Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury stand in the darkness of night on May 25, 2015. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury stand in the darkness of night on May 25, 2015. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 31, 2020

This ‘green’ government has utterly failed to rein in our biggest climate polluter

Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury stand in the darkness of night on May 25, 2015. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury stand in the darkness of night on May 25, 2015. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

This government came to power promising a new, aggressive approach to the climate crisis – and then let the dairy industry carry on as before. Will the next government be any different, asks Greenpeace agriculture campaigner Gen Toop.

It’s hard to ignore the effects of the climate crisis: from the haze that covered New Zealand during Australia’s bushfire crisis to last autumn’s droughts and water shortages. But it seems it’s easy for some politicians to ignore New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter.

Three years ago voters ushered in a prime minister who had called climate change her generation’s “nuclear free” moment. Then for the first time in history, a Green Party MP – James Shaw – became the minister for climate change.

It was looking pretty good there for a minute. There was genuine hope that all that big talk on climate would translate into real action to slash climate pollution.

But while wildfires raged and tens of thousands of student strikers took to the streets demanding climate action, the government put dealing with New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter into the too hard basket. And left it there.

After three years in power, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw have both failed to bring in a single regulation to tackle the monstrous amount of climate pollution from industrial dairying. Despite all that climate rhetoric from this government, they have been scarcely different to previous governments when it comes to dealing with the giant cow in the room.

Dairy cows in front of Mt Taranaki /Mt Egmont. (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m starting to realise what it must feel like to be concerned about the climate crisis and living in Canada. Both the Trudeau government and the Ardern government talk a big talk on climate, but Trudeau refuses to deal with the hugely polluting tar sands industry, and Ardern, so far, refuses to deal with industrial dairy.

There are many great things that James Shaw and the Green Party have achieved on the climate crisis while in government, and they should be celebrated. But dealing with our biggest climate polluter has not been one of them, and that fact is casting a dark shadow over the rest of their climate achievements.

The only thing we’ve got is an unenforceable and weak agricultural emissions target in the Zero Carbon Act. But no plan for how to reach that target and no penalties for failing to do so.

We also got a somewhat surreal moment when the co-leader of the Green Party proudly announced that under his ministership the agriculture industry would continue to be fully excluded from the nation’s Emissions Trading Scheme for another two to five years.

That means that there are no rules and no price signals that would encourage the agricultural industry to reduce climate pollution.

Instead of taking legislative action that would drive down climate pollution from industrial dairy this government signed a voluntary agreement with the industry. It’s called He Waka Eke Noa and it is an example of what’s known as “industry self-regulation”, which has a long and documented history of failing to protect human and environmental health.

“Industry self-regulation” was first widely and aggressively used by the tobacco industry to deflect legislative action that would damage their profits. Since then, several industries have used it to avoid government regulation and placate concerned stakeholders by promising to reduce their impacts voluntarily.

We have a recent case in New Zealand that lays bare the perils of industry self-regulation: The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord. It was a voluntary agreement signed in 2003 between Fonterra and the previous government to “deal with” water pollution from industrial dairy. One peek into the statistics on the dire and worsening state of our freshwater since 2003 will reveal just how spectacularly that voluntary agreement failed.

With less than two months until the election, can the Green Party or Jacinda Ardern prove to voters that they’re finally ready to take action on our biggest climate polluter?

Phasing out synthetic fertiliser should be the key and non-negotiable policy promise from the Greens, or any political party for that matter, that is serious about dealing with the climate crisis. Synthetic fertiliser emits more than our entire domestic aviation industry when applied to land. It’s also the key fuel for industrial dairying: it drives up cow numbers and that further drives up climate pollution, making dairying our single-biggest source of climate emissions in New Zealand.

Alongside the synthetic fertiliser phase-out, our next government must back New Zealand’s farmers to make the shift away from industrial livestock farming and into more plant-based regenerative farming. Not by continuing to give the industry a free pass to pollute, but by making the targeted and tangible investments needed to help regenerative organic farming thrive.

We know what is causing the climate to change and we have the solutions to hand. What’s needed is some political courage. Courage to phase out the chemicals – like synthetic fertiliser – that take agriculture beyond the natural limits of the land. And courage to invest in the transition to a way of farming that works in harmony with nature – not against it.

If you’re concerned that your political representatives aren’t doing enough to tackle New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter, why not ask them about it? At an upcoming candidates meeting, through an email or on social media. In election year, our aspiring political representatives are especially responsive to the concerns of their voters.

Our next government must walk the talk on climate, and that includes tackling New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter.

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