The S Word

Page - March 6, 2008
You know the famous maxim ‘give and take’? It’s what makes relationships work… and Christmas. It’s how we achieve a balance between individual needs and wants, and the needs and wants of others.

Climate change is not solely a matter of hurricanes, droughts, floods, refugee movements, impending wars or unprecedented market failure. Suddenly, and for the first time in history, every population, culture, ethnic group, religion and region in the world faces a future that threatens one and all… the politics of climate change is necessarily inclusive and global – it is cosmopolitics. Ulrich Beck, German sociologist

Assume the planet is a person, with said needs and wants. Mainly, it wants respect and it wants to get on with doing the stuff it's used to doing and that has worked for millennia. It wants to do this without being harassed, harmed, worn down or destroyed. And it will definitely give back in return. The planet is good at giving, and we're excellent at taking from it - air, water and food for starters. But taking is pretty much all we do. Rarely do we give back. And the planet is tiring of this onesided affair. It is not bullet proof and infinite yet it's being treated as such.

The question is: why have we been willing to live like this for so long, failing to take account of nature's limits? Short-term economic gains and political interest is the short answer, along with the possibility that we simply don't see any sort

of D-day as happening in our lifetime and therefore don't consider it 'our' problem. Regardless of why, the way we're living is literally costing the earth, with the scarcest resource arguably being a willingness to change the way we do things.

We tend to think of the environment as something separate from ourselves; as if it's something we can choose to engage with and care about, when in reality we're PART of it. Similarly, the community, environment and economy are usually treated as separate, both philosophically and politically. In fact the economy is consistently pitted against the environment, when they're completely interdependent. If you're not sustaining the environment then your economy won't survive either. The economy and its markets - and more importantly quality of life - rest on ecological foundations (eg. forests, oceans, and atmosphere).

Undermine the productivity of these and you undermine life. Here's where sustainability comes in. Yup, the S word; bandied around a lot these days, it's a word that has taken a lot on its shoulders. But what IS it? Besides 'the new black', 'the latest buzz word', and a bloody good selling point, what does sustainability actually mean? The concept of sustainability has actually been around for centuries.

The idea that particular human practices could prove unsustainable appears in literature dating back to the ancient Greeks. But only in the last few decades, and especially the last few years, has the term found its way into mainstream consciousness and policy.

The modern idea of sustainability came out of a report produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development in the late 80s, in which sustainable development was defined as "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

It's basically leaving the planet in the same state in which we found it for future generations.

Most New Zealanders are familiar with the term sustainability, but many get put off because they're not quite sure what it stands for. Even the most seasoned environmentalist can't necessarily pin down a definite meaning. Someone once said sustainability is like love and democracy - essential, and we all agree basically on what it is. But the exact definition varies. The truth is, a precise definition doesn't really matter as long as we get the basics right and start practising it.

Imagine a New Zealand that was as clean and green as it professed to be; where our quality of life could continue indefinitely, and where the way we lived encompassed an appreciation of our connection to the land and environment and our responsibility to take care of it for future generations.

That's getting close to sustainability. Much of the world is under the impression New Zealand is already well on the way. Tell foreigners that many within the farming sector care deeply about their bottom line but not about global warming and they'd be taken aback; tell them that our main opposition party only just came to believe in addressing climate change - and that many of our business leaders still don't - and you'd get the same reaction.

Now, more than ever, New Zealand must develop a real sense of sustainability and start paying it more than lip service. We are well placed to do this; we have access to amazing natural resources and a reputation that precedes us. What we have to do now is ensure this reputation doesn't become a farce.

Our government talks of carbon neutrality and sustainability. It has identified these goals as a priority. But does the government, and indeed, do the rest of us, have a real grasp of how we might achieve these goals and what our country will look like once we're there?

The solution to climate change can be summed up in four words: greenhouse gas emission reductions. It really is as simple as that. But behind that lies a set of requirements much more complicated: a new way of doing business that is defined by our ecological limits and not just on economic gains.

Many New Zealanders are taking action in their own lives. They've accepted that what they do matters and have elected to make changes. Everything from taking the bus to changing lightbulbs to cutting back on air travel; collective change is afoot.

Recently-announced government policies are also a step in the right direction; the government's renewable electricity target (90 per cent by 2025), energy efficiency initiatives and the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) send a signal that we can't continue as we have been, with little regard for environmental costs.

But there's a giant elephant in the room, or, more accurately, a cow. Agriculture accounts for half of all New Zealand's emissions, these emissions are rising, and agricultural production is becoming less and less efficient compared to other countries.

Yet agriculture is currently exempt from the ETS until 2013. And while we wait five years for the sector to become accountable, it's you who's paying the price. Agriculture's late entry into the scheme is in effect a massive subsidy because the taxpayer must pay the financial cost of agricultural emissions via penalties under the Kyoto Protocol.

So while the expansion of dairy becomes the latest boom industry for a few, it's average New Zealanders who will have to fork out for what that costs the planet.

The agricultural sector argues the only way for it to reduce its emissions is to reduce production. This is simply not true. One third of agriculture's emissions come from nitrous oxide (from livestock urine and artificial fertiliser) and two-thirds come from methane (primarily from livestock burping… the 'fart' tax was in fact a misnomer). There are a number of technologies and techniques (some existing and many promising) to reduce these emissions (for example nitrification inhibitors, stand-off pads to collect urine, dietary changes, breed management and practices that enhance the carbon stored in the soil). The sector needs to focus on research and the development of these techniques and start implementing them on-farm. Sure, we don't know everything there is to know just yet about how to tackle agriculture's emissions, but what we DO know is this: those emissions are huge and rising, and we are simply not in a position to let the sector off the hook - agriculture must start taking responsibility for reducing its emissions and where it can't, it should pay, like everyone else.

Like every other export sector, the farming industry should be itching to get out in front of a new wave of economic opportunity that is fueled by consumer concern over climate. Being clean and green is starting to count when a product hits shelves overseas, and all our exporters should be doing everything they can to corner and monopolize that high end of the market. As it is, the sector looks likely to hold us back and jeopardise our chances of retaining and then boosting our reputation offshore.

"If New Zealanders followed through on that pledge to become carbon neutral and businesses in every sector searched for new approaches to accomplish that goal, they would find the world beating a path to their door…" Al Gore.

The sooner sustainability is recognized as meaning opportunity rather than sacrifice, the sooner New Zealand can truly claim to be a world leader. Meanwhile all political parties must get tough on agriculture. The time for 'get out of jail free' cards passed a long time ago. Every industry must step up to the plate and take responsibility for their role in climate change.

Climate change is not solely a matter of hurricanes, droughts, floods, refugee movements, impending wars or unprecedented market failure. Suddenly, and for the first time in history, every population, culture, ethnic group, religion and region in the world faces a future that threatens one and all… the politics of climate change is necessarily inclusive and global - it is cosmopolitics. Ulrich Beck, German sociologist