The negative reaction to the methane target range in the Climate Change Amendment (Zero Carbon) Bill should not be taken as an indication the rural sector is at all opposed to the purpose of the Bill, nor does it suggest unwillingness to be part of the solution, writes Allan Barber.
Industry bodies, including DairyNZ, B+LNZ, Meat Industry Association and Federated Farmers, are fully committed to seeing their members do all that is realistically possible to achieve the overall greenhouse gas reduction target. This goal is seen by science organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as essential, if the increase in the planet’s temperature is to be restricted to 1.5 degrees C by 2050.
However the New Zealand sector bodies are taking a strongly science based approach to the issue and they have concerns, particularly the extent of the maximum range for reducing methane emissions which are both unachievable and, according to the science, unnecessary. Greenpeace executive director, Russel Norman, among others only sees farmers trying to get a free ride at the expense of the rest of the country, using agriculture’s past resistance to being included in the Emissions Trading Sysem (NZ ETS) as evidence for his argument. The sector’s new commitment to making whatever changes are necessary demonstrates Norman’s suspicion is unfounded.
Farmers, not unnaturally, are worried about what all this means for the future of their business, not least whether they will still have a social licence to operate, and what they can do to meet the targets if they are adopted. Scientists, like director of Victoria University’s Climate Change Research Institute Professor Dave Frame, have welcomed the recognition of the difference between long-lived gases (CO2 and nitrous oxide) and short-lived (methane) and caution against getting too worked up about the actual targets at this stage. Specific targets to be adopted in legislation will be subject to plenty of debate and revision during the Select Committee process.
Frame’s research indicates 60 percent of methane’s effects disappear after 12 years and 95 percent after 50 years compared with CO2 which lasts in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. Therefore, while all greenhouse gas reduction is good, it is far more important to focus on reducing what he terms ‘stock’ pollutants like CO2 and nitrous oxide, as distinct from ‘flow’ pollutants like methane. If the government’s goal is to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases by 35 percent by 2050, as recommended by the IPCC, the logic of the carbon zero target is irrefutable.
Achieving this will require a combination of zero nitrous oxide as a result of animal management and zero CO2 through tree planting, but more particularly it demands a major change in energy use, transport and urban pollution. A large proportion of these measures lies outside the scope of agriculture, if the targets are to be met. A 10 percent reduction in methane emissions in addition to zero nitrous oxide and CO2 would achieve a 33 percent emissions reduction, while increasing methane savings to 22 percent would increase the total reduction to 41 percent. This demonstrates the inequity of demanding a decrease in methane emissions to the higher range of 24-47 percent. Quite simply, the long-lasting nature of nitrous oxide and CO2 has a far greater influence on the amount of warming in the atmosphere.
Jeremy Baker, B+LNZ’s chief insight officer, points to the emissions reduction of 30 percent since 1990 on sheep and beef farms as strong evidence of the red meat sector’s commitment to the goal, a result of greater efficiency and improved farm management, as well as reduced flock size. He claims the proposed targets in the Bill do not recognise the long term carbon sink benefits of native trees which can absorb carbon for 300 years, 10 times longer than pine trees. There are already 1.4 million hectares of natives planted on sheep and beef country which should be taken into account when setting targets and measuring performance. DairyNZ also advocates the recognition at the farm gate of all farmer efforts to reduce emissions, including tree planting.
DairyNZ is working with scientists on several strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of methane, options are limited by New Zealand’s grass-feeding regime, but research shows managing use of dry matter intake is critical, while brassica rape can produce a 30 percent emissions reduction, compared with a traditional ryegrass/white clover diet; fodder beet trials demonstrate a 20 percent reduction, but only when it makes up 70 percent of the diet. Nitrogen leaching can be mitigated by applying the right fertiliser in the right place at the right time, planting low nitrogen crops and improving pasture quality, as well as carefully planned paddock strategies in autumn and winter.
It is obvious the sector is totally on side with the government’s overall goal to meet New Zealand’s commitments under the Paris agreement. In no way is agriculture unwilling to ensure its farmers and processors are in possession of all the tools necessary to meet the target, but the sector wants fair and equitable treatment and recognition of the correct science underpinning that target. It will also be up to the government to devote funding to research which will be necessary to develop some of the solutions to the challenge.