Once more unto the breach – or maybe not

one more unto the breach - or maybe not

By Alan Titchall, managing editor, Contrafed Publishing.

A ‘forlorn hope’ is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the vanguard in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.

Not surprisingly, volunteers are usually encouraged with some sort of reward. Or, you could be crazy enough to simply do it for the blood and glory. New Zealand has a great history for rushing into the breach for world causes that stretch back over 15 international engagements to 1899 and the second Boer War. 

Are we preparing to do the same over emissions and the Paris Agreement?

Some of the lesser-known conflicts we got mixed up in over the past 120 years were the Boxer Rebellion (1901), the Armenian-Azerbaijani War (1919), the Korean Emergency (1948-1960), the Borneo Confrontation (early 1960s), and Operation Astute (2006-2013). We appear to spend a lot of resources fighting ‘commies’, which is iconic considering China is our number one trading partner. Fortunate, perhaps, they don’t hold it against us. 

One could also argue that, for a wee nation at the bottom of the world, we are very keen to punch above our weight. Or, maybe, are we just excitable?

For instance, there was the Chanak Affair in 1922, not very far from where New Zealand troops took a bloody beating at Gallipoli on the slopes of Chunuk Bair, thanks to inept British command. Early in 1922 a huge Turkish Army threatened the French and British Army garrisons in the city of Chanak (Canakkale) on the southern coast of the Dardanelles at their narrowest point.

While negotiating with the Turks, the British Government sent cablegrams around its Dominions asking for military help if the threat escalated. Remember, this was only a few years after Kiwi soldiers suffered a staggering 58 percent casualty rate through WW1. Another thousand died within five years of the war’s end, as a result of injuries sustained, and 507 died while training in New Zealand between 1914 and 1918.

The country was also getting over another affliction – the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic that killed another 9000.

South Africa and Canada both refused Britain outright, but not us. Into the breach once more my boys and William Massey’s (our PM at the time) cabinet sat up on a Saturday night (with a keg of beer if I remember my history studies correctly) and sent a cablegram back to London that night excitedly promising a “contingent”. The extraordinary thing was – the Kiwi public loved the idea. Recruiting posters were nailed up throughout the country and within two weeks 3000 males and 400 nurses had volunteered to have another crack at the Turks for the Mother Country. Then the Brits and French negotiated a peace with the Turks and ruined our opportunity.

During the oil crisis in the 1970s, we came up with a crazy idea of making the owners of petrol-driven vehicles nominate a day in the week they couldn’t drive, marked by a colour sticker on the windscreen. The speed limit was cut down, and petrol station hours restricted. It didn’t work. Stickers were forged, most households had more than one car, and, by the time it took to say ‘we are a world leader in …’, this short-lived crisis was over and we were left with a warehouse full of coloured day stickers.

Another over reaction to a global threat was the Millennium Bug. As the world approached the 21st century someone had one of those ‘wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-shit-I’ve-forgotten-something’ moments. They couldn’t remember, when they invented the first computer in the 1960s, if they had allowed for enough digits to cover the turnover into the new millennium. And what if other computer makers had followed their example?

It might sound far-fetched now, and numerous governments around the globe dismissed the threat outright and told its citizens to go back to bed, as they were just having a bad nightmare. Others, including New Zealand, got their knickers in a twist and wound up for Armageddon at one second past midnight 2000.

Planes were going to fall out of the sky, which was a particularly fatuous idea since aircraft hurtle constantly through time zones so can’t be ‘time’ sensitive. 

Our government set up a Y2K Task Force in 1998 and then a dedicated a Y2K Minister. We were told key infrastructure services were at risk, which included water supply, sewage disposal, health care services, law and order, petrol and electricity, banking and finance, transport, telecommunications, postal services and broadcasting. Millions were spent warning the public to get prepared for the worst, and Y2K Wise Guides were distributed to every household in the country, advising us to prepare for a three-day shutdown of essential services.

To complicate matters – New Zealand was the canary in the cage and would reach midnight December 31 first, while the rest of the world waited for the bright flash of doom Downunder as we Kiwis opened up with the first lines of Olde Lang Syne. One of my neighbours worked for an American IT company at the time. His cell-phone went at 12.01am. “Oh, good then. You are still alive down there?” True story.

After the world slipped peacefully into the 21st century – not a word was said. Perhaps too busy concentrating on the next global threat?

We have been there before

The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty that extended the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that committed parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

It was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 and didn’t enter into force until February 2005, with the first commitment period to reduce emissions starting in 2008 and ending in 2012. It didn’t work, global emissions actually increased by 32 percent over two decades between 1990 and 2010. There are a number of theories as to why it failed including the agreement’s exemptions and the lack of an effective emissions trading scheme. 

A second commitment period, known as the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, started in 2012. Although we participated in Kyoto’s first-round, we opted out of the second. 

However, we did commit to an unconditional target to reduce our emissions to five percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and also had a ‘conditional’ target to reduce our emissions to between 10 percent and 20 percent below our 1990 levels by 2020.

