Thursday 27 June 2024

Food waste

There are some areas where it's hard to get a solution without government intervention. Carbon prices, for example. Not saying it's impossible, it's just hard.

There are also plenty of areas where policy is probably wrong and could use advice from a Chief Science Advisor. For example, setting an air quality standard for schools that balances cost of cleaner air against benefits from fewer teachers and kids out sick. Seems important. Naomi Wu's put up interesting stuff on far-UV light. Does the science stack up? What would it cost to put those in schools, if government ordered at scale for every school in the country? Would doing so bend the cost curve and set an example for others to follow?

Little things like that. Might matter. There have been a lot of illness-related school absences, and the government has claimed to be keen on reducing school absences.

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor just put out a report on the critical issue of... food waste.

Normally you want to start with whether there's a potential policy problem. 

But every part of the system has strong incentive to avoid food waste.

A cabbage that doesn't make it onto the truck to get to market is money that the farmer doesn't get. Farmers like having money. They will invest in getting food to market up to the point at which getting the next cabbage onto the truck costs more than it's worth. Reducing spoilage isn't free. Farmers have to balance things. They are best placed to do so on their end. Who could know better than they do?

Transport companies that can't get their act together to deliver food in good condition wind up losing customers to those who can. That also means money. Transport companies prefer having money to not having money. They will invest in reducing spoilage up to the point at which the expected costs of doing so are greater than the benefits. Reducing spoilage isn't free. Shipping companies have to balance things. They are best placed to do so for their part of the production chain. Who could know better than they do?

Grocers that throw out a lot of spoiled food are throwing away money. They paid for the goods, and get no revenue from the ones they throw out. Grocers like having money. Didn't we just have an inquiry into whether grocers like having money too much? Spoiled food is wasted money. Grocers will invest in reducing spoilage up to the point at which the next dollar invested in it saves less than a dollar's worth of food. Reducing spoilage isn't free. Grocers have to balance things. They are best placed to do so for their part of the production chain. Who could know better than they do?

Households that throw away spoiled food are throwing away money. They paid for the food, and don't get to eat it. Households like having edible food and like having money. Don't we regularly hear news stories about people not being able to afford enough food? Spoiled food is wasted money. Households will invest in reducing spoilage and avoiding waste up to the point at which the next dollar's worth of effort in doing so saves less than a dollar's worth of food, as the household values things. Reducing spoilage and waste isn't free. Households have to balance things. They are best placed to do so for their part of the production chain. Who could know better than they do?

Spoiled food winds up in a few places. If it's in a household's compost bin, it can result in GHG emissions that aren't priced. But government seems to like composting. If it goes down the waste disposal, it winds up in the city's sludge plant along with human waste. I'm pretty sure those plants are in the ETS. If it goes into the trash can, it winds up at landfill. Landfills pay for their emissions, and have every incentive to reduce those emissions. Some capture and use the captured methane. If it winds up being fed to pets or to livestock, it displaces other feed and needn't be worried about.

And then we get the press release on the PMCSA's report from NZ Food Waste Champions. Where do you even start? 

They want a national food waste strategy with Targets! and Structures! and Systems! and Mechanisms!. 

The recommendations delivered to the Government include the need for a national food loss and waste strategic action plan, a reduction target, and structures and systems to empower stakeholders to act on them; mechanisms for ensuring more New Zealand-specific reliable and comprehensive food waste data; better strategies aimed at preventing food loss at  source; and enabling conditions that promote food rescue and upcycling to ensure edible food is never treated as waste.

The report gives a bullet-point list of first steps in preventing food losses in production. One of them was "exploring the potential of cooperative business models to improve farmers' market power." 

It is ...not obvious... why a coop would be preferable or how market power enters into any of this. The report seems to worry that buyers with market power can insist on high standards for delivered food, resulting in diversion of 'nutritious food' (ie potentially unpalatable to their customers, but still edible, and could be on-sold to Wonky Box) away from tables. There seems little consideration of that high standards by grocers might encourage producer practices that avoid bruised fruit that has a shorter shelf-life. 

There was one sensible bit in the press release.  

Dawson cites food packaging decisions as an example. “Moving to more sustainable packaging solutions is important, but what if that packaging means the food inside has a shorter shelf-life, which leads to higher levels of waste with greater levels of emissions?”

If grocers have chosen those options because consumers want them, they've made the balancing. If consumers want dumb-forms of packaging because they falsely believe those versions are somehow better for the environment, then maybe government could decide to run fewer anti-plastics campaigns. If grocers have chosen those options either because compelled by regulation or under threat of regulation if they do not, or because of misguided government-sponsored messaging around sustainability, then government has skewed the balance and done harm. Regulation doesn't do the comprehensive balancing that grocers would otherwise do. 

Similarly, the report recommends evaluating the Grocery Supply Code on "trade term driven food loss and waste." If the regulator sets supply terms that aren't what willing parties would contract to on their own, there's again the risk that government has skewed the balance and done harm. Regulation doesn't do the comprehensive balancing that grocers and suppliers discover through negotiation. 

