Polluted waterways – why are we subsidizing environmental damage?

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Through Mike joy*

Notice – School climate strikes are not a fad and they are not going away. They should be a wake-up call. Children tell us that they have had enough, that we “adults” are not adult enough to do anything real about a planetary threat to future generations.

Dairy farmers in the Ellesmere Lake watershed in Canterbury are subsidized to the tune of $ 350 million to $ 380 million annually, writes Mike Joy.
Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

As the emissions of all pollutants rise inexorably and we go beyond tipping point after tipping point, we continue to talk and discuss and set up working groups, commissions and expert groups. We order reports – how much this government loves reports! – and we monitor the impacts, and we survey people. We’re not doing anything real.

It’s not like we haven’t been warned. I was one of tens of thousands of scientists who signed up for a series of warnings to humanity from the world’s scientists. These are warnings on everything from collapsing food webs and microorganisms to declining freshwater biodiversity. Their common conclusion is: “If human behavior around the world does not change soon, there will be catastrophic biodiversity loss and untold amounts of human misery.”

Read this sentence again. When a scientist says “catastrophic loss of biodiversity”, it does not mean “we could lose a panda”. It pretty much means “heading for the lifeboats,” except the planets don’t have lifeboats. We can either make significant changes or go down with the ship.

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Earlier this year, another critical article by 17 leading scientists was published, based on 150 studies, under the provocative title: Underestimate the challenges of avoiding a horrible future. He pointed out how close we are to the collapse of the vital capacity of this planet, unless we radically change the way we live.

Compare this headline with the daily headlines on Travel Bubbles and “Back to Normal”. No wonder the children are walking.

Demonstration against the Extinction Rebellion at the Bathurst Coal Mine in Canterbury, September 28.

An extinction rebellion protest at the Bathurst Coal Mine in Canterbury last September.
Photo: Provided

A quote from the article on the “horrible future” touched me: “Humanity runs an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society deprives nature and future generations of paying to increase short-term income.” That sums up exactly what I see happening with fresh water in this country. We keep kicking the box on the road.

Prominent lake example of the “ do nothing ” option

A perfect example of this kick is Te Waihora (Ellesmere Lake) in Canterbury. Like most of our lowland lakes in agricultural intensive watersheds, it is dying due to excess nutrients.

To prevent the lake from deteriorating further, the intensity of agriculture in the watershed should be reduced. Canterbury Regional Council for the Environment (ECan) and the Department for the Environment (MfE) did an analysis on the economics of two actions to reduce pollution and try to save the lake.

The options: reduce the intensity of agriculture in the watershed (most of the nutrients come from dairy farming) or build a wetland to absorb the nutrients before reaching the lake. The analysis concluded that the cost to dairy farmers in lost income would be around $ 250 million per year. The wetland option would have a one-time cost of $ 380 million, much of which would go towards purchasing land and removing it from dairy production.

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So guess what they decided to do? Nothing at all. They concluded that the economic impact of mitigation was too high in both cases and therefore nothing would be done.

In other words, let future generations deal with this problem. It’s not like they’re busy dealing with rising seas or new dire weather conditions, right? And in fact, when you calculate the numbers, we are effectively subsidizing dairy production in that watershed to the tune of $ 350 million to $ 380 million annually. We don’t just bequeath the death of Ellesmere Lake in the future. We are paying a heavy price for him to be killed.

Compare that with the spending choices we made around Taupō and Rotorua lakes. To protect these two lakes, taxpayers pay farmers in the lake’s watersheds to remove cows from the land. The price is around $ 90 million for Taupō and $ 40 million for Rotorua. For Rotorua, the goal is to reduce the flow of nitrate into the lake by 100 tonnes, a nice round number that makes it easy to see that we are paying $ 400 to keep every kilogram of nitrate from reaching the lake.

Polluted heritage

The total amount of nitrate leached into the water from the dairy farm during 2017 in Canterbury alone was over 30 million kilograms. If we paid to protect Canterbury’s waterways at the rates we paid in the two North Island example lakes, it would cost $ 12 billion a year. In fact, we allow Canterbury’s dairy products – right in Canterbury – to make $ 12 billion in free pollutants every year. To put that into perspective, a recent report said the entire dairy industry contributes $ 7.8 billion a year to the New Zealand economy.

It is future generations who will pay this cost. It’s part of the polluted legacy that we let them manage.

Human civilization changed completely when we started to fuel our lives with fossil fuels and make synthetic nitrogen using fossil fuels. Fossil carbon has polluted our atmosphere, nitrogen our fresh water. For both of them, it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time. A century later, we can see the evil.

It is high time we made real changes. The right to pollute can no longer be an additional advantage of land ownership. Kick the box on the failed road. It is time for adults to finally listen to children and give them back their future.

*Dr Mike Joy is a freshwater ecologist and environmental scientist at Victoria University of Wellington.

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