He Waka Eke Noa is now the main game in rural politics

 Rural industry leaders are caught between unhappy farmers and unhappy ministers as they try to find a pathway through the GHG dilemma

The biggest game in rural politics for many years is being played out right now. On one side are some key Government Ministers saying that they are not impressed by current He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) proposals for greenhouse-gas levies being calculated at the level of individual farms. Their strong preference is that levies, at least initially, should be at processor level and passed down to farmers from there.

On the other side are what is probably a majority of farmers, whose preference would be for no levies at all, but who grudgingly support farm-level levies as definitely preferable to processor levies, and even more preferable than the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS).  Further out to the side, there is another group of farmers who would like to stop any HWEN negotiations. This group, or at least some of them, are still arguing for no levies at all.

Stuck right in the middle are the 11 mainstream industry organisations, with DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb taking a leading role, and getting hammered from both sides.

Elsewhere, there is the rest of society, largely oblivious to what is going on. If they have an opinion, it is largely that agriculture must pay its way, but also largely operating in blissful ignorance as to how their own well-being is so dependent on primary-industry exports.

The so-called consultation period between HWEN and farmers is now over. I say so-called, because it was largely a selling exercise. However, in among all of the disquiet, the meetings with some 2000 farmers who turned up the ‘roadshows’, out of about 23,000 commercial pastoral farmers across the country, did indicate a strong preference for farm-based levies that captured the specifics of each farm rather than processor-based levies. The caveat to that was acceptance by many that a hybrid system combining processor and farm-based levies might be necessary initially.

As the consultation period was coming to an end, Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor called a meeting with HWEN industry partners. That meeting was not public, but the drumbeats coming though on the gale from Wellington were more than a little critical of DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb.

Perhaps influenced by their officials, the ministers indicated big concerns at an emerging consensus that each farm should be levied based on its own specific emissions. Their fear is that getting this in place will delay implementation of the levies, and any such delay is politically not acceptable to them.

Subsequently, the HWEN partners have decided to continue working on a farm-level scheme. But to get it across the line they will have to do a much better job of designing the system and then convincing Government that their plans are administratively feasible.

Early in March, I became involved in trying to bring together Groundswell with DairyNZ and Beef+ Lamb. I did so because I was asked to do so. My rural readers at least will recognise that Groundswell has had a strong voice over the last twelve months, led by farmers who feel disaffected over a multiplicity of issues.

For a while, I was hopeful of some success in bringing the various parties together. My modest optimism arose from all parties apparently agreeing on fundamental principles within HWEN that included a split-gas approach combined with all levy revenue being used within the sector.

I also knew that the Government was open to proposals developed on that basis.  That had been stated in public, despite no doubt some diverse views within Cabinet and Caucus. Some of the dissident groups had failed to recognise the foundation that this provided, albeit with a lot further work needed.

Alas, my initial optimism, albeit cautious, was misplaced. The level of mistrust between the disaffected farmers in Groundswell and the mainstream industry groups was too great.

Then in mid-March I got together with leading Christchurch farm accountant and business mentor Graham Brown, and North Otago farmer and environmental advocate Jane Smith, to see if we could come up with a joint submission to HWEN. All three of us were supportive of HWEN as being the path forward for agriculture, but all had major reservations about the HWEN documents that HWEN was consulting on.

Writing the joint submission took about 10 days as we all had other tasks to distract us, but we came up with something that all of us thought provided a path ahead. That document has now been submitted and it has also been widely circulated within the agricultural industries.   Now we have to wait and see whether or not we have had influence.

The document itself is four pages and somewhat long to provide here. However, it is published at my own website here  and also downloadable from there as a pdf.

In essence, we are saying that there are guiding principles that seem to be generally agreed. One of these is that a split-gas approach is essential.  The second is that all levies should be used within the sector to reduce emissions.

Related to this, the scale of the levies should be determined solely by the need for relevant greenhouse gas levies for research, development, extension and education (RDE&E), together with support as necessary for initial funding of mitigation strategies.

We have also emphasised that trying to tax agriculture out of existence through punitive levies in the ETS is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement that NZ signed up to. That agreement is very explicit that climate change policies must not threaten food production.

Accordingly, we have emphasised that the path forward is to focus on RDE&E that will reduce emission intensity from each unit of pastoral production. Personally, I am confident that there are pathways to achieve these emission reductions, but we won’t get there without a concerted RDE&E programme.  I am also frustrated that the existing RDE&E policies in relation to reducing emission intensities are poorly targeted.

A key area where HWEN has drifted away from fundamental principles is by advocating for carbon sequestration within the HWEN system. Sequestration issues belong within the ETS.

