Michael Cullen: Slogans won’t dig us out of the mire

OPINION:

The past few weeks have seen floods in mid-Canterbury, Buller and Marlborough, floods in Germany, Belgium, China and England, and unprecedented heatwaves in the American northwest and western Canada. Possibly most concerning of all forNew Zealand’s crucial primary industries, the European Union has published a plan to levy a carbon tax on imports of carbon-intensive products not taxed in their home jurisdictions.

At this point the plan does not cover primary sector exports and significant practical barriers are in the way of its implementation. But it would be a foolish person who would not bet that within the foreseeable future the idea will gain ground, especially in those countries where there is a long-ingrained protectionist inclination within their primary sectors.

Although such instincts easily come to the fore, the EU plan stems from the growing recognition that climate change is not only a reality, but its adverse effects may be greater than previously recognised. In New Zealand the greatest impact is likely to be felt in two quite distinct areas: low-lying coastal urban settlements and the primary sector.

The foundations of much of our economy for the past 150 years are under threat over the long term.

The reaction of a large part of the primary sector was to drive their tractors into town to vent their feelings of rage at the relatively modest measures the Government has taken so far to try to shift farming and horticulture onto a more sustainable path. As was to be expected, some of the farmers got somewhat confused about their message and deviated off into various flights of racist and sexist fantasy.

Urban Kiwis, especially those of the green variety, need to recognise the strength of the farmers’ feelings. The tendency to demonise the dairy industry, in particular, is not helpful.

Farmers quite rightly point to townies as the source of much of our pollution, including carbon emissions. But engaging in a Town vs Country fight does nothing to deal with meeting our Kyoto and other obligations with respect to climate change.

The argument that we are small and our impact is insignificant has no moral basis. More importantly, it is in our economic interest to be a world leader in these matters. People need to remind themselves that slow followers are the ones that get picked off by predators and our primary exporters face plenty of predators.

Farmers claim they are not listened to, but to be listened to they need to present arguments based on the scientific evidence. Many farmers, and farming organisations, are doing just that and the Government has been working with a wide range of individuals and groups over the past few years to find common ground.

My own strong view is that if family farmers are not willing participants in that mahi, then the trend to corporatisation of the sector will accelerate.

Equally, those with a strong environmentalist bent need to recognise that they too may have to embrace new ideas and be prepared to shift ground in some important respects.

Nowhere is that more so than with respect to biological research. It is long past the time to simply see genetic modification, for example, as an excuse for attacking Monsanto and other international corporate giants for their casual approach to environmental concerns.

We should be in the vanguard of biotechnology designed to improve our sustainability.

As I indicated in my last column, there has also been a tendency to adopt solutions before adequately defining the problem. The proposed Auckland light rail link from the central business district to the airport is a good example of this.

It is hard to find what the underlying rationale for this now is. Originally it seemed to be about moving people quickly to and from the airport into town. Then it became more about accelerating intensification of urban development along at least the first half of the route.

There are two key aspects to Auckland’s transport woes. The first is congestion. The second is the high level of carbon emissions thatreliance on the private car has created.

The two are obviously linked, but not inextricably.

A possible scenario for the future is that electric vehicles will be adopted more rapidly, which could increase congestion. That is because there will be less of a guilty conscience about driving an EV, even though they are far fromthe environmentally pure form of transport that their more ardent advocates seem to believe they are.

Encouraging EVs means it is all the more important to invest heavily in a public transport network that fits how people move around in Auckland. In that respect, movement in and out of the CBD is not the growing challenge people seem to think it is.

Peak-time travel numbers were slowly declining for some years before Covid hit us, despite population growth. It is likely they will stay lower post-Covid as home-working becomes more normal. Nor do lots of people going to and from the airport want to start or finish in the CBD.

Nobody can make the light rail project have a positive benefit-cost ratio, whatever heroic assumptions about inner-city redevelopment are made. Then there is the lengthy disruption that building the project will create. It looks like an idea whose time has passed.

The alternative is clearly a network of multi-car electric buses operating on dedicated lanes for faster travel times, preferably with free fares.

I am told the main problem with this is that the electric (or hydrogen-propelled) buses are too heavy for many existing roads.

Since Auckland is already committed to an electric bus fleet over the next few years, this seems a little strange.

If true, it only highlights the need to progressively upgrade the potential routes — surely a cheaper, more flexible and more efficient option than trying to create the full light rail network which some dream of.

– Sir Michael Cullen is a former Labour MP and Minister of Finance.

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