The announcement that methane will be treated differently from other gases under the Zero Carbon Bill ought to be good news for farmers, but it isn’t:
New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector is deeply concerned over the proposed treatment of methane and targets in the Zero Carbon Bill and is calling for critical changes to the bill.
The proposed methane reduction targets of between 24-47 percent by 2050 significantly exceed both New Zealand and global scientific advice and the government is asking more of agriculture than fossil fuel emitters elsewhere in the economy.
The government wants to turn productive farm land into forests and it’s also asking too much of farmers in its methane target.
New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector is committed to playing its part in addressing climate change and acknowledges that in some areas the government has followed scientific advice, such as the split gas approach and proposed ambitious net zero target for nitrous oxide.
“Sheep and beef emissions have already reduced by 30 percent since 1990, helping meet New Zealand’s climate change challenge and we accept we still have work to do,” says Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s (B+LNZ) Chairman and Southland sheep and beef farmer Andrew Morrison.
“New Zealand needs a robust science-based and fair approach when setting targets for an issue which will affect future generations.
“It’s unreasonable to ask farmers to be cooling the climate, as the government’s proposed targets would do, without expecting the rest of the economy to also do the same.
It’s also unfair to expect farmers to follow the science on the need to reduce emissions while ruling out genetic modification which could be an affordable and effective tool for doing so.
“Beef + Lamb New Zealand is calling for a fair approach, where each gas is reduced based on its warming impact. An equitable approach requires carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide to go to net zero, and methane to be reduced and stabilised by between 10-22 percent. This is consistent with the advice from the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment who identified this range as meaning methane would be contributing no additional warming. Any target above a 10-22 percent reduction is therefore asking methane to cool the planet.
“In addition to our 30 percent reduction in emissions, sheep and beef farmers have also conserved 1.4 million hectares of native forest, an area the size of Hawke’s Bay, which is capturing significant quantities of carbon and cooling the planet, which when combined with our free range, naturally-raised farming systems enables our farmers to produce beef and lamb at a lower carbon footprint than many other countries.
“Not allowing trees to offset biological methane, as is allowed for fossil fuel emitters, exacerbates the unequal playing field, and is completely counter to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
It’s even more galling when a lot of those trees are planted on farmland.
“As a sector which set a goal of being net carbon neutral by 2050, the ability for farmers to offset biological methane on farm through tree planting is a key tool that farmers should be allowed to access.”
The sheep and beef sector is also urgently calling on the government to be transparent and release all the advice on which they based its decision.
“The government’s decision appears to fly in the face of international scientific evidence, which supports reducing and stabilising methane by 10-22 percent as equivalent to net carbon zero.
“As the Zero Carbon Bill currently stands, it will have a dramatic impact on New Zealand’s regional communities and the entire economy, and the knock-on effect will be felt by every Kiwi.”
New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector is worth approximately $10.4 billion, is the country’s largest manufacturing sector, the second largest export earner, and supports 80,000 jobs across the country, both directly and indirectly.
New Zealand’s emissions are around 0.17% of the global total.
If anything we do was going to make a significant difference the economic sacrifice might – just might – be justified. But when anything we do is insignificant on a global scale there is no justification for economic sabotage.
“These jobs form the heart of hundreds of regional communities. The social and economic impacts of these potential changes will reverberate beyond the farm gate and hollow out the many regional communities who rely heavily on our sector,” says Mr Morrison.
“Beef + Lamb New Zealand will continue supporting research into greenhouse gas mitigations, as well as its ongoing work with farmers to help them further reduce the methane emissions from their livestock.”
DairyNZ has similar concerns about the methane target:
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle has reconfirmed the dairy sector’s commitment to play its part to reduce its biological emissions, and supports the intent of the direction of the Zero Carbon Bill.
“Our farmers are committed to sustainable farming practices, and need long-term certainty to make business decisions based on reduction targets. We are pleased the Government has listened to the science regarding the short-lived nature of methane, recognising it has a different impact on the environment,” says Dr Mackle.
