Richard MacManus: Solving climate change with technology, not taxes
OPINION: Climate change is a hot-button issue in the upcoming New Zealand election after Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's assertion that "climate change is my generation's nuclear-free moment", and she's determined to "tackle it head on."
Most people assumed she meant tackling it with taxation. After all, there's no way to stop cows from farting. So farmers will likely have to pay a so-called "carbon tax" to offset the damage their cows and sheep do to the environment. Indeed, Ardern has already indicated that Labour would bring agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme.
But there are better solutions to climate change than a tax. In particular, three technologies: electric vehicles, solar energy, and alternatives to farmed food. Each of these solutions has been making rapid progress in recent years. They just need more of a push from the government.
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Skeptics will wonder why climate change is even such a big deal for New Zealand this election. Aren't we already a clean, green country – the kind of paradise that US billionaires flock to? Well, no actually. As researcher Paul Young wrote last week, New Zealand is "one of the highest [greenhouse gas] emitters per capita and per unit of GDP in the developed world".
It's easy to blame farmers for this since the agriculture sector contributes 47.9 per cent of our total emissions. But our energy sector, which includes transport and electricity generation, is a close second at 40.5 per cent. Furthermore, one of the main reasons our emissions are going up (and not down) is due to increased carbon dioxide emissions from road transport.
In short, any one who drives a petrol-powered car down an urban motorway every day is as much to blame for our poor emissions record as farmers.
Electric vehicles could make a huge difference, especially since only one-quarter of New Zealand's electricity generation comes from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. That's relatively good if you compare us to the rest of the world. In the US, for example, about 65 per cent of electricity is still produced from fossil fuels.
We're also well suited to electric vehicles, according to the Ministry of Transport. Our abundance of off-street parking and low average commute are two factors that would help adoption.
The government has already stepped up to help, with its Electric Vehicles Programme announced in May 2016. The programme has a goal of "reaching approximately 64,000 electric vehicles on our roads by the end of 2021". As of July 2017, there were 3700 electric vehicles on our road.
64,000 may sound like a lot, especially compared to the several thousand we currently have. But it would amount to less than 2 per cent of our total cars, estimated at over 3.2 million currently. Seen in that light, 64,000 doesn't seem nearly enough. I'd like to see the government aim higher, as part of a renewed commitment to improving our dismal emissions record.
It isn't just our cars that need improving to help with climate change, it's our homes. Solar power is a potential saviour, particularly since it's a technology and not a fuel. So it has no impact on the environment and it's cheaper for consumers.
I can already hear your howls of protest. Solar panels are too expensive! Certainly, it requires an upfront investment, but the prices are coming down. A website called My Solar Quotes claims that "a standard 3kW system" cost $40,000 seven years ago, but "now in 2017 it averages at around $10,000 to $13,000 (completely installed)." Admittedly there are other factors that will affect the cost, for example, if you have anything other than a tin or metal roof then it will cost you more.
But here's where the government can make a difference. Currently, there are no subsidies or incentives for homeowners to install solar power systems. So if the next government (whoever that may be) really wants to improve our climate change record, why not introduce those subsidies or incentives.
Ok, so what about the farmers? At nearly 48 per cent of our emissions, we want our agriculture sector to chip in. This is the biggest challenge, by far. The carbon tax would be a start, but there are technological solutions we should consider too. Albeit ones that some of you may not be able to stomach. Yes, I'm talking about alternatives to animal farming.
According to Rosie Bosworth, an agritech specialist, there are "tasty, healthy and environmentally friendly protein, milk and dairy product alternatives", along with substitutes for meat "that taste like the real thing".
There are still question marks about lab-grown meat, but there is growing support for it overseas. Bill Gates calls this technology "the future of food". The problem, of course, is that New Zealand's history is steeped in farming and it remains our leading export sector to this day. Asking farmers to give up their animals would be like asking Microsoft to give up selling Windows.
However, the government could at least help explore alternatives to animal farming, in the form of agritech startup incubators and similar incentives. Who knows, a meat alternative startup could become the Xero of farming.
In summary, like it or not New Zealand has a poor record with emissions. We should do something about it. My contention is that it shouldn't just be tax related. There is plenty our government can do, in the form of funding and incentives, to help implement technological solutions to climate change.