Climate Change Minister James Shaw says officials may have created the impression that New Zealand is protecting big polluters “at the expense of the climate”. The comments come after he asked for a please explain when Newsroom revealed diplomats opposed the use of the term “plant-based foods” in an international climate report.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says a switch to plant-based diets is one of the most effective demand-side measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While the term “plant-based” appears more than 50 times in the report itself, it is only mentioned once, in a footnote, in the influential summary for policymakers. That’s because New Zealand’s representatives at the IPCC summit that approved the summary line-by-line joined with other agricultural nations to water down the language.
Coverage of the negotiations by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin – the only media outlet permitted to attend the event – makes clear that New Zealand argued against the use of the term “plant-based” in favour of “sustainable healthy diets” in at least two sections of the report’s summary.
Both dealt with reducing demand for products of high-emitting activities. The first, on how products are presented to consumers, saw “plant-based foods” replaced with “balanced, sustainable healthy diets”. India and Kenya joined New Zealand in removing the reference to vegan and vegetarian diets, while Germany unsuccessfully opposed the measure.
A footnote tied to the mention of sustainable and balanced diets said they “promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable, as described in FAO and WHO. The related concept of balanced diets refers to diets that feature plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, as described in [the IPCC special report on land].”
In the second instance, a reference to “plant-based foods” on a chart about lifestyle changes that could reduce emissions from the food sector was changed to “balanced, sustainable healthy diets”. Sweden argued for the term to remain, but was overridden by New Zealand and a host of other countries. The authors of the report reiterated in the negotiations that “the literature is very clear that the mitigation potential is in the shift from animal to plant protein”.
A Ministry for the Environment spokesperson defended supporting the removal of the term plant-based. They said the term “sustainable healthy diets” is used by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation and reiterated that all governments had to sign off on the terminology in the end.
While a spokesperson for Shaw originally declined to comment on the issue, the minister provided comment after publication on Saturday morning.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it and I have asked officials for an explanation,” he said. After speaking with officials, he accepted their explanation but worried it could create a misleading impression.
“Officials also pushed for language to promote diet and production choices that can drive emissions reductions, such as tackling overconsumption, food loss and waste,” he said.
“However, in my view, regardless of any merits in this case, New Zealand should avoid adopting positions in these negotiations that could leave the impression we are working to protect our largest industries at the expense of the climate. We push back very strongly against petro-states’ efforts to protect their fossil fuel industries. We should strive to avoid any similar conflict of interest. I will be discussing this further with officials next week.”
The summary for policymakers is the most widely-read part of each IPCC report. As the full document runs to nearly 3000 pages, most politicians and officials read just the summary – or only read briefings prepared off of the summary. While references to plant-based diets remain in the report itself, they will carry less weight than if they were repeated in the summary, as originally drafted.
Lines are only included in the summary if every government signs them off.
Greenpeace agriculture campaigner Christine Rose called the revelation “shameful”.
“Along with the New Zealand Government’s failure to take real action to reduce agricultural climate pollution here at home, they’re also working to sabotage global efforts to do the same,” she said.
“It smacks of meat and dairy industry influence, and we challenge Climate Minister James Shaw to stop New Zealand officials undermining critical efforts to avert the climate crisis. The intensive dairy industry is New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter and if this Government is serious about climate action we need to see a fundamental shift away from industrial agriculture to more plant-based regenerative organic farming.”
Rose said the move showed the Government wasn’t acting based on science.
“We need better from our Government and its representatives. Responses to climate change should be evidence-led, not science-denying sabotage to preserve the profits to a few from the status quo. That status quo is full steam ahead to runaway climate change.”