Activists monitor the trawler Westbay in the Tasman Sea (Photo: Malcolm Pullman)

The most dangerous climate polluters are hiding in plain sight

A new report exposing bottom trawling as a major contributor to climate change shows how the widely held climate crisis narrative often obscures the worst polluters, writes Greenpeace’s Zoë Deans.

Factories spewing plumes of smoke, cars idling in traffic, and lightbulbs left blazing.

These are the kinds of images you see time and time again on news specials about the climate crisis. Easy to visualise, easy to see around us, and easy to beat yourself up about. 

But the most dangerous climate polluters are much harder to see. And they like it that way. 

Cows grazing innocuously in green paddocks, their digestive systems producing methane and nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Fishing vessels bobbing on the waves, when hundreds of metres below their nets are stirring up the seafloor, where carbon emissions went to die. These are what should come to mind when we think about what’s causing the climate crisis. 

Remember all that talk about “not flying” being the best way to cut your greenhouse gas emissions?

A new report released last week shows that bottom trawling releases more carbon dioxide than pre-pandemic global aviation. All the planes in the sky, criss-crossing the globe: they ain’t got nothing on the climate toll of ripping up the bottom of the ocean. 

Bottom trawling is a highly destructive fishing activity that drags heavy nets across the seafloor destroying deep sea corals and other marine life. In doing so, it not only destroys sea life, but also releases carbon stored in the seabed. 

The ocean has absorbed a third of all carbon emissions, making our planet more habitable. But when that carbon is released back into the water column, it makes the ocean more acidic – rendering it less able to continue this vital carbon sink role. 

Here’s the thing though: even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the way we farm would still put us on track for a climate future full of floods, fires and droughts. One study shows that even without the cars, planes, ships and coal-fired factories, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would put us on track to over 1.5 degrees of warming since pre-industrial levels. 

Intensive dairy farms northeast of Taupō (Photo: Supplied)

Agriculture is currently New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter. But we know that changing how we farm could turn agriculture from being our biggest climate polluter into one of the best climate solutions. Across Aotearoa, there are farmers who are switching to regenerative organic farming, which works with nature to rebuild soil, clean up waterways, bring back wildlife and store carbon as they grow great food. 

And there are ethical fishing companies ensuring the oceans are full of life for generations to come. Why isn’t this part of the picture we’re shown? 

Polluting industries like intensive dairying and commercial fishing benefit from the widespread narrative that cars and planes (and individuals) cause the climate crisis. It means they can keep you feeling paralysed by guilt every time you jump in the car, and feeling like you’re too much of a hypocrite to demand change. But we are our most powerful when we stand together to take action on the climate crisis. 

New Zealanders’ concern about the climate crisis dropped over the past year. It’s understandable when your landlord has just cranked your rent up and Covid has decimated job prospects. Buying an electric car is the last thing on anyone’s mind. That’s why we should be able to trust our elected officials to take on the worst climate polluters on our behalf. 

Ardern’s government must take meaningful climate action by banning bottom trawling that does so much damage to ocean life and the climate; reducing cow numbers and getting rid of the things that enable cows to be crammed onto the land – like synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. These are the real-world, tangible things that New Zealand can do to fight the climate crisis, and these would have an overwhelmingly bigger impact than anything you or I could do as individuals.

Unfortunately, both the commercial fishing and agricultural industries seem to have wooed the government into inaction. The commercial fishing industry’s capture of its regulator, the Ministry for Primary Industries, has been a widespread and long-term concern for environmental groups and members of parliament. 

In 2016, then Labour environment spokesperson (now minister for oceans and fisheries) David Parker called out the long term “connivance” between MPI officials and the fishing industry and said questions about their capture were valid

And decades of successive governments have failed to properly regulate industrial dairying, which has boomed since 1990. Instead of bringing in solid rules to cut climate pollution from dairying, time and time again, New Zealand’s leaders have relied on voluntary agreements. 

In 2003, the government signed an agreement with Fonterra called the “The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord”. It was supposed to protect water from dairy pollution and was used instead of actual regulation. Nearly two decades on and water pollution from intensive dairying is at an all-time high.

Right now, the government is leaning heavily on a voluntary and non-binding climate agreement between agricultural businesses and the government, called He Waka Eke Noa. Even the Climate Change Commission – set up to advise the government on climate action – has indicated it can’t recommend rules on agricultural emissions in case that preempts He Waka Eke Noa’s failure. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re a country that’s shown time and time again just what people power can achieve. In 2018, after more than a decade of campaigning by iwi, hapū, coastal communities and more, the government heard the groundswell of voices and put an end to all new offshore oil drilling. Our elected representatives’ mandate is to listen to the people when we say:

We don’t need more tepid voluntary agreements between government and polluting agribusinesses. We don’t need more fishing industry executives in the ears of MPI. We demand our government – all those politicians paid to represent us – brings in real rules to cut climate pollution. 

We must pull back the curtain on New Zealand’s real climate polluters. 

Zoë Deans is a communications specialist at Greenpeace Aotearoa

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