Highlighting how regulatory mandates can inadvertently create waste is great. It's the kind of thing a new Ministry for Regulation could be doing. 

Another potential area for investigation - not sure whether it's in the report, though - would be the darned restrictions against building things on Precious Agricultural Land. Where those things can include restrictions against putting processing facilities on that land, they wind up requiring that food be trucked farther away before processing, which increases damage and waste. It's one of the things that National promised to look into; the restrictions on use of agricultural land are entirely a government-caused problem.  

The rest seems madness.

They apparently wrote four reports on this stuff. In this government budget situation. And with rather more important areas where scientific advice could improve government policy where there is an actual policy problem. With 500 "experts and stakeholders across the motu" having had to spend time on it. 

It all does make one wonder about waste-reduction.

Thursday 20 June 2024

Sheltered workshops and wage top-ups

It's hard to tell what the actual state of play is, but pretty easy to tell what it should be.

People with severe disabilities will often have great difficulty obtaining employment. In cases of intellectual disability, the point of employment is far less about what gets produced and far more about social connection and a feeling of worth for those engaged in activities. 

If you apply the minimum wage rigidly in those cases, people will instead be unemployed unless philanthropists are willing to fund sheltered workshops or equivalent roles. 

If you allow sub-minimum wages, a lot of people who otherwise would be unemployable will have some chance of finding meaningful activities. 

If people are employed at sub-minimum wages, activists will decide that it's awful and unfair and insist that the minimum wage be applied rigidly, and damn companies as selfish if they do not pay $23.15/hr for work that might produce $2/hr of value. It's inevitable.  They cannot see the next step, or don't care because it gives them a chance to rail against the evils of capitalism when that employment ends. 

Labour had proposed a reasonable solution to that mess: top-up wages. Budget 2023 had had them coming into effect from mid-2025, but I do not know whether or for how long that had actually been funded.

Ending the Minimum Wage Exemption

The Government will end the discriminatory Minimum Wage Exemption (MWE), which allows disabled people to be paid less than the minimum wage, by mid-2025.

“This unfair exemption currently affects about 800 disabled people who are legally able to be paid less on the basis they’re perceived to be less productive,” Priyanca Radhakrishnan said.

“Some disabled people in New Zealand are paid under the minimum wage and that needs to end. We will start this work immediately.

“This Government made a manifesto commitment to replace MWE permits with a wage supplement, ensuring all disabled people receive at least minimum wage.

“Under the Wage Supplement, approximately 800 disabled people will have their wages increased to minimum wage. This will support some disabled people to shift off the benefit into paid employment and decrease their reliance on the welfare system,” Priyanca Radhakrishnan said.

The rhetoric here is a bit nuts; it's playing to their activists around fairness. But the underlying policy would recognise that people with severe disabilities would not find employment if the employer had to pay the minimum wage, and had government wage top-ups making up the difference. 

If the state were not topping up wages, it would be providing other benefits instead. So the government isn't out the full amount of the wage top-up. It's out the difference between the wage top-up and the cost of whatever other supported living payments would otherwise have been provided if there were no wage income. I would expect that the EMTR on the wage top up will be pretty high, given the other income-linked benefits that would claw back.  

If the state wants the wages of severely disabled people to be high enough to support their living costs, doing it through wage top-ups makes a lot of sense. It keeps people in work and puts the burden of support broadly on the tax base, rather than expecting the employer to bear the burden itself. 

The Herald reports that the government is not going to go ahead with the top-up payments, with cost savings to the government reported at around $11m per year - or just under $13,000 if there are 900 affected workers. I expect, but don't know, that that is net of any increase in supported living payments and the like. 

Most important is not abolishing the minimum wage exemptions for people would could never find meaningful employment from willing employers at the minimum wage, and it doesn't look like the government is abolishing that. They're also maintaining support to help employers accommodate disabled workers. 

Supplemental assistance through supported living payments would have these workers no worse off than disabled people who are unable to work. There aren't good choices here, only trade-offs. 

What Labour had proposed was good, but did mean that someone who is completely unable to work would wind up with less money than someone whose work is really more of a social activity than productive. And you might not like that. 

National's version has support instead through supported living payments, which means some so-supported workers don't get to enjoy that support through a paycheque, and total support will be at a lower level than what Labour had promised (but had not yet put in place). And you might not like that. 

What I worry more about is whether the proposed version will prove politically stable. Most important in a lot of these cases is going to be the fulfilment of being able to go to work, not the paycheque itself. I hope that the next turn of the electoral cycle would have a Labour-led government reinstate top-ups, rather than ban employers from paying sub-minimum wages. 

Previously: Karl du Fresne's excellent piece on sheltered workshops.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Morning roundup

A selection as I read through the morning papers.

