It is not a credible negotiating position for New Zealand to say that our largest contribution to warming – methane – is off limits when we have the option to reduce it.
That’s according to the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, Simon Upton. He told the recent Agricultural Climate Change Conference he was aware that Federated Farmers, and others, argue that all we need to do is show we’re not causing any more warming than we already are, “that reducing emissions just enough to get a nice flat line will do the trick.
“Under the Paris Agreement, New Zealand has an international obligation to do as much as it can to keep the 1.5 °C global goal within reach.”
Neither is it credible to say that global mitigation has failed so we may as well just get on with adapting. A 3–4 °C warmer world won’t be a very happy place for agriculture, he said.
“As a little country we need to argue hard for international action and we have no credibility if we seek a leave pass for our largest contributor.
“Neither should we be tempted by the argument that since we’re a little country it doesn’t make sense for us to develop the technologies needed to solve the world’s problems and that we should instead be a fast follower. That might be true of concrete or steel but when it comes to agricultural emissions, who are we waiting to follow?
“We have more skin in this game than others. We have serious research capacity. We have long congratulated ourselves on our productivity and resourcefulness. The logic all leads to the conclusion that we have to tackle this problem head on.”
Upton said there is pure self interest in this. We have an interest in continuing to sell products to high income markets where consumers are taking an increasing interest in the emissions footprint of their food and drink. Being able to show that New Zealand products are associated with the lowest possible emissions “will be essential if we are to continue to be a preferred supplier”.
Upton had started his talk by noting there was a huge legacy warming effect from deforestation of New Zealand to allow current land uses. While total livestock emissions have been roughly stable over the last two decades, the warming caused by them is still increasing.
Methane from livestock currently accounts for roughly 55% of New Zealand’s contribution to warming; nitrous oxide accounts for 14%, and fossil carbon dioxide accounts for the remaining 31%. These numbers are based on what you get if you put New Zealand’s emissions – in tonnes of each gas – into a climate model called MAGIC-C. They are not based on the much-maligned GWP100 or any other type of emissions metric, Upton said.
On another aspect, Upton was in agreement with Feds and other agricultural bodies when they argue fossil-fuel burning industries should not have unfettered ability to offset by planting pines.
“We should wean ourselves off this option,” he said. “Using whatever forestry stock we generate top offset the warming caused by our agricultural emissions might be more justifiable.” But he added that could only be part of the solution.
In the dairy sector, changing management practices can deliver moderate reductions in emissions – perhaps of the order of 10%. Examples include keeping livestock off pasture at sensitive times, once-a-day milking, improved effluent management, low-nitrogen feeds and reducing nitrogen fertiliser use. The practicality and impact on profitability of these practices varies from farm to farm.
Fewer options are currently available for changing management practices on sheep and beef farms, Upton acknowledged.
Longer term options hinge on ongoing research.
The Commissioner noted the $340m over four years recently committed by government to accelerate agricultural emission mitigations, with industry also committing to spend at least $35m per year by 2025. As the $340m is coming from the Climate Emergency Response Fund, “it is effectively being paid by the fossil fuel emitting sector of the economy.”
That sort of investment is well overdue, he said. All told, in the decade 2009-2018, the Government spent roughly $20 million per year on research into the emissions of a sector that in 2019 alone generated $24 billion in export earnings – “scarcely a level of investment commensurate with the value at risk and the urgency of finding a way forward”.
With a multitude of research organisations and projects, work is needed to prioritise and avoid duplication.
The Global Research Alliance has played a valuable role since it was set up in 2009, Upton said. An international team of researchers led by Tim Searchinger at Princeton University has identified several specific areas in which international collaboration could usefully be expanded, such as setting up a coordinated multi-year evaluation of promising methane inhibitors in 20 to 30 countries.
“However we arrange things, we must avoid a convoluted labyrinth of governance arrangements crippled by risk aversion and the temptation to second guess those most familiar with the field.”
Valuable lessons could be learned from the United Kingdom’s highly successful programme to develop Covid-19 vaccines. In 2020, the UK Government appointed a venture capitalist called Kate Bingham to head the UK’s new Covid-19 vaccine taskforce. Bingham put together a steering group of nine people, mainly from the private sector. She later said that one of the factors behind the success of the programme was that they resisted the temptation to penny-pinch.
She also suggested that government ministries are often far too risk averse and can learn from a venture capitalist mindset, where a proportion of failures is acceptable.
“Clearly, developing a Covid-19 vaccine is not the same thing as developing a methane vaccine. But I agree with Professor [Frank] Convery [who visited NZ last year] that the UK experience is worth reflecting on as the New Zealand Government decides how it is going to empower its new Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions and galvanise sustained focus on its central mission, which is to see management changes and on-farm mitigation technologies deployed at scale within a reasonable time frame.”
Quick bites from other speakers at the Agricultural Climate Change Conference:
Rod Carr, Climate Change Commissioner: “Would it be different if the world had split gas targets? Would it make New Zealand circumstances different or easier? It’s far from clear that it would. But one thing is clear that under the Paris Agreement, no future NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) can be less ambitious than the one we already have.
“So even if WE were to propose an NDC with split gases, the world would calculate our obligation under it, using the internationally accepted process of equilibrating effort. In other words, it’s not a cheap, get out of jail free card. We are on the hook for a dramatic and sustained reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions measured, not the way we would like it to be, but the way the world has agreed it will be.”
Minister of Agriculture and Trade, Damien O’Connor: When asked if we would face trade barriers if we don’t successfully reduce methane emissions the minister said – “Not immediately. But if I take our single biggest company [Fonterra], and their single biggest customer – Nestle. They have committed to eliminate emissions from their supply system supply chains. I’m not sure how Nestle will apply that to their individual suppliers, but clearly those kinds of signals mean that there are risks emerging, and we may face barriers.”
O’Connor, who led negotiations for UK and EU trade and the upgraded China Free Trade Agreement, said his experience was that international markets could take or leave us; we are not a big player in terms of world food security. But we can play a significant part in ag emissions reduction technology.
“We’re going to have to be at the forefront, as we have been in the past on food safety, food quality, premiumisation, marketing…Over time, if we ignore this, we do so at our own peril and risk to future generations.”