Govt policy fails the poor

The Government’s announcement of its long-awaited policy on climate change last week was predictable.

The policy centrepiece is a so-called “cap and trade” market-based solution which involves carbon emissions being set and traded between those industries which emit greenhouse gases and those that soak them up.

Polluting factories will purchase the right to pollute from areas such as forestry. This system will be phased in over several years with New Zealand’s most climate-hostile industry, farming, left to pollute unabated till 2013.

The policy has a major problem. It won’t work. Climate change is already upon us but rather than reduce or stabilise New Zealand’s level of carbon emission these levels will continue to rise rapidly in the immediate future.

High dairy prices mean New Zealand farmland is being converted to dairying with big increases in herds and greenhouse-gas emissions. Over the next six years, at least, farming’s contribution to global warming will rise steeply. Agriculture alone already accounts for almost half New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Meanwhile, food prices are rising around the world and are expected to continue to rise quickly. Protests have already taken place in Italy against the rapidly rising cost of pasta and tens of thousands took to the streets of Mexico to protest a quadrupling of tortilla prices earlier this year. These sentiments are being echoed elsewhere as the price of wheat skyrockets.

Here in New Zealand the price of bread is expected to increase by as much as 30 per cent over the next year.

We produce just one-third of the wheat we consume – the rest is imported, mainly from Australia which faces a much reduced harvest largely thanks to global warming.

The same problem is occurring in other parts of the world where climate change is reducing harvests. The OECD suggests the world will face overall food-price rises of between 20% and 50% over the next decade. So, while the most optimistic of forecasts is for increases in food prices the more realistic is for worldwide famine.

It’s ironic that farming, which touts itself as an efficient food producer, is contributing so significantly, through global warming, to the looming global food crisis.

The problem is compounded with the transfer of land from food production to the production of crops for biofuels. More irony. Biofuels that aim to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The idea is that these biofuels recycle the same carbon again and again rather than bringing new carbon into play which happens when oil and petrol are burned. The science is sound but the context for humanity is absolutely impractical as a rational way forward.

The United States aims to produce 35 billion gallons (132 billion litres) of biofuel by 2017. Last year 20% of the whole maize crop in the US was used to this end and yet this represents just 2% of the fuel used in US cars.

These changes in land use are happening particularly in North America but multi-national corporations are increasingly taking over the most productive land in developing countries for biofuels.

The strain over food prices is once more being felt the most by those least able to cope. More than a billion men, women and children go to bed hungry every night already. This figure will increase as Western desire for biofuels overrides local needs for food. As food prices increase so does the cost of food-aid to the poorest.

Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch, puts it simply: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its two billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.”

It’s the market, stupid. No morals, no ethics, no humanity – just the lure of mammon.

New Zealanders will face this crisis along with the rest of the world. We should accept that producing high-priced, protein- based food is inefficient, globally damaging and no use to our fellow human beings whose needs are the greatest. The Government’s policy skips around these global realities. It has neither the will nor the courage to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. It seems the focus has subtly shifted from trying to prevent climate change to accepting that global warming is a reality and best left to the market to sort out.

The subtext to the Government announcement would be something like this: “Don’t frighten anyone; people will get used to the warmer climate, changed landscapes, higher prices for food and electricity, water shortages and even mass starvation (provided it’s not them).”

There are alternatives, as there always are, but the only ones presented are those confined within the moral vacuum of the capitalist marketplace.