  • Twenty-three MPs claim an accommodation allowance to stay in their own Wellington properties.  Well, consider the alternatives, which the story doesn't.
    • You could pay all MPs much higher salaries and tell them to sort their own accommodation, which would mean higher effective pay for Wellington-area MPs who wouldn't need to pay for a second residence.
    • You could means-test access to accommodation support which would basically scale MP pay by prior wealth. It would also tilt things to discourage candidacy of middle-to-higher wealth MPs from outside of Wellington.
    • You could raze Premier House and put up halls of residence for MPs and the Prime Minister (and maybe have a reality show based there).
    • Or you could provide non-Wellington MPs who have a Wellington property with a strong incentive to sell off any Wellington properties by not providing the payment to MPs who don't live in Wellington but who have a house here.
    What do you think sucks least? Because I'm not sure there are other options.

  • The Government is to run a Parliamentary inquiry into rural banking.
    The Federated Farmers’ campaign for an inquiry was led by farmer Richard McIntyre.
    “I have been inundated with phone calls and emails from farmers, and even some former bankers, wanting to tell their stories,” he said.
    “And there’s been some pretty harrowing stories.”
    The worst of those involved farmers losing farms that their families had owned for generations, he said.
    Parliament might consider whether difficulty in foreclosing on failing farms, because of this kind of response, provides a strong disincentive to lending on rural properties.

  • I love that Xero is now putting out productivity data. The data is depressing. But great that Xero's doing it!

  • My gawd people. We have a competitive electricity market. New supply can come in if demand increases - though we need to make consenting for it easier. Emissions from mining and from electricity are in the Emissions Trading Scheme. If you want fewer emissions, reduce the number of unbacked units the government will issue or allocated between now and 2050. But wanting to block a gold mine because it will use energy and might have CO2 emissions is nuts.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Expert advice

There are a few things you'd hope would be common knowledge about the Emissions Trading Scheme.

For example, the scheme caps net emissions. If emissions go down in one sector, another sector's emitters can buy the slightly-cheaper NZUs and use them. The only thing that reduces net emissions in the covered sector is government auctioning or allocating fewer units. 

And that the scheme wasn't designed by idiots. You can get credits for growing trees. But if you cut down the trees, or if the forest burns down, there are obligations: surrender the carbon credits or replant to sequester an equivalent amount of carbon. 

If the scheme didn't require surrendering credits if the forest burned down, it would be a pretty stupid design. 

MPI explains it in really simple language.

Natural disasters and other accidental events can damage forest land. Where this damage fells, burns, kills, uproots, or destroys the forest, the forest is treated as cleared in the ETS. This can result in a need to pay (surrender) New Zealand Units (NZUs or units) for the decrease in stored carbon.

From 2023, you can apply to pause carbon accounting if such an event damages your forest. This is called a "temporary adverse event suspension". If your application is approved, you won’t need to pay units for the decrease in stored carbon.

This pause will last until your forest:
  • is re-established (replanted or regenerated), and
  • achieves the same level of carbon storage as it had before the event.
So it's fun to read today's Carbon News:
The former chief science advisor for the Ministry of Transport says the current government isn’t even pretending to try to reduce carbon emissions from transport.

For the past six and a half years Simon Kingham, professor of Human Geography at Canterbury University’s School of Earth and Environment, was seconded two days a week to the Ministry of Transport as chief science advisor, to advise on the evidence base of government policy.

Kingham says the coalition government is taking a completely different approach to the former Labour-led government. “The previous government was working to reduce transport emissions. The current government is not even pretending to try.”

There is a long list of transport emissions reduction policies that the coalition government has binned. “They’ve cut back the Clean Car Discount, reduced the Road User Charges exemption for EVs, they’re winding back the Clean Car Standard, reducing funding for public transport, reducing incentives for walking and cycling, they’re building more roads which increases emissions, they’re encouraging density but also encouraging sprawl, which induces demand."
He continues:
The government seems to be focussing more on net emissions and offsetting, Kingham says. But that’s not a straightforward solution. “If the emissions reductions are not coming from transport or agriculture that puts a lot of pressure on tree planting.”

While the government issues carbon credits for tree planting, we don’t know if that sequestration is necessarily durable, Kingham says. “Do they get to keep the carbon credits if the forests burn down? As well as tree planting there’s talk of biofuels. That all adds up to a lot of land that’s going to be used and I don’t know if anyone has thought through the implications of that.”

While relying on the Emissions Trading Scheme might work to decarbonise other sectors, Kingham says it won’t work for transport. “The ETS is not going to deliver reductions in transport because the price it would have to go to is politically unpalatable. You’d have to add a dollar to the price of petrol and no-one is going to want to do that.”
One nice feature of the carbon price is that it tells us where emission reductions are most cost-effective. If one sector won't decarbonise much at a carbon price of less than $100, that tells us that there are lots of other ways of reducing net emissions for less than $100/tonne.

But it could be a fair critique to want transport planning to be making its best guesses as to what people will want as transport options when the carbon price rises to $100 or $150/tonne.

Anyway, it's always fun to gauge understanding of the ETS.

I'd always counted things like the clean car discount as pretending to try to reduce emissions.