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TOP Leader Geoff Simmons on why we need to listen to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

TOP Leader Geoff Simmons on why we need to listen to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

By Geoff Simmons*

It’s getting hot in here…

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton released a ground-breaking, important but ear-bleedingly complicated report on greenhouse gas emissions this week.

The responses to his paradigm shifting ideas were disappointing. Greenpeace happily cemented their brand as Farmer Enemy #1 by claiming that Commissioner Upton had been influenced by Big Ag. The Government also dismissed it instantly, releasing their own ideas on how to tinker with forestry emissions trading settings the very next day.

They probably hoped that nobody would understand the report and so it would be forgotten by the next news cycle. Indeed the world may not even have noticed that the report was released if RNZ Morning Report presenter Guyon Espiner hadn’t roasted Climate Change Minister James Shaw about his lack of wins as part of this Labour-led Government.

The report is worthy of considerable further debate and thought, and not just by the agricultural lobby. There are many long-term issues in the report which should be carefully considered.

The report

Commissioner Upton’s main points are:

  1. Agricultural greenhouse gases aren’t as bad as we think. We need to stabilise and reduce them but not get them to zero.  
  2. Fossil fuels are worse – we need to get them to zero ASAP.
  3. Trees aren’t as great to lock up carbon as we think. Therefore we should use trees to offset biological emissions but not fossil fuel ones.

Commissioner Upton’s report is complex, but he is taking a sound long-term view. Not only is he presenting a pragmatic way to bring agriculture into an emissions reduction framework, but he is focussing on the real issue – fossil fuel emissions need to fall to zero.

The report includes quite a lot of philosophical and scientific perspectives about the difference between the geological and biological cycles, and why they should be treated differently. I have to say so far I am less convinced by this than the difference between a short-lived gas like methane and long-lived greenhouse gases. After all an atom of any long-lived atom of greenhouse gas will have similar warming effects, whether it came from a cow, coal or cutting down a tree.

But when you think long-term the argument becomes more convincing. If you use trees to balance balance biological emissions and deal with other local problems like soil and water you will come to some sensible land use decisions. If you use trees to balance a potentially endless stream of fossil emissions you could end up with a carbon price so high the whole country will be covered in trees and you still won’t have dealt with the real issue. No one wants that.

Political considerations

The political problem Commissioner Upton’s report poses is that the current Government focus is on planting trees when we really need to reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero. That is why Minister Shaw responded to Espiner saying that cutting emissions is really really hard and the short-term solution is to plant more trees.

It’s a pretty weak response, but Minister Shaw is in a bind because planting more trees is about the only solution this Coalition Government can agree on. New Zealand First might agree to the Zero Carbon Act (if he is lucky) but they won’t put in place any of the changes that would actually reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Of course Government points to the new oil and gas exploration ban as reducing emissions, but that is very far from certain. In fact if the carbon price doesn’t rise soon to encourage more renewable electricity generation we could end up importing more fossil fuels instead.

The other more reasonable problem raised by Commissioner Upton’s report is how to provide some certainty to forestry operators in the Emissions Trading Scheme. However this is solvable – simply keep the carbon subsidy for forestry fixed at the current level $25 per tonne while the new system is put in place. 

Long-term thinking

The point of Commissioner Upton’s report is that if we really let this Emissions Trading thing work properly it will have a huge impact on the country this century. We need to think carefully about what we want to achieve now before we really let this system rip.

So what needs to happen? Here are a few no brainers. If we remove the price cap on the Emissions Trading Scheme the carbon price should double, at least. That should push electricity generators to invest in more renewable energy. We need to plant our marginal, erosion prone land in native trees, ASAP. Other farmers and land users can help pay for that as a way to offset their biological emissions as Commissioner Upton suggests. We are also way behind the rest of the world on investing in energy efficiency which can save money and help reduce emissions.

Finally we also have to face the fact that the world looks pretty unlikely to reach its target of limiting warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees. Our investment in climate action should focus as much on preparing for this outcome as much as reducing emission.