It is very important within the HWEN system that there is clear delineation between each of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon.

Given that the HWEN system will impose levies on methane and nitrous oxide emissions from dairy and meat production, these levies should be solely used to develop and implement strategies that will reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions from these same meat and dairy products.

In contrast, the ETS is already set up for carbon emissions and also carbon sequestration. This is where sequestration belongs.

Unfortunately, there are currently important sequestration anomalies within the ETS. In particular, the process for regeneration of native forests is far too bureaucratic and this needs to be addressed.  But there is no good reason why that and other anomalies cannot be sorted out as long as the sequestration is authentic.

The alternative of trying to bring these sequestration components across into HWEN is greatly flawed. If it is in HWEN, then it will be Peter Farmer being robbed to pay for Paul Farmer’s carbon sequestration, with no net benefit to the sector.  Ironically, it will also mean that this sequestration will not be included in New Zealand’s emission reductions as reported internationally to the UNFCCC.

Alas, Beef+ Lamb has got itself in a bind by saying to its sheep and beef farmer members, many of whom have sequestration projects of one type of another, that HWEN can provide them with carbon credits for these forests. What Beef+Lamb did not communicate to its members was that this would involve robbing Peter Farmer to pay Paul Farmer.

The situation has been made worse by plans to include what I call ‘rats and mice’ sequestration issues within HWEN, which will have low sequestration but high administration and auditing costs. Those costs will have to be paid jointly by all farmers through their HWEN levies.

Walking back from misguided proposals is never easy, but it has to be done.  The fundamental principle is that if sequestration is genuine it has to belong in the ETS. And if it is not genuine, then it sure does not belong in HWEN.

Another way of saying this is the fundamental principle of a split-gas approach is that levies on methane and nitrous oxide must be used to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide. That is the essence of split-gas approach that gets away from all of the flaws of carbon-dioxide equivalence.

In our submission, we laid out further specific issues that HWEN needs to follow to ensure administration costs are reasonable. In essence we think that HWEN lost the plot once it started looking at the specifics of the levy system.  The staff working on the proposals need much better insights as to how an administratively simple, fair and accurate system can be made to work. Our fear is that if HWEN does not bring those with necessary insights into the tent, then the HWEN proposals are going to crash.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in carbon farming, greenhouse gases, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to He Waka Eke Noa is now the main game in rural politics

  1. Jim says:

    Keith,

    I write in response to your comment that “[Ministers’] fear is that [calculating farm-specific emissions] will delay implementation of the levies, and any such delay is politically not acceptable to them.”

    You may know the book ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe (2013). Chapter 12 (‘Farmers fleeced’) sets out how the UK Government chose (in February 2004) to implement in a hurry the most-complex model available to administer the Single Payment Scheme (EU subsidy payments) in respect of English farmers. While He Waka Eke Noa relates to levies rather than payments, the UK example illustrates how administrative failure arising from Ministers’ impatience can be ruinous to farmers (not to mention the potential for additional costs to other taxpayers, which, in the UK example, exceeded £400 million).

    My favourite sentence from the chapter: “Despite the progress eventually made, rumours persisted that the [Rural Payments A]gency’s most up-to-date maps still showed sheep safely grazing on the North Sea.”

    NB: It appears The Treasury and the Parliamentary Library both have a copy of the book (should you wish to refer a Minister or two). If you are interested, Upper Riccarton Library has, I believe, the closest copy to you.

    Best regards,

    Jim

  2. Jason Barrier says:

    Keith here are two more ‘fundamental principles’ we should be arguing:
    1. A 20% area cap on individual farm plantings to prevent the wholesale purchase of farms for ETS credits – I believe this was your idea initially and it is a good one.
    2. Stable stocking rate = no methane induced warming effect = no methane induced HWEN levy.

  3. Is there any chance that some of our export markets might start imposing levies on our products if they can show that we have not progressed far enough in reducing emissions (and thus enjoy an unfair advantage)? I see the EU is looking at this. Maybe our main markets are not in this game.

  4. Keith Woodford says:

    Peter,
    I think it is possible but unlikely.
    People in glasshouses should not throw stones.
    If the EU did do something (very silly of them) it could affect sheep somewhat but not dairy or beef as we don’t export those products to Europe in significant amounts.
    Keith

  5. David Porter says:

    Hi Keith, thanks again for your and your colleagues work on this on behalf of the industry. To me, your true and most worrying words are “Elsewhere, there is the rest of society, largely oblivious to what is going on.” It worries me because the government can put into place any old “solution” that suits their ends and the majority of the population being ignorant (in the non-pejorative definition of the word) of the facts get spun a line that this is the best way forward and farmers are just whinging because they have to pay for their polluting at last.
    Good luck Keith!

