Comment: A fair chunk of the economic activity in "low emissions" regions like Auckland and Wellington is heavily reliant on the economic activity from the rest of the country - including agriculture, writes Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard.

It was Mark Twain who made popular the saying about "lies, damned lies and statistics".

I'm sure the data in the Statistics NZ release last week comparing greenhouse gas emissions [GHG] and GDP on a regional basis is accurate enough, but I do question whether anything particularly relevant can be drawn from the numbers.

The release makes statements such as:

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"Auckland, which contributes the most of any region to national economic activity, was the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2018, and Wellington, the region with the second highest economic activity, was the ninth highest emitter."

"Canterbury had the third highest level of economic activity in 2018 and the second highest emissions, while Waikato had the fourth highest level of activity and the highest level of emissions."

To be fair, the release does drop hints as to why these relative figures might be so, noting that Wellington and Auckland's lower emissions/higher GDP profiles reflect their preponderance of lower GHG intensive service industries vs the higher levels of primary and goods producing industries in places such as Southland, the West Coast, Waikato and Taranaki.

But they kind of ruin it for me with the sentence saying the data "will also be of interest as regions look to reduce their emissions while managing economic outcomes, thereby transitioning to a lower-emissions economy."

Are we going to start raising livestock and plants in the streets of Auckland and Wellington?

Maybe we should put a government department high-rise in a paddock near Bunnythorpe, just to start evening up that GDP/GHG balance.

I live and work in one of those relatively high emissions/low GDP regions (Manawatu-Whanganui) and I resent the inference we should somehow feel bad about that status compared to some other regions.

The fact is, a fair chunk of the economic activity in "low emissions" services-oriented regions like Auckland and Wellington is heavily reliant on the economic activity that occurs in the rest of the country, including agricultural activity.

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A large amount of the GDP from regions such as Wellington is strongly tied to the export earnings derived from other regions.

For example, the Wellington service industry is deeply dependent on government employees, whose wages are paid by the taxation of all of New Zealand.

It makes little sense to look at the GDP of regions such as Wellington in a vacuum without considering the myriad ties between the economies of such regions with the rest of New Zealand.

In short without the economic activity (and emissions) generated in places like Taranaki, Waikato and Southland you wouldn't have prosperous and vibrant cities.

Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied

A few more obvious problems:

• Emissions resulting from the Huntly power plant are counted towards Waikato's total, which highlights the ridiculousness of assigning emissions to regions in which the GHGs are generated purely to serve consumers living elsewhere (largely Auckland in the example of Huntly) .

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• This point is even more relevant for agriculture. New Zealand's agriculture sector produces enough food to feed 10 times our population. This means we have higher GHGs from agriculture on a per capita basis than we would if New Zealand was simply trying to produce enough food to be self-sufficient. This is not a problem but rather something we should be proud of as a nation. Producing more food in regions (such as the Waikato and Canterbury), and indeed nations, in which it is more efficient to do so maximises each region's, and nation's, comparative advantage and ensures food is produced as efficiently as possible. This is good for the economy (which enjoys more jobs), consumers (who get cheaper food) and the atmosphere (which avoids emissions "leakage" occurring, i.e. the food being produced by farmers in nations with a worse environmental footprint).

• The Stats NZ data also uses the outdated GWP100 metric, which inflates the warming impact of New Zealand's methane emissions from livestock. This fact has been accepted by the New Zealand government by implementing a split gas target so it's frustrating to see government acknowledge the distinct behaviour of short-lived gases such as methane in some areas (such as in the Zero Carbon target) but ignore them in exercises such as this Statistics NZ comparison.

• These are gross emissions, and do not account for the emissions being sequestered in each region, either through means which are being measured (forestry) or by means which are not (non-ETS compliant vegetation and soil carbon on farms).

• The estimates also don't include international aviation or shipping emissions, which make industries such as tourism look better on paper than is the case in reality.

If we're going to do this sort of thing, a better approach would be to focus on the GHG intensity of our produced goods (which are comparatively impressive in agriculture) and to focus on the full life cycle of all goods not just agriculture (e.g. look at the emissions involved in producing manufactured imported goods such as cars).