The Opportunities Party will certainly be looking at Commissioner Upton’s report in some detail in thinking about our climate policy for the next election.

 *Geoff Simmons is The Opportunities Party's leader. 

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Given that most of our electricity is renewable, I would have thought investing in energy efficiency would not produce much bang for buck in terms of emissions?

Renewable generation is the first off the rank, so any decrease in energy use comes almost 100% from the non-renewable generation. so yes, it does make a huge difference.

A well-reasoned piece, no fault found.

Although I have a niggling though that the EROEI need to support BAU (and do something about the little problem of debt-overhang simultaneously) is being overlooked. Below about 8:1 (and new-built renewables are all below that) you can kiss goodbye to keeping ahead of entropy.

That said, the suggested direction is correct in all cases - including adaption.

Energy efficiency Fritz? Yep. Low-hanging fruit first - superinsulating and passive-solaring, ASAP. Probably incentives to divest 4x4 SUV'S and cart less tonnage to get the groceries, too.....

I’d love to know more detail about TOP’s tax policy, Geoff. Like what will be taxed based on imputed income and what won’t.

Thanks good article Geoff and good to see global heating addressed in scientific, realistic and truth based manner. I think we need to look at the end game now - the world knew about man made emissions leading to global warming back in the 80's and had the 1992 kyoto protocol to deal with this recognised major threat. Fast forward to 2019 and global emissions are up 60%, NZ's up 40% on 1992. IPCC and politics business as usual, incremental change has failed - badly. So now we are looking at A very low chance of limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees (1-5%) and even the scientifically agreed 2 degree "catastrophic threshold". Because emissions have been so high we doubled the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since 1992. And this is why we are on course to hit 1.5 degrees by 2030 and 2 degrees by 2050 with accelerating warming unless we invent carbon removal technologies and scale these up massively.

This is the inheritance we have left our children, a radically changed world in 2050 with UN estimates of 100's of millions of climate refugees and millions of potential deaths due starvation, drought, increased conflict and stress etc. So what would be a suitable policy to this realistic threat?? (as far as I read the science anyway like IPCC, UN, Nasa reports, NOAA etc.). The response required now is to declare a national climate emergency (like London and the UK labour party and 500 other councils around the world) and take immediate actions to bring down carbon emissions asap - i.e. fossil fuels and methane (no free pass for farming sorry_. Anything less is tinkering at the edges, rearranging the deck chairs and guaranteed to fail.

Another comment agreeing that it is a good article. Is tree planting the only or the best way of absorbing emissions? If I plant trees in my garden and wait 30 years I would have many cubic metres of timber and they would represent a certain weight of absorbed carbon dioxide. Alternatively I could grow beans, eat the beans and store the remaining bean plants in a stack. In 30 years maybe my stack of dead bean plants would have absorbed more carbon dioxide? Does anyone have a link to a site that answers that question?

You'd have to stop your stack of bean plants decomposing, which would probably mean keeping them in anaerobic conditions and maybe under pressure, then you can start the process of turning them back into oil or coal.

Treated timber is quite stable unless it catches on fire, so the carbon is locked in for at least a few decades.

There is a bit of research into carbon capture by growing trees, then burying them in trenches under anaerobic conditions to stop the carbon being released.

Burying bean stalks? Rather easier to handle than trees. Fire is always a worry for a large plantation of trees in a warming climate - at least you would only lose one years growth with bean stalks.
Beans chosen since they produce more protein per square metre than any other crop. The beans being a bonus in m proposal.why plant pines - why not a tree crop - apple tree? My fear is as fossil fuels run out agricultural land will be used for biofuels and carbon offset trees and poor people will starve.
Final query - would some algae be more efficient at fixing carbon than trees?

