Thoughts on carbon trading

The following was published in the January 2010 newsletter of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association. It was written in response to an editorial in the previous newsletter. I’ve subsequently made some minor modifications.

Carbon trading was never a sensible response to climate change. As quoted in a recent report prepared by Climate Risk for WWF International “the current emphasis on carbon price as the key element of the climate change solution is dangerously misleading”. Instead I believe we need an approach that is founded on policies that support the development of resilient local communities.

The very first IPCC assessment, published in the early 1990s, talked about the potential co-benefits of a combined approach to adaptation (responding to the effects of climate change) and mitigation (reducing or offsetting GHG emissions). Somehow talk of co-benefits got lost, a handful of scientists focused on impacts and adaptation assessment through the 1990s, and a heap of people got interested in mitigation, particularly the economists. As climate change has become more of a reality (for those who believe the science, and I am one who does) there has been increased attention to adaptation over the last decade and more talk of ‘co-benefits’. So what do co-benefits mean?

In a practical sense it means doing what smart farmers, including farm foresters, have been doing for decades. If you draw together the lessons from practical farmers, which I have been doing for the last nine years, you get a comprehensive picture of farm resilience. A resilient farm with trees for multiple benefits, with well managed soils (eg. minimal or no reliance on N fertiliser, a focus on building or maintaining organic matter and deep rooted pasture) and well managed pasture, stock and water, has in-built capacity to buffer against climate extremes (and climate change) and is providing multiple benefits in terms of carbon storage and reduced emissions. It’s common sense to the farmers who are doing this sort of thing.

My view is that if we want to be really serious about climate change and our collective future, even if you don’t believe in climate change, then investment in developing what the American farmer and writer Wendell Berry refers to as a true ecological mosaic as a foundation for a truly sustainable economy (the two go hand in hand) would be a far more sensible approach. It would be the best investment any government could make for our future. We need to be looking at everything we can do to protect and enhance our land and water resources … building long-term resilience is the real solution. If we get the ecology right the economics will follow. To achieve that will require a level of intelligence and wisdom that exists within New Zealand if you know the right people, but we’re not yet listening and acting in the way that we need to be.

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