Comment: Rumble in the methane jungle

Climate change trees forestry lens ball
It's a complex issue for 50 Shades of Green NZ. Photo:

The new legislation the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill is world-leading in its attempt to guide New Zealand into planned national adaptation for climate change and the eyes of the world are on us. But it’s caused a bit of a rumble in the methane jungle.

The new Bill is at the first reading stage in Parliament. It brings everything together from a myriad different sources and introduces some semblance of certainty into the fray.  It also requires careful reading and understanding of the complex and new science where, because of the interrelatedness of atmospheric, biological and ecological systems, nothing is as simple as it may seem.

On paper, we’re looking at proposed targets of net zero for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2050 and a reduction of biogenic (produced from a biological source) methane emissions by between 24-47 percent below 2017 levels in a calendar year by 2050, with an interim requirement to reduce methane emissions to 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2030. These targets were set in line with the latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5°C.

This is at primary sector-wide level. It will be hard to enforce on an individual level, which has come in for criticism from some of the conservation/environment lobby groups, and will rely on all “doing the right thing”.

The biogenic methane reductions relate to ALL methane produced in the whole of New Zealand, yes predominantly from agriculture, but in the period between 1997 and 2017 11.2 percent was also produced from the Industrial Process and Product Use (IPPU) and waste sectors, such as land-fills, according to the NZ Greenhouse Gas Inventory (NZGGI) released in April. A reduction doesn’t mean every farmer will need to reduce by that much, some farms and or sectors will have a better chance than others and all will need different approaches. The NZGGI shows enteric fermentation from dairy cattle was one of the causes for an increase in gross emissions between 1990-2017, the others were road transportation (which is increasing along with New Zealand’s expanding population), agricultural soils, product uses as substitutes for ODS and manufacturing industries and construction (especially the categories chemicals and food processing, beverages and tobacco).

For the red meat sector, alongside all the mitigation already undertaken, making great strides forward will be dependent on the new technology, such as for methane inhibitors and in the longer-term a methane vaccine, that is being worked on in New Zealand right now. Or, it might be the silver bullet is developed overseas.

If the people who put together the Bill were listening at the NZ Agricultural Climate Change Conference (NZACCC) in March, they would have heard Beef + Lamb NZ Ltd’s Victoria Lamb, a member of the Biological Emissions Reference Group (BERG), say before successful new technology comes on stream, it is thought dairy could achieve reductions of between two and 10 percent, while sheep and beef farms’ ability to make further emissions reductions on what has already been made are limited. Getting agreed measurement of the emissions is another issue, but the sector has set itself a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 that is dependent on offsetting via tree planting in the short-term. Plenty of work is underway in all sorts of areas and all farms, the agreed point of obligation, will have a Farm Environment Plan in the not too distant future – deer by 2020, sheep and beef by 2021 and dairy by 2025.

Nobody is denying warming needs to be stopped, the pastoral sector accepts responsibility for mitigating its emissions and the split gas approach has been welcomed. The sector has said it will continue its work on new methane mitigation technology both on-farm and with scientists at the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and elsewhere.

However, there is still opportunity to contest the chosen targets and all four of the red meat sector bodies are already doing so vehemently. The Meat Industry Association has signalled it is “alarmed”, farmer levy-funded B+LNZ is “deeply concerned” and has called for “critical changes”, Deer Industry NZ says the targets are “unrealistic”, while Federated Farmers believes they will “change the country not the climate.”

Who can blame them, with potentially a stellar few years ahead for returns for New Zealand from high-quality sustainably-produced grass-fed red meat and all the hard-fought trade negotiations. It looks like the $10.4 billion red meat sector could potentially be knee-capped by our own government, if targets aren’t achievable and tree-planting can’t be used to offset emissions, as has been suggested.

They argue the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report which suggested a reduction starting at 0.3 percent a year, will result in a 10-22 percent reduction by 2030 and ensure the gas causes no additional warming. B+LNZ’s Andrew Morrison says any target above that “is therefore asking methane to cool the planet.”

Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Dave Frame, a climate change specialist, was also surprised that the targets went well beyond the level needed to stabilise temperatures, “but it’s important to note that the steeper end of the range of possible methane cuts would only be triggered if the rest of the world gets much more serious about climate mitigation,” he says.

Of course, change is not only needed from the primary sector. At the NZACCC conference, the Interim Climate Change Committee’s chair David Prentice signalled his committee’s work recommendations for cabinet. To get carbon to net zero, they were recommending (among a raft of other things) a lift to 93 percent renewable energy by 2035, up from 82 percent now (a lift to 100 percent would be too expensive) and an expectation that 50 percent of the vehicle fleet will be electric and that at least 30 percent of process heat would be fuelled by electricity by the same date. Government leadership should be, and hopefully will be, aiming urgently to get both of those higher and reduce reliance on fossil fuel and lower carbon emissions.

Aware of those global eyes, film director James Cameron and his wife Suzy, both vegans, living and farming in New Zealand, preached to a crowd in New Plymouth a few days ago suggesting people move to a plant-based diet and cut back to one meal a day. I am sure they were very aware of their potential global audience, though maybe not local or global agricultural facts. But the extreme future they painted without any reduction in emissions was stark.

The red meat sector is not only New Zealand’s second largest export earner and a backbone of our economy, it is also the largest manufacturing sector and employer of 80,000 around the country directly and indirectly.

We are all heading into the unknown. We are putting the hard yards in. Government has come up with a negotiating starting point and it is now up to our best to put in a convincing counter offer. But it is a start on a better and possibly safer world for future generations.

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