Leguminous trees fix far more protein per ha than beans. Increasing soil carbon is the way to go in many cases but it excluded from the ETS and most other boondoggles as it is not virtue signally enough.
If people were serious about decarbonising we would be rolling out 4th gen nuclear power plants - the fact they are not considered demonstrates the hypocrisy of the climate change industry.

I'd always though leguminous meant beans. Judging by my garden the amount of growth is impressive.

Some hypocrisy and some simple failure to face facts. My favourite example is international air travel is just not counted ~ do they really think that jet fuel when burnt disappears into outer space?

Population is the real problem. Carbon is fiddling around the edges. Measures against carbon are near useless unless we get the worlds population down.

Lucky we had peak baby in 1990. Sweet. To think we used to worry about our cities being buried in horse dung. You would think the doomsayers would learn from making endless wrong predictions about the unknown country that is the future.

"Humanity has passed one of its greatest milestones, and yet almost nobody has noticed. We have reached peak child: the total number of babies in the world is no longer increasing. There will never be more children than there are today: the world’s population will continue to grow, but only because almost everybody is living longer."

Wood: Feb 19 satellite data for NZ 0.5 degrees below the 40 year average. Trees: the $1.5 Trillion climate change industry, politicians trying to be relevant and MSM desperate for click bait.

... I do wonder , why we are reactively attempting to clean up the various messes we're making ... the unrecyclibility of supermarket soft plastic bags , the methane gases our cows and sheep belch and fart ...

Begin at the beginning , instead !

... do we really need these things , or so much of them , in the first place ?

You can't live in a modern city without plastic packaging Gummy so just roll on with waste to energy plants and be done with it. Japan can do it so why can't we?

Don't forget the big question do we exist for the economy or does our economy exist for us?

1) Nothing NZ does will affect the world carbon balance. We are tiny. We can only help by being a lagging leader.

2) Remove the exploration ban - let the exploration & carbon prices determine its feasibility

3) Methane breaks down to CO2 in the atmosphere so has short & long term effects

4) Upton's approach is political but pragmatic. Alternatively simply set agricultural emissions at 1% of the carbon price and ramp up to 100% over time (say indicatively 100% at 2050 at this point of time, i.e +3% per year but reviewable)

5) NZ meat & milk is going to face huge pressure from synthetics. There is no point over-subsidising the sector. NZ is going to have to alternate productive ways of generating GDP & it may well entail a fall in the NZD over time to find that.

6) The EU carbon price is about 34NZD currently. The NZ price about 25NZD so it wont double but could go up 40%

7) NZ needs to adopt the international carbon price (or proxies thereof) as there isnt yet a centralised price, plus determine which overseas credits it deems legitimate. NZ can then just manage the NZ quota to match the international price & buy & sell international credits as needed.

Not being a climate change expert this video from the founder of greenpeace has left me a bit torn

The article further demonstrates why need TOP in the political mix (exit NZ First).

let her go man . she is dead . dead as a kersfees kalkoen.

No one has mention that the biggest carbon sink the planet has is the oceans which we as a country is surrounded by. If there is a way to create forests of seaweed which would absorb the CO2 and for this to be harvested into some thing useful (as opposed just sushi rolls) then our economy could have another avenue for overseas income and potential jobs to be added to the market (yes we do have a problem in finding the right people for jobs, however it still means that jobs are being created).

The oceans are near capacitance - they're what has spared us so far - but the cyclone which came into NT last week had a pressure of 882. Be very scared. It's only a matter of time before a full-blown one hits Northland (or more).

Seaweed? No, the biology of the ocean is too big to change fast enough, and the nutrient flow is in any case limited - what can grow is growing already. That's been our failure - to see things as 'free' (aquaculture did this) when they're really a matter of displacing something that's already there. And you'd have to export it without fossil fuels, in a global economy alle same

there is huge potential for mangrove and other seawater capable plants to be grown in lowlying desert areas using saltwater. Qite a lot of work been done on this in the Middle East , google trees in the desert or saltwater farming. The Mangrove is the most efficient of all trees at absorbing carbon.