Two important documents have been released recently that will inform decision-making for the red meat sector and guide its current leaders and the next generation towards a low-emissions future for New Zealand by 2050. The task ahead for the sector is clear: reduce methane emissions from livestock by up to a fifth by 2050; change the use of some of the land to forestry; and join the rest of the population in transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity and other low-emission energy sources.
The first, the New Zealand Productivity Commission (NZPC)’s final report on this country’s Transition to a low emissions economy, is a weighty and detailed tome of 600+ pages that requires careful reading. Released on Tuesday, this pulls all information together into one document, including transitions pathway modelling from Vivid Economics (London), Concept Consulting and Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.
This recommends a number of priorities for Government. First is the establishment of the climate change legislation – the Zero Carbon Bill is currently progressing through Parliament – the establishment of an independent Climate Change Commission to advise Government and the reform of the current Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS).
Stronger ETS pricing is also recommended, as foreshadowed by NZPC chair Murray Sherwin at the Red Meat Sector Conference to incentivise change more quickly including the lifting of prices per tonne of carbon dioxide. This will lift from $24 per tonne to at least $75/tonne and possibly to over $200/tonne as 2050 is approached. All long-lived gases, carbon-dioxide and nitrous oxide will be included, alongside short-lived biogenic methane emissions from livestock and waste sources. However these should be treated differently.
“Putting biogenic methane within either a dual cap NZ ETS or an alternative methane quota system, will incentivise reductions of biogenic methane in recognition of its nature as a short-lived GHG,” the report says.
Targets could be set within the legislation, it suggests. The costs are likely to be imposed on the ‘point of obligation’ at production, rather than on meat processors as currently.
Significantly more resources should be devoted to low-emissions innovation to lower the costs of emissions reduction, alongside expanding low emission electricity and massively accelerating forest planting of native and exotic species, the report recommends. At least some of the planting is envisioned taking place on “marginal” sheep and beef land.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the report makes clear action is needed now for a low-emissions future.
“The Government will now consider the Commission’s report alongside the more than 15,000 submissions received during consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill, together with other advice on how we can move to a low emissions economy,” he says.
“Early action will give communities the time, the tools and the options to benefit from new economic opportunities that can come from this transition.”
Work is underway on how methane from agriculture and waste should be treated and how industries and agriculture can develop ways to reduce emissions while maintaining profitability, he noted, adding in the farming sector he had met farmers who are already finding financial benefits from lower emissions practices that have significantly reduced their costs.
Modelling assumptions for sheep and beef wrong, says B+LNZ
While acknowledging the NZPC report endorses the split gas approach for long- and short-term emissions, however, Beef + Lamb NZ Ltd (B+LNZ) has contested the underlying assumptions of the economic modelling as “wrong” and therefore the pathways identified to get to carbon zero that have been used in relation to sheep and beef farms.
B+LNZ chief insights officer Jeremy Baker points to inflation-adjusted average sheep and beef farm profitability having nearly doubled since 1990.
“With 2018-2019 looking like the third best year for profit for the average sheep an beef farm since deregulation in the mid-1980s, the Productivity Commission’s description of sheep and beef farming as ‘marginal’ simply doesn’t add up,” he says.
He also contests the NZPC’s assumption that sheep and beef livestock numbers will continue to contract.
“While total livestock numbers may be down on 1990 levels, we’re now seeing the decline in sheep numbers plateau and beef cattle numbers level off,” he explains. “With research showing growing international demand for New Zealand’s premium grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free red meat, B+LNZ broadly expects livestock numbers to remain relatively static as farmers look for more efficiency gains from the same number of animals.”
Since 1990, sheep numbers have reduced by 50 percent and beef cattle numbers by 23 percent, with the sector reducing its carbon emissions by over 30 percent on 1990 levels. At the same time, Baker says, there have been major productivity improvements which have seen the volume of sheepmeat production remain at similar levels and the value of exports double.
“Our sector has made a major contribution to carbon reduction already and has set a target of being carbon neutral by 2050,” he says. “We absolutely accept there is more scope on beef and sheep farms for additional planting of native and exotic forestry, but this needs to be driven by accurate economic information so farmers can be confident in the investment decisions they’re making on their land.”
With the sheep and beef sector directly and indirectly supporting the jobs of 80,000 New Zealanders, generating some $7.5 million in exports for New Zealand and representing 3.2 percent of New Zealand’s GDP, Baker says it is vital the decisions are informed by accurate information.
Evidence-based methane debate
The NZPC report follows the Note on New Zealand’s methane emissions from livestock authored by climate change expert Dr Andy Reisinger and released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), Simon Upton, last week.
This precedes a major report on biological sources and potential sinks, due for publication later this year, and provides a grounded scientific basis for discussions about mitigation of methane emissions. It makes an important contribution to understanding the complex science relating to the behaviour of the different gases.
“It shows that holding New Zealand’s methane emissions steady at current levels would not be enough to avoid additional global warming,” says Upton, who is not endorsing a specific climate target or approach for reducing livestock methane or other greenhouse gases (GHG) but says he would like to see an evidence-based debate on how best to approach the task.
The report reminds that while methane is a short-lived gas, it is a more potent GHG amplifying the warming effect – one tonne of biological methane traps approximately 33 percent more heat than a tonne of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, writes Reisinger.
Professor Dave Frame from Victoria University of Wellington’s school of geography, environment and earth sciences notes there are three main scientific points readers should take away from the report.
“One is that you could keep around 80-90 percent of New Zealand’s current methane emissions and not cause further warming by 2050. That’s pretty consistent with ‘Option 2’ as set out in the recent Ministry for the Environment consultation document, though the report is careful not to say so.
“A second point is an endorsement of the Global Warming Potential approach a group of us suggested earlier in the year,” he says. “A third point, not highlighted but certainly clear from the results is that reductions in methane emissions at faster rates than 0.3 percent per year lead to a cooling of the climate.”
Frame also notes that while methane emissions dominate New Zealand’s historical warming legacy, carbon dioxide will dominate future warming legacy, unless we enact strong policies on fossil fuel emissions.
“We should not take that action for granted. It should be the overwhelming focus of climate policy,” he believes.
Methane emissions will need to lower by 10-22 percent by 2050
B+LNZ has welcomed the PCE report, with general manager policy and advocacy, Dave Harrison, noting it says that if New Zealand wishes to ensure that methane from livestock contributes no additional warming beyond current levels, methane emissions from all livestock will need to be reduced from 2016 levels by between 10 – 22 percent by 2050, and 20 – 27 percent by 2100.
He acknowledges that for New Zealand to meet its international commitments all sectors of the economy have a role to play and B+LNZ has set a target of being net carbon neutral by 2050.
“We recognise that for New Zealand to have a meaningful role in combating climate change all sectors need to play their part, but there also needs to be recognition of the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions reduction that sectors have already made since 1990,” he says, adding since 1990 the sheep and beef sector has reduced its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent due to efficiency gains.
B+LNZ is currently working to understand the extent of the sequestration already occurring on sheep and beef farms from the 1.4 million hectares of native forest and 180,000 hectares of pine plantation on those farms. This was highlighted in a recently released report from University of Canterbury’s Professor David Norton.
“We believe this is making a significant contribution to offsetting New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the sector is currently not getting recognition for this,” says Harrison.
It is clear, however, that technology – such as, but not only, the methane inhibitors and vaccine being developed by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre – will be key for our leaders in shaping the low-emissions future for this sector and setting an example for the world.