Bunny McDiarmid: Creating a serious climate for change

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When the Emissions Trading Bill passed last week, Greenpeace sighed with relief. Not so much because this particular piece of legislation is now law, but because politicians can finally stop squabbling over it and get on with implementing stronger, more immediate climate policies.

The bill is a small, necessary step towards New Zealand making a valid contribution to global climate change. But it's too generous to agriculture and other big polluters and won't result in the deep emission cuts required.

In the time political leaders have been playing politics over the climate and our biggest polluting companies have been campaigning for massive public subsidies, the Arctic ice cap entered a "death spiral".

The Arctic Ocean could be totally free of summer ice by 2020. For the first time, it's possible to sail right around the North Pole.

Meanwhile, it was roundly concluded that a string of particularly ferocious natural disasters worldwide is in line with climate change projections.

Niwa chief scientist Jim Salinger told pipfruit industry conference delegates that by 2090 they won't be able to grow apples in Nelson and that by 2070, a cold year will be like a hot year now.

The British Foreign Secretary's special representative for climate change said the US and Europe should treat the challenge of fighting climate change more seriously than the threat from the Cold War, and that industrialised countries should essentially put their economies on a war footing.

Things are happening that no one predicted would be happening by now; it's worse than we thought.

With the bill now law there's a big risk that New Zealanders will now think the job's been done. That would be a mistake.

Other countries view their emission trading schemes as one small part of a much wider package of solutions. As we head towards the election, political parties must tell voters what their broader plan is.

Labour's renewable electricity target is a good start and significant internationally; ditto the partial ban on new fossil fuel generation. The billion dollar fund for energy efficiency and conservation secured by the Greens is also laudable. But beyond that, we're looking at a policy vacuum. National's energy and environment strategies barely mention climate change, let alone acknowledge the gravity of it.

Greenpeace wants all political parties to set an emissions reduction target of 30 per cent by 2020 and develop policies to achieve it. This target is within the range of 25-40 per cent agreed to by developed countries - including New Zealand - at the Bali negotiations last year. To reach this target, New Zealand must deal with agriculture's burgeoning emissions. Agriculture is the elephant in the room, except it's a cow.

Just to confuse matters, the cow is sometimes referred to as a "golden goose". But business as usual - golden or not - cannot continue.

The agriculture sector must face up to the downsides of intensification and shift to low input, less intensive, smarter farming. New Zealand is ideally positioned to lead the world with low emission pastoral farming, but instead we're seeing corporatisation and intensification. Greenhouse gas emissions from the use of nitrogen fertiliser alone now exceed all road transport emissions. This is having a huge impact, not only through rapidly rising emissions but also through increased water pollution and the erosion of the clean green brand.

We're also seeing unprecedented deforestation for corporate dairying. Thousands of hectares of forests have gone, another half million hectares are at risk - up to a third of the nation's total plantation.

This "double whammy" on the climate destroys carbon sinks and replaces them with one of the most greenhouse gas intensive forms of land use. What are political parties proposing to address this? National is quick to identify what it calls Labour's "chainsaw massacre" but fails to link it to corporate dairying. Moreover, it fails to offer a solution.

National proposes an emission reduction target of 50 per cent by 2050. This is way off the mark. By 2050 we need to have our emissions down by 80 per cent. Nonetheless, we'd love to see how National plans to achieve this target, in light of its proposals for more roads, more coal and more gas. Meanwhile, Labour has declined to set any target whatsoever.

Climate change is not a problem we can ignore. At no other time in history will humanity's fate be so determined by decisions made today. It is this generation of leaders who will be held accountable, because the stakes are so high.

* Bunny McDiarmid is executive director of Greenpeace NZ.

- NZ Herald

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