The Ministry for the Environment now tells us; “the conditions for the conditional target weren’t met, and the Government won’t know for sure if the target is met until the publication of the 2022 Greenhouse Gas Inventory (which has data through 2020) at the earliest.” It is also possible that confirmation won’t come until that inventory is reviewed in 2023, the ministry adds. In other words – not exactly an outstanding contribution to world ‘de-carbonisation’.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted by most developed countries (including us) and is a separate agreement under the UNFCCC. It is not an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol so, ‘credits’ from the old protocol can’t be carried over to meet the Paris Agreement targets, but who is counting? 

As Dr Muriel Newman points out on page 30, in 2019,  the Zero Carbon Act was passed, setting the harshest domestic targets in the world – reducing emissions of long-lived gases to net zero by 2050 and methane emissions by 24-47 percent by 2050 – and establishing the Climate Commission. The ETS is also under change. 

Again, as Newman points out. The Climate Commission claims the Emissions Trading Scheme alone won’t get us to where we need to be and ‘Action is needed across all sectors of the economy’. “Yet advice from the IPCC contradicts that claim – once a country has an ETS in place, no other policy interventions are necessary; if a cap and trade system has a sufficiently stringent cap to affect emission‐related decisions, then other policies have no further impact on reducing emissions.”

Are we preparing for another forlorn hope?

Making a stand against nuclear

After the French started nuclear testing in French Polynesia in the mid-1960s, many nations in the South Pacific took an anti-nuclear stance. 

A number of Australian local governments, for instance, passed anti-nuclear weaponry legislation. Brisbane has been nuclear weapon free since 1983. In 1985 (the year of the Rainbow Warrior affair), New Zealand and Australia along with eight South Pacific countries signed a treaty declaring the region a nuclear-free zone.

However, this was considered merely ‘symbolic’ compared to New Zealand’s banning, in 1984, of nuclear-armed or even nuclear-powered ships from entering our waters. This was officially placed into legislation with the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 (interestingly, it doesn’t ban nuclear power as Australia did in 1998). 

In 1985, after we refused entry to a US warship because it wouldn’t declare if it was nuclear or not, the US suspended its ANZUS obligations. Many Kiwis, such as the current Prime Minster, still view this bold nuclear stance (enshrined in legislation as a world first) as a milestone in the nation’s history and development. 

On the negative side, numerous Kiwi governments since have put a lot of effort into amending relations with the US, starting with Mike Moore who was a cabinet minister in the Lange Government in 1984 and a short-lived New Zealand Prime Minister (59 days) before labour’s defeat in the 1990 general election. 

Perhaps, thanks to these efforts, we do enjoy a positive relationship with the country that saved our arses in WW2 and, today, the US is almost equal with Europe as our fourth/third largest trading market.

However, we have never succeeded in forming a ‘free trade agreement’ with the US, and such agreements have been a Kiwi economic holy grail for almost four decades now. 

Yet, the US has Free Trade Agreements with 20 other countries including Australia that was made back in 2004. 

Which brings me to my point. Do we really need to punch way above our weight again with the Paris agreement on emissions? While our wee country of five million souls calculates its emissions in millions of tonnes, our major trading partners calculate theirs in massive gigatons.

Just to take three areas we are preparing to beat ourselves up over – agriculture, transport and power generation. The reality is – our top export earners (sold mostly to Asian countries) are agricultural at 60 percent. Our generated energy is already 84 percent renewable and we don’t have the advantages of importing renewable power from other nations, as do many other Paris Agreement members. 

The reality of our transport fleet is that it is one of the world’s oldest – at an average of 15 years, made up of a huge number of vehicles rejected as unroadworthy from Japanese roads. New Zealand doesn’t even have an emission test for vehicle warrants, so plenty of places to start cleaning up transport without resorting to pie-eyed EV cliches and banning combustion engines.

Our trading partners are watching – or not

It is argued that if we don’t make a huge demo over reducing local emissions, our trading partners will take it out on us, by either buying less from us or, as competitors, using this to make gains with our trading partners.

I was told by a senior politician just after the Paris Agreement was signed that the French were going to give us a kicking over EU trading if we didn’t sign up, so there may be an element of truth here?

But then the success of most of our trading is based on costs (think cheap). And why Kiwis are always astonished to find their own products cheaper to buy overseas than here. 

Since our three major trading partners (and two of them are also serious trading competitors in areas such as lamb and dairy products) are China, Australia and the US – I think it very unlikely they will be caring about, or comparing, their emissions reduction equations with our own modest targets.

And, the only incident I can think of where a trading partner gave us a trade-kicking over our political actions was in 1984 when the Fourth Labour Government led an assault into the breach on behalf of the global nuclear weapons disarmament movement. 

This was when we banned ships entering our water that were either nuclear armed or powered, putting ourselves offside with the Americans and Japanese who valued our prior participation in the ANZUS military pact. However, this act came at a trade cost (see box).

Maybe, this time, before going ‘hard’ over emissions we should get things into perspective.

Our emissions amount to about 0.2 percent of the global total, and half of that is produced naturally by cows and sheep and other farm animals, whereas other nations are judged on their man-made greenhouse gases created by industrialisation.

And to put our farming in perspective, our total farming land area is around 34 million ‘old school’ acres. One farm in China alone, (Mudanjiang City Mega Farm and admittingly the largest farm in the world) manages 22.5 million acres!

So, before launching another expensive forlorn hope on behalf of another global crisis, let’s remember that the major players in this ‘emergency’ are quite capable of solving the problem themselves – if they really want to.

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