“DairyNZ supports a science-based approach, where each gas is reduced based on its warming impact. We have not yet seen the Government’s analysis behind the 2050 target range. The 2050 target, of reducing methane by 24 to 47 per cent, is based on global scenarios that are not grounded in the New Zealand context. This range for methane, combined with reducing nitrous oxide to net zero, goes beyond expert scientific advice for what is necessary for New Zealand agriculture to limit global warming to no more than at 1.5° C.
“It is very important to get the range right. If we get this wrong it will have significant impacts on not just the dairy sector, but the economic, social and cultural wellbeing of New Zealand.
“While we can support much of what is in the Zero Carbon legislation, we will be pushing for the range to be reviewed and aligned with the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, of 10-22 per cent reduction in methane. When combined with our commitment on nitrous oxide to net zero, this is an equitable, yet ambitious and challenging target, that is grounded in robust science.
“We know our farmers will be concerned by the 47 per cent and what that might mean for their livelihoods. It is not set in stone, and the Bill includes a number of criteria for review including availability of mitigation options, what other countries are doing, and reduction efforts by other sectors.
“New Zealand is already one of the lowest emissions producers of dairy nutrition in the world per kilogram of milksolids and we want to build on that advantage. Climate change is a global issue and it is good for the world if dairy production stays in New Zealand where we have low emissions for the amount we produce. We believe our premium, grass-based, high nutrition dairy will continue to be in demand well into the future, alongside a range of other options consumers may have.
Sabotaging dairying here will increase global emissions as production from less efficient producers elsewhere is increased to make up the shortfall.
“The 2030 reduction target is the first step, which we know will be very challenging. But there is action that farmers can take, and are already taking, to reduce on-farm emissions. The first step is to understand their emissions and where they come from. As part of our pan-sector Dairy Tomorrow strategy, over the next 5 years each farm will have a farm-specific plan to manage and reduce these emissions.
“DairyNZ remains focused on researching and developing tools to help farmers make choices for how to reduce emissions – through farm systems changes and new technologies. It will take time for some of these tools to develop. We will continue working closely with government to ensure all efforts on farm are recognised, and expert advice and training is made available. This support is a vital part of a fair transition.
Federated Farmers says the methane target will change the country not the climate:
Targets released today for farming’s methane emissions are going to send the message to farmers that New Zealand is prepared to give up on pastoral farming.
“This decision is frustratingly cruel, because there is nothing I can do on my farm today that will give me confidence I can ever achieve these targets”, Federated Farmers vice president and Climate Change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard says.
New Zealand farmers are already playing their part in tackling global warming, and are willing to do more.
“But hearing the government setting arbitrary targets based on a random selection of reports and incomplete data will leave some farmers wondering; ‘what is the point’?
“The 10% reduction target for methane by 2030 gives us a deadline for going beyond net zero more than 20 years earlier than for any other sector of New Zealand. It is unheard of anywhere else on the planet,” Andrew says.
The targets are significantly higher than what is necessary to be equivalent to net-zero carbon dioxide.
The announced methane reduction target for 2050 of 24-50%, when coupled with the target of net zero for nitrous oxide, requires the New Zealand agriculture sector to reduce its emissions by 43-60%.
“Let’s be clear, the only way to achieve reductions of that level, is to reduce production. There are no magic technologies out there waiting for us to implement.
“At this point in time we have no idea how to achieve reductions of this level, without culling significant stock numbers.
“All Kiwis need to ask themselves one simple question: ‘if we cut our agricultural production by up to 50% over the next 30 years, what is the country going to do for jobs, taxes and community investment, in the future?”
There is no practical, sustainable or viable answer to that question.
In complete contradiction to the most recent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report, New Zealand farmers will also not be able to offset their methane emissions by planting trees.
“Large fossil carbon dioxide polluters can offset their emissions by continuing to buy up land and putting it into forestry, but farmers will not be able to offset their methane emissions by planting trees on their own land.
“Basically pastoral farming is being used to buy the rest of New Zealand time to deal with the fundamental driver of climate change – increased carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the greenhouse gas the government obviously finds too politically hot to handle.”
This government keeps talking about fairness then introducing policies that are anything but fair.
Q: Isn’t a split gas target what the agricultural sector wanted?
A: A split gas target for long and short-lived greenhouse gases is required in order to reflect the dramatically different reduction needed in order to have each gas no longer contribute to additional warming of the atmosphere. The reduction targets announced by the Government go above and beyond what is required for methane to reach net zero carbon dioxide equivalent. We welcome a split gas target but the target for methane itself is not viable.
