By Andrew Hoggard, President Federated Farmers of New Zealand
OPINION: The recent Climate Change Commission report had in it some useful recommendations and themes along with other points that are questionable. Pleasingly, the report does not ignore, but also does not fixate, on agricultural emissions. The public discourse In New Zealand for decades has largely been that ‘agriculture is the number one issue and only farmers need to act’ but this report has moved on from that unhelpful rhetoric.
This report makes clear that all New Zealanders and all sectors need to make changes to do our bit on global warming. Our media struggled to realise that. I’ve certainly taken plenty of phone calls from journalists since the report came out in which they appeared to still be fixated on farm emissions being the problem. But hopefully the point that action is needed from all of us will sink in over time as more people get their heads around what the Commission is saying.
The report did a good job of splitting up the gases. It talked about the long-lived and the short-lived gases and distinguished between them. For a number of years now a good number of the world’s top (actual) climate scientists, have been pointing out that short-lived flow gases like methane just need to stabilise or have a small reduction to ensure no additional atmospheric warming, but long-lived gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) need to go to absolute zero. It was also pleasing to see that the report pointed out agriculture contributed only 18% of New Zealand’s long-lived gases. In the past we have been bombarded with the 50% number when they go and do the inaccurate conversion of methane into CO2 equivalents. We now just need the New Zealand government to stop using this outdated method of lumping all gases together, and to embrace the split gas approach, when presenting graphs and data on NZ’s national emissions inventory .
Over the last few years the wholesale purchase of farmland to go into pine trees for carbon farming has been of major concern to rural communities. This report helpfully points out that we can’t keep doing that because it just temporarily masks the need to reduce CO2 emissions. However, it then falls down a bit by kicking the can down the road to 2050 to stop this use of offsetting, and still expects more afforestation to occur. There is mention of the need to recognise smaller planting in terms of offsetting, so that would be useful. But I believe we are still ignoring the long-term consequences here in order to hit short-term targets.
Other positive aspects of the report are that the commission recognises the need for more investment in agricultural research and development; that we need to consider the use of genetic technologies and how they may help us; that rural connectivity needs to be improved if farmers are to access technology and data that will help them monitor and reduce on-farm emissions. And the Commission also acknowledged that New Zealand farmers are already leading the world in terms of low emissions per kilogram of meat and milk produced, which did make the Chair’s comment to media comparing farmers to whalers rather odd, and quite frankly very disappointing.
Where does the report not sit well with me? Well, obviously the area that got the most attention was around cutting livestock numbers. It’s important to get the context of that section. The commission in our initial reading was saying that it is expecting drops in livestock numbers due to land use change that has been occurring, and from other government policies such as water regulations, but also expects production to remain the same given past efficiencies continuing. The Paris Agreement talks about the need to maintain food production to feed the growing world population. In further discussion of the report when the Commission was asked ‘what if we can’t maintain production, do we continue to cut?’, its view was that emission reductions should be prioritised over food production.
This shows how inNew Zealand, we continue to lose sight of what the long-term outcome is supposed to be and instead fixate on short-term targets. The planet’s population needs nutrition and while the bulk of that will come via plants, animal-sourced proteins play an important role in the provision of many of the essential nutrients. An individual maybe able to source what they need via plants alone but try to do that at a global scale and it’s clear that affordability and animal proteins have a key role to play.
Given that it makes the most sense to do that animal agriculture where it can be done the most efficiently and affordably, the last place on the planet that should be cutting back its livestock population based solely on climate change reasons is New Zealand.
Federated Farmers’ other main area of concern with this report is the methane targets. The science tells us the cuts being recommended are more severe than are needed for biogenic methane from our farms to have no additional warming impact. It’s important to note that the numbers in this report are not a review of the methane targets in the Zero Carbon Act; these will be reviewed in 2024. Farming nations around the world have more work to do to show political leaders a more accurate, science-led metric for measuring the different impacts of short and long-lived gases is fair and warranted.