Hypocrisy, hidden costs can lurk in carbon neutral goals

The European Union aims to be carbon neutral by 2050 and should it achieve this, it would be the first continent to achieve carbon neutrality.

The EU wants to show ‘‘the rest of the world how to be sustainable and competitive,’’ said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

Its belief is that a‘‘Green Deal’’ policy will transform European agriculture over the next decade.

‘‘A ‘farm to fork’ initiative aims to reduce fertiliser use in Europe by 20% and pesticides by 50%, with one-quarter of land to be farmed organically by 2030. ‘‘The EU plans to plant 3 billion trees, restore 25,000 kilometres of rivers and reverse the decline of pollinators.’’

‘‘Problems lurk behind the rhetoric,’’ according to Richard Fuchs, Calum Brown & Mark Rounsevell (Nature, 2020). The EU imports much of its food (one-fifth of crops and three-fifths of meat and dairy consumed within its borders) — only China imports more. There are no parallel targets to the Green Deal set for these imports.

And so to the crunch of the article: ‘‘EU member states are outsourcing environmental damage to other countries, while taking the credit for green policies at home’’ (Fuchs, Brown and Rounsevell).

In coming up with solutions to the challenges, the authors of the Nature article suggest technologies such as gene editing and indoor farming might form part of ‘‘sustainable intensification’’ and that the EU needs to be open to such scientific opportunities.

However, there are greater geopolitical and environmental accounting challenges at play here and in my view, while useful, these technologies are unlikely to be the silver bullets many believe they will be.

In New Zealand we have our own double standards. Farmers will carry the burden of our own carbon neutrality directives. This is despite the fact that we export 95% of our agricultural products and are net importers of cheap plastic goods, including toys and synthetic clothing. Companies — such as Kmart and The Warehouse — and New Zealand consumers who buy these goods seem to be able to skate free, with few environmental restrictions placed on them.

An ambitious global approach to food production is needed, where countries who are able to produce food efficiently are supported to do so (whether they export that food or consume it at home), and sustainable intensification technologies and appropriate pricing can then be incorporated.

For years, I have watched UK food companies travel to New Zealand and set standards for our meat production while in their own backyards, they produce red meat with a greater carbon footprint (full life cycle analysis). There is a difference between constructively working together to mitigate environmental damage and being ‘‘holier than thou’’ and ultimately hypocritical.

It is looking more likely that the US will rejoin the Paris Accord, which hopefully will be a good thing for global action around climate change. But it is also time that we understood the full picture — as developed countries our need to consume should not come at a cost of environments in developing countries. As an example of this, the EU has renewable energy targets which include a 10% biofuel target by the end of this year (on track to be met). These targets have been the main drivers of an upsurge in soya bean imports from Brazil (by 2% in 2019 alone; see go.nature.com/34k6gbt). Large areas of bioenergy production use land that could be used for producing food or conserving biodiversity.

New Zealand’s recently elected Government has a mandate from voters to create action around climate change, but it must not do so through simplistic carbon accounting and hypocritical policies. Similarly, we as consumers who demand action must start to review our own consumption patterns and question rhetoric blaming farmers for the majority of our carbon footprint when they are feeding consumers all over the world.

I suspect that the reduction in tourists flying to New Zealand due to Covid-19 has had an enormous effect on greenhouse gas production — but wait, that reduction is not counted in our footprint due to some weird accounting rule. Tourism getting a free ride — more hypocrisy, sigh. We have to think beyond our boundaries to make a meaningful impact on climate change or we risk falsely pointing the finger at efficient farmers producing nutritious, high quality food.

- Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

Comments

Avgas is the culprit.

Fuchs on farming is not helpful.

Also springs to mind that per the Paris Agreement China has been allowed to continue increasing emissions until reaching peak emissions in 2030. Whatever NZ does is subsidising elsewhere.

You can't subsidise emissions but we must do all we can to reduce them and China has not "been allowed" anything. The Paris agreement is nothing more than voluntary promises and aims with no mechanism for enforcement. China have now promised to be carbon neutral by 2060, no doubt like every other country they will also try to fiddle the books to look like they are achieving their goals. What we mustn't do is use that as an excuse for doing nothing.

You jab your finger of blame all over the place, criticise carbon accounting and then use it to justify doing nothing!
I don't think anyone blames farmers for carbon emissions, they blame the authorities, governments and world leaders for allowing such pollution to happen and ineffective action to combat it. You say farmers will carry the burden of our own carbon neutrality directives, this is simply not true. Farmers have been given a free ride so far, they pay no price on the the greenhouse gas emissions they produce but can actually earn money by having trees. Even if they are forced at a later date into the ETS they have been promised a 95% discount! NZ is not even counting methane emissions in it's carbon goals! How many more carbon accounting loopholes do want before you stop complaining? There are a lot of good farmers all around the world doing a great job of reducing human impact on this planet but articles like this do nothing but drive a wedge between urban and rural communities. Please just put your energy and resources into reducing emissions.

It is always interesting when reading these opinion pieces to study the background of the person expressing it. What are their affiliations, what are the affiliations of the company they work for both professionally and in terms of nationality. Who is paying them, who do they rely on as their customers, what is their history, Once you have that information you can make some sort of informed judgement over their comments, their undeclared vested interests in the topic, their potential for bias, partiality and preferences.
Never accept anything at face value, no matter how eloquently or logically presented. Question everything.

 

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