Week in Politics: Farmers join ETS and new plan to cut road deaths

7:58 pm on 19 July 2019

Analysis: The week was marked by a breakthrough deal as farmers agree to join the Emissions Trading Scheme and the government announces a radical shift in road safety strategy.

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From left, James Shaw, Julie Anne Genter and Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ

The devil may still be in the detail but the agreement that farmers will enter the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2025 was, as ministers described it, historic.

Meat, dairy and horticulture had reached an unprecedented consensus on how this will be done, Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor announced at an upbeat press conference on Tuesday.

It's complicated, but basically there will be a levy collected from meat and dairy processors, starting next year, and farmers will join the ETS club as full members in 2025. When that happens they will measure and pay for their own on-farm emissions. The levy will provide a fund of about $50 million a year that will be used for research into reducing farm emissions and helping set up farmers with the means to manage and measure theirs.

The estimated costs are one cent per kilo of milk solids, one cent per kilo of beef and three cents per kilo of sheep meat, which Mr Shaw said were "not onerous".

Organic Jersey cow on a Rongotea farm.

The $50 million a year raised from the levy will be used for research into reducing farm emissions and helping set up farmers with the means to manage their emissions. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Industry representatives at the press conference were confident the agreement would stand but Federated Farmers, their umbrella organisation, wasn't sure the overall objective of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases would be achieved.

Vice-president Andrew Hoggard said some farmers could decide to offset extra costs by buying more palm kernels to produce more milk, which would be counter-productive in terms of environmental damage. In many countries, forests are being destroyed and replaced with palm plantations.

It's an ambitious scheme and there are serious issues to overcome before it can be made to work. These were well set out by Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ, in an article published in the Dominion Post today.

"The problem for farmers is that there is no way currently for them to reduce emissions other than by reducing stock numbers," he said. "Science and technology will provide solutions over time… but those technologies are not here yet.

"Farmers are bravely agreeing to take part in emissions reduction without a clear pathway for the reduction to happen, and with risks."

The first risk was that processors were likely to pass the levy on to their farmer customers. "That charge will essentially be a tax on farmers who still have no real way of avoiding it other than by scaling down their operations," he said.

Another risk was the shift of the rural sector towards forestry. The ETS is based on the cost of carbon, which is expected to rise in coming years, and could reach a point where planting trees is more profitable than sheep and beef farming, Mr Hope said.

"Farmers worried by the extra costs arising from climate change policy might be happy to throw in the towel and sell to a forestry concern," he said. "A higher emissions price will incentivise a shift in land use towards trees, raising a question for the future - what will we sell to the world that the world wants to buy from us?"

And whether the 2025 entry date holds is another matter - there are going to be two elections between now and then, and a farmer-friendly National government could be in power. It's not difficult to see farmers arguing that technology hasn't reached the point where they will be able to cut their emissions to reasonable levels.

As it is, they're getting a 95 per cent discount on their emission costs. That was set in stone in the coalition agreement, insisted on by NZ First which was looking ahead to the time when farmers entered the ETS.

New strategy focuses on safer roads rather than reforming driver behaviour

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter announced the Road to Zero safety strategy, which replaces the previous Safer Journeys.

The big difference is that the intention is to make roads safer rather than persuading drivers to be more careful. And it has a target, which the previous strategy didn't - cutting deaths by 40 per cent over the next decade, which would save 750 lives. The road toll in 2018 was 377.

Rather than build new roads, more than 1500km of existing roads - the most dangerous - will be made safer with $1.4 billion spent on median barriers, rumble strips and other infrastructure to limit crash damage.

Ms Genter says it's impossible to make everyone a safe driver, so the best way is to make the roads safer for those who are going to make potentially fatal mistakes. She often mentions Norway as an example of a country which has successfully achieved dramatic reductions in road accidents and fatalities through a safer roads strategy.

Ms Genter has also talked about the way speed cameras are used in Norway. They are called safety cameras and drivers are warned by road signs when they're approaching one. That gives them a strong incentive to keep to the speed limit, and there are very good reasons for that.

The website SpeedingEurope has this grim warning for visiting motorists: "Norway is the only European country that regularly condemns its citizens to prison sentences for speeds that seem perfectly natural for citizens of other European countries."

The maximum speed limit is actually higher than ours - 110km/h on what are called Class A roads, while others vary between 100 and 60.

There are many more cameras than we have, and the fines for minor transgressions are much higher than ours, around $1000.

The use of safety cameras could be attractive to our authorities, although warning drivers about them would cut revenue and that could be a disincentive. And our politicians would be far too frightened of upsetting voters to consider penalties that might actually work.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.