let alone environmental sense. We started doing it because it what easiest for European settlers. Most of our land is more suited to higher value uses like vegetable, fruit and other non-animal food products. The farming industry agreed and said their research has shown people farm ruminants because it’s part of their self image and tradition.

I do feel that myself, to some extent. That’s me, in a wheelbarrow, growing up in Taranaki. More than half of my mother’s side are, or have been, dairy farmers. I know what cream tastes like when you’ve carried it from the cowshed in a galvanised milk pail, handle creaking, all the way to your porridge.

The farming sector reps concluded that, under the right conditions, New Zealand farmers will change their land use. It’s happened before with viticulture. Rare some 30 years ago, it now dominates several provinces.

Our rural sector and ethical change

What worries me both for the economic and environmental viability of New Zealand agriculture, is its history of completely missing opportunities and pitfalls because they reject consumers’environmental and animal rights concerns as an economic force.

They’ve been proved wrong several times, for example, missing the chance to label New Zealand beef and lamb ‘grass fed’ because they didn’t notice the trend, and the wool industry not realising people were becoming increasingly concerned about how sheering may affect the sheep — widely credited for recent wool price tanking.

Time for some more cheery facts.

Hydrogen probably matters

I hadn’t realised Hydrogen was going to be so important in the transition to 100% renewable.

If I’m understanding right, you use your renewable grid’s over-production to make hydrogen from water. The hydrogen acts as a ‘battery’ to store energy for times when demand outstrips supply.

The Netherlands have already transitioned to make and use hydrogen this way. The government plans to make Taranaki a centre for the renewable electrics to power-hydrogen conversion, because we have the gas infrastructure to repurpose and some endless, nearly overpowering wind for additional renewable projects.

And, a ‘just’ transition?

There was a huge focus throughout the summit on what we really mean by a ‘just’ transition.

There was much acknowledgement that past transitions, like those of the 80s, had left myriad people behind, carelessly and needlessly. A speaker from Germany outlined the well-planned retraining and financing policies that enabled coal miners in his area to go on to bigger and better things when the mines closed.

I didn’t hear any concrete plans or policies, but I guess it’s early days. Just hearing from so many union voices, both from New Zealand and as far away as Norway, made me feel we’ve turned a corner in workplace relations. Or human relations, even.

This might be an even greater challenge than getting the children who carried the milk pail to plan a future where their children carry the hazelnut pail.

People can only ‘give back’ to the environment that nourishes them, if they are, in fact, nourished. In New Zealand, we have some way to go on that.

Suraya Casey is a freelance digital copywriter and content strategist living in Taranaki. Copy and Content New Zealand

Pictures 1 & 3 supplied by Suraya Casey.

Author: Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.

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