Monday, February 26, 2024

Climate policy must be in our national interest

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There is real risk that if the international rules, and our domestic response, get this wrong, global emissions will go up as milk and meat production shift from NZ to less-efficient countries, writes Paul Melville.
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By Paul Melville

More than 80,000 international delegates are gathered right now in the United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh-largest producer of oil, for the latest in a long line of UN Climate Change Conferences – COP28.

The agenda for this year’s meeting is about reducing emissions from agriculture and food production. Yes, I’m sorry to confirm that you did just read that right. Despite being held in the Middle East, the focus won’t be on reducing use of fossil fuels. 

Instead, climate experts from around the world have flown in business class, to a desert emirate who built their entire economy selling oil, to tell farmers they need to go further and faster when it comes to emissions reductions. I’m sure the irony of this won’t be lost on the reader. 

Unfortunately, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to international climate policy. While the exotic location of these meetings differs each year, the familiar pattern of stage-managed drama doesn’t change. 

First, we’ll be told how this conference is our last chance to save the planet and stop the catastrophic effects of climate change. Then, countries will be asked to make increasingly ambitious commitments than the ones they made just one year earlier. 

At some point there’ll be a call for more climate finance for developing countries, countries who refuse to join some new declaration will be labelled ‘fossils’, and the meeting will culminate in a big announcement and a round of applause. Delegates will fly home proudly before repeating the process next year. 

Despite the farcical nature of this global climate showpiece, make no mistake, there’ll still be important negotiations happening between countries that will have a material impact on New Zealanders’ day-to-day lives, whether they’re working in an Auckland high-rise or a Gisborne shearing shed. 

The unfortunate reality is that even if New Zealand reduces our emissions to zero, we’ll still feel the impacts of a changing climate if the rest of the world don’t act too. That’s not an excuse for inaction, but it is useful perspective. 

This is why we need to agree on climate policy at a global level, rather than the national level. It’s also the reason we need clear rules for how we will stop further warming of the planet in a way that is fair, credible, and science-based.

This is of critical importance for Federated Farmers: we aren’t just advocating for rules that will prevent further warming; we’re also advocating for rules that treat different countries, and sectors, fairly. 

Nowhere is this more important than in agriculture and food production. As things currently stand, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the way agricultural methane is normally calculated overstates the warming impact by a factor of four. 

There is a very real risk that if the international rules, and our domestic response, get this wrong, global emissions will go up as milk and meat production shift from New Zealand to less-efficient countries.

Given the significance of agricultural exports to our national economy, you’d think strong advocacy on this issue would a top priority for the New Zealand delegation and that they’d be heading to Dubai with a clear mandate to advocate for improved rules for methane and agriculture.

We need to see international rules that allow countries to take efficiency-based approaches to agricultural emissions and treat methane in a way that recognises it is a short-lived gas. Adding weight to such an argument is the Paris Agreement’s commitment to pursue low greenhouse gas development “in a manner that does not threaten food production.”

Unfortunately, no such mandate exists. Instead, the current negotiating priorities, set by the previous Cabinet, read like a grab-bag of trendy buzz words but with no clear direction on what our national priorities might actually be (“New Zealand will advocate for work on just transition as an enabler of climate action”). 

The only mentions of agriculture refer to the need to encourage more action to reduce agricultural emissions alongside more investment in agricultural technology. This second aim a worthy ideal, but by itself is not a clear indication New Zealand negotiators have our national interest at heart.

International negotiations, be they trade, climate, or defence, are not tiddlywinks. Other countries, like the UAE, will be operating under a clear mandate that protects their national interest. New Zealand can’t hope to get good outcomes from these meetings if we ignore the issues of most importance for our unique circumstance.

With the change in Government happening only days before this year’s conference, New Zealanders will, unfortunately, have to accept the current negotiating direction – but we do need to see change in the future. 

Federated Farmers will be asking the new Government to start work early on a new climate negotiating mandate that directs officials to seek to achieve improved outcomes for agriculture.

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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