Q: Who said biological methane doesn’t need to reduce to net zero by 2050, like the other greenhouse gases?
A: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), the Productivity Commission and most recently the Climate Change Commission in the UK.
Most prominently, the internationally recognised climate scientists from Oxford (including Professor Myles Allen) and Victoria University of Wellington (including Prof. Dave Frame) have published research identifying a 0.3% year-on-year reduction in biological methane would ensure that the gas had no additional warming impact. This equates to a 10% reduction by 2050 (not 2020 as proposed by Government). These scientists have been lead authors in chapters of IPCC reports.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton, in his 29 March 2019 report ‘Farms, forests and fossil fuels’ (pg. 80) said if New Zealand wished to stabilise the contribution of livestock methane to global warming at its 2016 level, it would need to reduce these emissions by 10-22% by 2050. He said: “Unless large reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are achieved, efforts to reduce methane and nitrous oxide will be of limited long-term value.”
Q: If farmers aren’t required to get methane emissions down to net zero by 2050, as with the other greenhouse gases, isn’t that letting agriculture ‘off the hook’?
A: No. Methane emissions need to only slightly reduce to have no additional warming effect (equivalent to zero gross carbon dioxide emissions). This is because methane is a relatively short-lived gas in the atmosphere.
Under the Zero Carbon Bill targets farmers are being required to reduce another biological emission, nitrous oxide, to net zero by 2050. Farmers (and processors) are also big users of transport and electricity to harvest/process/get their goods to market, so like other New Zealanders and industry sectors they will bear the costs of reducing carbon dioxide to net zero by 2050.
Q: What’s wrong with the tougher methane reduction targets and deadlines?
A: The announced targets disregard the core principal of all gases being reduced equally in order to have the same impact in reducing global warming. The 10% reduction target for methane by 2030, goes beyond what is needed to achieve no further contribution to warming from methane. This target is expecting farmers to reduce methane 3 times greater than required for methane to no longer contribute to additional global warming.
Essentially this means the 10% methane target is required to be achieved two decades before the target for all other gases.
Apart from the obvious significant economic impacts this is also likely to have the counterproductive impact of increasing global warming, as no other agricultural exporting country is setting such tough methane targets. Less efficient trade competitors will fill the market gap created by the reduced food production in New Zealand. This concept is known as “emissions leakage”.
Q: Where does the figure of ‘27% – 47%’ reduction for methane by 2050 come from?
A: Good question. There are no Government reports outlining the reasoning for the figures. The Government cannot provide any analysis of how they arrive at the 24%- 47% figure. The numbers are from the 2018 IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Note these are ‘scenarios’, one of which includes a nuclear power option and another allows for an increase in nitrous oxide emissions.
Q: But can’t farmers just plant trees to offset methane?
A: No, the Government has specifically prevented farmers from offsetting methane emissions. A coal power station will be allowed to offset its greenhouse gas emissions by buying up farms and planting pines trees but a farmer will not be allowed to offset their methane emissions by planting trees on their own land.
This is contradictory to the recent recommendations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who recommended a landscape approach to forestry offsets. Under the PCE’s landscape approach the use of forestry offsets would be limited to biological methane, and offsetting nitrous oxide would be limited to native vegetation, and fossil carbon dioxide would not be offset at all by planting trees.
The Government’s Zero Carbon Bill announcement makes no distinction between fossil and biological greenhouse gases and operates in a reality where a carbon dioxide molecule is as theoretically stable in a pine tree in Nelson as one in solid coal a kilometre under the ground.
Q: How can farmers reduce their emissions in order to reach the methane target?
A: Currently the only way farmers can reduce methane emissions is to feed less dry matter to livestock. The Biological Emissions Reference Group (BERG) commissioned work that shows in order to significantly reduce livestock methane emissions in the future without cutting production many currently unavailable and uncertain technologies will need to be developed and commercialized, including genetically modified ryegrass crops.
This is yet another aspirational policy from the government without a plan and without a scientific basis.
It’s also another example of a policy that won’t make a measurable environmental difference but will come at a high social and economic cost.