Comment: Delays to tackling farm emissions announced today raise issues of trust and reputation.

He Waka Eke Noa, hailed as a world-first partnership by former prime minister Jacinda Ardern, was the Government’s way of achieving the holy grail of New Zealand climate policy – pricing farm emissions.

An emissions price in name only
Farm emissions pricing plan won’t cut emissions

There were plenty of reasons it should work, the most important of which is there’s a climate crisis and without reducing emissions New Zealand is failing its promises, internationally and domestically. Not addressing the source of half the country’s emissions means we’re not really serious about climate policy.

(New Zealand is a climate laggard. Since 1990, gross greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 18.7 percent overall; agricultural emissions by 13.4 percent.)

The climate action partnership – He Waka Eke Noa means we’re all in this together – was an acknowledgement methane should be treated separately, which would have pleased many in the primary sector. It also gave farmers a continued social licence, as they were seen to be doing their bit for the climate.

This is important domestically, of course, but also in our export markets as dragging our feet on climate could tarnish New Zealand’s reputation, turning consumers in other countries off buying our meat, dairy products and other goods.

If He Waka Eke Noa was the carrot, a voluntary and collaborative way of pricing and reducing farm pollution, then the stick was, if it didn’t work, agriculture would be thrown into the emissions trading scheme. (One could argue that was never going to happen.)

The public was asked to trust He Waka Eke Noa, putting the reputations of Government and the farming industry on the line.

Today, the Government announced farm level emissions reporting won’t start until the end of 2024, and emissions pricing won’t start until a year later. A dead-rat-swallowing law change is required.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor says Labour is committed to implementing a system to measure and price farm emissions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Even before pricing options were announced at the end of 2021, farmers, angry at government interference, took their tractors to cities and towns in protest.

(A farming leader who railed against emissions pricing, Andrew Hoggard, is now a candidate for Act.)

Then, even when the draft options were made public, modelling showed they wouldn’t really cut emissions, anyway.

No wonder environmental groups called for the climate partnership to be scrapped. Where was the action?

City folk, in particular, might be left wondering which politicial party is going to take effective measures to improve water quality, and reduce climate pollution. There are big questions about Labour’s track record, given it has had two terms in government, one of which with an absolute majority.

There’s an element of short-termism, here. Perhaps if parliamentary terms were longer such thorny issues would be easier to navigate?

Cynics will argue, however, a predatory delay by farming groups was always the strategy.

RNZ reporter Kirsty Johnston’s well-timed series Crown v Cow paints the picture of a powerful industry with huge political influence.

Maybe farming interests played nice with the Government until a change looked likely?

The National Party, which according to some recent polls might form the next government with Act, has already said it would delay the pricing of agricultural emissions until at least 2030.

My colleague Rod Oram called this irresponsible.

It certainly seems that way when climate records are being set with such alarming regularity, and scientists warned in 2019 emissions needed to be reduced by almost half by 2030 if the world is to avoid the most dangerous effects of warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on keeping global warming below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels was released five years ago, and National wants to kick the can down the road another five years.

Back to He Waka Eke Noa.

Some might argue it would have worked under Jacinda Ardern, who cared personally about climate policy and knew the detail. Under Chris Hipkins, however, there is a definite move to cauterise unpopular policies.

One problem with a policy bonfire is it makes the public uncertain of your actual values. It also emboldens well-organised, well-resourced groups to push hard against policies that upset the status quo, or reduce profit-making – even if the goal is to reduce pollution of the climate and waterways.

Nothing in politics is easy, especially when it involves a powerful, well-resourced sector. Ardern, in particular, had to deal with all manner of crises, including a global pandemic.

But good governments set their priorities and achieve them.

Unfortunately for the Government, today’s announcement is a pre-election bookend for He Waka Eke Noa. Not only does it rattle the public’s confidence in Labour’s (alongside Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s) ability to find a solution, in the eyes of the voting public it makes Labour seem more like National.

That is, endless delays on pricing farm emissions, and little real action to reduce them.

In this election campaign, Labour is going to have to work hard to regain trust and improve its reputation.

Ruling is hard. Change is hard, and you must take communities with you. But talk is cheap.

Today, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor says the “Chris Hipkins Government” is committed to implementing a system to measure and price emissions – but also setting the price at “the lowest level possible” to meet reduction goals.

The Government would maintain He Waka Eke Noa isn’t dead, but right now it seems to be on life support.

Many would argue the machines should be turned off.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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