Warning to farmers: Better to move on emissions now than face major shock later

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright says tree planting is a key way to address climate change.
PHIL REID/FAIRFAX NZ

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright says tree planting is a key way to address climate change.

OPINION: Excuse me ministers, there seems to be a ruminant in the room.

It's burping, and peeing. As they do.

And it's contributing to our agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, methane and nitrous oxide, which in contrast to most other countries account for about 50 per cent – and rising – of our overall emissions.

Emissions from agriculture make up half of New Zealand's greenhouse gases.
TONY BENNY/FAIRFAX NZ

Emissions from agriculture make up half of New Zealand's greenhouse gases.

Using the standard measures of their climate change effect, one tonne of methane is equivalent to 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while a tonne of nitrous oxide is equivalent to 298 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The sheep, cattle, deer, and goats – the ruminants – on our farms burp vast amounts of methane while most of the nitrous oxide comes from the urine of farm animals and the fertiliser we spread on our land.

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So the real beast to wrangle is why those gases are not in our emissions trading scheme (ETS), whether they should be, and if there is a regime that would send an economic signal to farmers while recognising the difficulty of making a significant impact on agricultural emissions.

The debate comes with some history; the successful attack in 2003 on the "fart tax" – misnamed because it was actually a levy on burping.

Treasury recently mused over some ideas, which could include the partial inclusion of agricultural emissions or weighting them within the ETS by their effect and longevity – with methane lasting only 12 years, though its warming impact lingers. 

Background papers released by Wright's office look at whether some big farms could be brought into the ETS as a pilot, and whether the benefit of a reduction in emissions should go to the many farmers who may produce it - and are more susceptible to the price signals from a carbon charge - or to the processors like Fonterra. 

But it seems there is nothing firm on the Government's radar, although it has set up the Biological Emissions Reference Group, which Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has welcomed.

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In her report on climate change and agriculture, released on Wednesday, Wright does not make specific recommendations on that score – and that will disappoint many.

But she has tried to move beyond the ETS – and the "polarising policy debate" about whether agricultural gases should be brought into the scheme.

If her office follows the template used for her two reports into sea level rise, the first will focus on the science and a second would delve more deeply into policy responses - and Wright left that option open, though it would come after she quits next June.

But she does send some signals and some important messages, within the bounds of her independent remit.

The first is that delay is no longer an option.

"The transition must begin. If we ignore the biological gases from agriculture, other sectors of the economy – and the taxpayer – will become increasingly squeezed."

The second, is that there is no technological or scientific "silver bullet". Yes, there are promising developments, such as wider use of additives fertiliser to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, as well as breeding and feeding choices.

But many effects are at the margins and some are just blue sky.  A vaccine against the methane-producing microbes in animals' stomachs would be a stellar option, though she questions whether it will ever exist.

She doesn't say it, though she could, that despite all the funding the Government has earmarked for research into reducing emissions we should stop relying on a breakthrough – and farmers needed to react now. 

And while Ministers have welcomed her report, they show no sign of the sense of urgency in Wright's words.

Her first best options are forestry and farm management; which is food we grow and how we grow it.

She sees room for up to a million hectares of regenerating forest on marginal land, but a change in the rules on what can be used as a carbon credit (forestry rules will be renegotiated in the wake of the Paris agreement) would helpfully allow the inclusion of smaller stands of trees and riparian planting that would give farmers a benefit and an "economic signal".

The third message is one that not-so-subtly harks back to the shock of the Rogernomics years, when cockies were forced to go cold-turkey on subsidies.

As she puts it: "Making a smooth transition to producing lower emission food is very important. Continuing delay just makes an abrupt transition more likely."

There are also threats on the horizon - including from synthetic milk and meat production - that will drive land use change.

Those who are looking in the report for an analysis of the targets for greenhouse gas reductions, how the ETS works, or the likely impact of climate change on agriculture, will be disappointed.

But it does provide the background to the question at the heart of the ETS and how we deal with agricultural gasses.

"What, if anything, should we do about the methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture?"

The answer in short?

"The transition must begin. If we ignore the biological gases from agriculture, other sectors of the economy – and the taxpayer – will become increasingly squeezed."

So more trees. Land-use change and diversity. Starting now.

 - Stuff

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