Climate change needs multi-party support in New Zealand – but is this it?

by The Listener / 21 June, 2018

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The reality is that all parties in New Zealand need to reassess their core positions on certain issues for any real action on climate change to be made. 

Yes, we’ve heard it all before. Politicians regularly vow to drop-kick the political football – on superannuation, on child poverty, on education – but the day of multi-party sincerity never dawns.

On climate change, however, we’re looking at actual days ceasing to dawn on parts of the planet lost to rising seas, so it’s a hopeful sign that Opposition leader Simon Bridges’ offer to work with the Government to find above-politics solutions to reduce carbon emissions has been so swiftly accepted.

The language could do with a tweak. Climate Change Minister James Shaw has said the National Party “will be consulted” about the Government’s policy intentions. “Consultation” too often means “Feel free to tell us your views – as we will to ignore them.” What citizens need to hear is that the major parties intend to work side by side to protect the environment.

For its part, National could offer more in good faith than Bridges’ vow to “modernise” his party’s climate change policies.

The reality is, all parties will need to reassess their core settings on some issues – the Greens’ pro-native, pristine conservation orthodoxy no less than National’s unfettered business ideology and Labour’s traditional antipathy to the rural sector.

Few things sweep old assumptions and stances aside on all parts of the political spectrum as comprehensively as forestry. We are only now beginning to realise how much more we need to learn. As the Government begins its ambitious billion-tree programme, the logging debris crisis in Tolaga Bay is a timely lesson in how the best of environmental intentions can misfire for lack of updated planning.

The state-funded forestry planted to shore up land after 1988’s catastrophic Cyclone Bola seemed a far-sighted fix. Alas, its unforeseen legacy following this year’s heavy rains is a wooden rerun of Bola: avalanches of slash, the post-logging detritus, devastating swathes of land. Sound planning 30 years ago to mitigate a once-in-a-lifetime weather event doesn’t stack up in the face of climate change and its proliferation of extreme weather.

The business-funded Pure Advantage think tank this week renewed its advocacy to rethink our traditional siloed approach to land management. It says competing interests can be aligned given fresh, joined-up thinking and innovation. Yes, the No 1 goal is reducing carbon emissions. But we won’t achieve that unless we find ways to optimise land use so that it’s both productive and remunerative, and so that landowners have good science on which to base their decisions, and an income-stream incentive to change their land management.

Getting more dairying off unsuitable land and more trees onto it may remain a headline goal. But the research suggests a holus-bolus switch to forestry, with an automatic bias towards native trees, is not necessarily smart. Pure Advantage analyst David Hall cites the potential benefits of continuous-cover forestry, where quick-growing exotics such as douglas fir could produce early and continuing revenue from carbon-emissions trading. Unlike slow-growing natives, such trees rapidly sequester carbon, and give landowners a revenue stream, replacing the boom-and-bust of clear-felling.

We should refine selective logging to make it more practical and less expensive, so fewer of our forests are regularly clear-felled, resetting the beneficial canopy and root systems to zero. Native trees could be regenerated within some of the selectively logged forests. Maybe, too, it’s time to revisit West Coast MP Damien O’Connor’s long-standing backing of a proposal to allow selective logging of mature trees in taonga native forests. This has traditionally been a conservationists’ deal breaker. But new technologies change everything, even kaitiakitanga of forests.

Hall reports that other countries have tried selective logging with exotic and native species and found that combinations of management techniques can be more sustainable – environmentally and fiscally – and better for climate change mitigation.

Political parties must, of course, continue to represent their constituencies, but they need not slavishly represent outdated views. True multi-party leadership can only occur if the parties are prepared to challenge some core beliefs with the painful truth that some are merely calcified prejudices.

We can use the growing body of evidence from our own and other nations’ experiments with carbon reduction and find creative ways to make it pay, but only if our political leaders together turn over that new leaf.

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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