  6. waimata says:

    Hi Keith,

    One point in reference to your comment about the ETS forest carbon should be the sequestration accounting system seperate from HWEN mitigation. I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint.

    Some of us farmers have a significant quantity of forest already established, or at least a significant area of our farms that are steep, or erosion prone, or inaccessible, or otherwise best suited to forest. I am an example of a farmer with forest who chose to stay out of the ETS because of the massive liabilities should some inadvertent deforestation event occur. A large part of our farms are not suited to clear fell forestry and the ETS made no allowance for these areas. This changed with the Permanent Forest category and the new rules about non-intentional deforestation, but all this is now is question with the current proposal to drop exotics from the permanent forest category (which incidentally stops a huge amount of potential agroforestry farm plantings such as poplar over pasture).

    As a farmer I chose to enter 99.9ha exotic hardwoods into ETS. This figure allows for a significant carbon revenue stream, but by ustilising the lookup tables it avoids the hassle of needing to monitor and account for carbon throughout my very uneven mixed-age stands of various species in very different growing conditions. Using the lookup tables also allows for continuous cover forestry, as selective felling of useful trees without changing the ETS land use definitions in a forest area under 100ha does not need to be accounted for. For farmers, this is perfect. It is simple, effective, profitable, sustainable land use. And entirely likely to be dropped by the new ETS rules.

    To my farmer mind HWEN mitigation would be best achieved by something along the lines of the ETS permanent forest rules operating alongside ruminant emissions at farm level only. If I cut off a new section of steep inaccessible hillside and designate it as my HWEN planting, using the look up tables for carbon equivalent sequestration, but kept this locked in to purely farm carbon accounting rather than an ETS-style carbon market, it would be a comparatively simple system to administer and work with.

    I appreciate this proposal is suited to hillcountry mest production rather than dairy, but why not allow different farm systems to operate different HWEN mitigation strategies?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Hi Waimata
      The problem if this sequestration is within HWEN, then who is to pay for these credits?
      The answer is that it has to be other farmers who are taxed to provide this.
      That means much bigger levies charged on methane and nitrous oxide to pay for this.
      In contrast, if it is within the ETS then it is emitters who pay for it.
      Beef+Lamb has never explained this to its members.

      In your own case, the look-up tables indicate (assuming radiata pine is the predominant species and also influenced somewhat by location) that you will be able to claim about 2500 tonnes per annum. Priced at $80 per tonne, that is $200,000 per annum, but assuming that the carbon price rises further then it could be considerably more. If 2000 farmers did this across NZ then it would be worth $400 million per annum at current prices and a lot more at likely future prices. Other farmers would not be at all happy about paying this.

      I agree with you that the proposal of Ministers Nash and Shaw to remove non-harvested long-term forests from the ETS is greatly flawed.
      I have a further article currently in draft talking about this.
      Keith

      • waimata says:

        Surely a system could be designed whereby on farm sequestrations are accounted purely for that farms emissions, and no sales off farm? It seems feasible to me to have a farm-specific ‘environmental account’ where sequestrations are a positive, to be used against on-farm emissions exclusively. Anyone wanting to make money beyond this concept could choose to enter ETS.

        One of the reasons why I like this idea is many of us are happy to have up to 99.9ha of ETS forest as an alternative income stream with minimal monitoring/conmpliance costs, but once we hit 100ha everything changes. The farm economics would work much better if HWEN plantings could be seperated from ETS plantings.

        As for the new proposals, the things that worry me most as a farmer (rather than commercial forester) are the inability to utilise continuous canopy forestry, and the inability to enter environmental forestry with an intended primary purpose other than timber production, such as arboretum-style amenity plantings, plantings for honey production, plantings for agroforestry (poplars being the best examples, but alders even better with tehir N-fixation), and plantings for pure soil conservation measures. All these concepts are feasible under the exiting Permanent forest rules but much less feasible under the native-only concept. And then there is the issue of much increased feral pest populations which have increased markedly in some ares following the firearms law changes in 2019, making native forests far more expensive to establish.

        My 99.9ha of mixed exotic hardwood forest has a lot of native understory, and some of the trees such as E. microcorys and E. pilularis can be managed on a continuous cover basis forever if necessary, having lifespans of 3-500 years and the ability to naturally re-establish in light gaps, as is done in Australia. This seems a lot better than clear fell pine forests for farm plantings.

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