Dairy farmers could increase their profits and reduce their methane emissions by 20 per cent at the same time, right now, according to Green Party activist and former leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.
All it would take, she told the parliamentary select committee hearing submissions in Auckland on the Zero Carbon Bill, is to reduce the dairy herd and improve existing feed practices.
In a hard-hitting submission, Fitzsimons also warned that urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are "much more important" than setting long-term targets.
Significant progress is possible right now, she said. And recent research has suggested two types of emissions are much more dangerous than previously thought.
One is the danger from methane, the main greenhouse gas emitted by farm animals. The other is from pine trees, which make up the bulk of the Government's 1 billion trees programme.
The committee, chaired by National MP and climate change spokesman Scott Simpson, has been meeting in both Auckland and Christchurch since Thursday, and will reconvene in Wellington later in the week.
Fitzsimons appeared before the committee on Monday in a private capacity, bearing daffodils.
"I hope the flowers are from home," said Simpson, reminding the meeting that he is the MP for Coromandel, a seat formerly held by Fitzsimons.
"They are indeed," she said. "I picked them this morning in my garden."
The daffodils sat in a vase on the submitters' table as Fitzsimons ran through a list of issues.
"I want to start," she said, "by stressing the urgency of action. This is now an emergency. Governments have known about it for a long time but have done nothing."
She listed the key climate change conferences she had attended: Kyoto, in 1997, "when it really looked like progress would be made, but it wasn't"; then the Hague, then Copenhagen, "where the outcome was so terrible things went backwards".
She criticised the bill for focusing on targets. People pin their hopes on miracle solutions, she suggested, "a year saved now is worth many more later. Reductions are much more important than how fast we get to zero."
Fitzsimons said it was now known that methane is "enormously more powerful" than previously thought. The standard thinking used by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was that methane trapped 13 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2, when its life is considered over 100 years.
But methane deteriorates rapidly, so a better timespan is 20 years. "When that's applied, we can see methane is not 25 times more powerful, but 84 times."
And, she said, "20 years is the right timeline. If we haven't solved this in 20 years, it'll be too late."
But the good news for farmers was that they don't need to hope for some amazing new technology no one has thought of yet. She quoted research done by agricultural economist Peter Fraser, formerly of Treasury, into the "marginal cow".
"Fraser's work shows that more cows don't inevitably mean more profit," she said.
"It's the concept of diminished returns," said Scott Simpson.
"Yes that's right. If you feed cows better, and reduce the stock, you should be able to increase your profit and make a difference for the environment."
She said veterinarian and ecologist Alison Dewes has studied Waikato dairy farms and found a 20 per cent reduction in stock numbers will lead to better profit. Another researcher, Barry Ridler, has found the same. His work suggests "seriously overstocked farms would be more profitable if they reduced the number of cows by 30 per cent".
Fewer cows would mean more grass to go round and less need to import other feed.
Fitzsimons said Dewes' figure, 20 per cent, was twice the 10 per cent target proposed by the Zero Carbon Bill for 2030. "The bill undersells the good sense of farmers now," she said, "and that means it limits its ability to promote transformation."
She said the "big opponent" of this analysis is Fonterra. "They're committed to their 'velocity' mantra. They think more is always better. But it isn't true."
Select committee member Erica Stanford, a National MP, told Fitzsimons it was difficult getting to the heart of the debate on methane. "There seems to be so much difference of opinion and so much different science."
For example, she'd seen research that suggested imported feed, like palm kernels, could reduce methane emissions "quite significantly". Would it make sense, she asked Fitzsimons, for the issue to be referred to the Climate Change Commission for study, rather than expect the select committee to take a position?
Fitzsimons said "whole of life" studies were important, and added she thought farmers needed a signal now.
The contrary point of view was put to the select committee most forcefully by Federated Farmers, Auckland Division. Senior policy adviser Richard Gardner said his organisation believed an appropriate reduction in methane would be 10 per cent by 2050. The bill proposes 24-47 per cent by that date.
He described methane as a "short-lived gas that contributes almost nothing to global warming" and said the most important aspect of the Paris Agreement on climate change was the "particular fundamental priority of food security".
Gardner echoed Stanford's suggestion, saying the first preference of Federated Farmers is for methane targets to be set by the commission, not by Parliament.
Simpson asked, "Does that mean you would accept any decision of the commission, even if it was not to your liking?"
Gardner confirmed that it did.
Simpson also asked Fitzsimons about the trend to replace livestock farming with exotic forestry, especially pine.
She explained there is a problem with pine plantations, which had been highlighted by climatologist Jim Salinger, who is also due to submit to the select committee.
Salinger's concern is pinus radiata absorbs more heat from the sun than most types of vegetation. In doing so, the trees release compounds into the atmosphere that mop up methane-destroying chemicals.
Fitzsimons told the select committee she thought there was still a lot of marginal farmland currently devoted to sheep and beef that was "not particularly profitable" and would be better in forestry. But she said there should be a much greater focus on native species.
"Land on rolling country, however, should be used to produce food." On flat land she said she'd like to see the focus on market gardens and other horticulture.
She agreed with Simpson that some big changes to land use were coming, just as had happened in the Coromandel when pasture was converted to kiwifruit and avocado, and in Marlborough, when vineyards had taken over.
"There was a time when anyone suggesting those things would have been carried out of the room," he said. "But times change and we change with them."
Fitzsimons said it was "wrong to plant pine forests on fertile flat river valleys just to get carbon credits".
She also told the committee the bill was inconsistent with the Resource Management Act. "I won't have been the first submitter to point this out," she said, explaining that while the Zero Carbon Bill says councils "may" consider climate change in granting resource consents, section 104e of the RMA itself explicitly prohibits that.
"This will lead to massive litigation from both sides. Developers will invoke the RMA when a council tries to block a consent, and environmentalists will call on the new law when it doesn't."
"There are many ways to fix this," she added. "I think the best solution is to use this bill to repeal the relevant section of the RMA."
Fitzsimons was also critical of the mild language of the bill. "Saying 'may' isn't good enough. I think you can do better than that. Every decision of a public body should incorporate climate change. I'm not saying climate change should always trump everything, but it should be considered."
And, she said, if councils make decisions that for some reason increase emissions, "citizens should be able to take them to judicial review".
Net zero targets – which allow a greenhouse gas emitter to continue emitting but buy carbon credits to offset the damage – came in for special attention. "Net zero seems to be the escape clause. It doesn't really reduce emissions, it just allows for different ways to offset."
Fitzsimons said no more than 30 per cent of emissions should be subject to offsetting, "and that's generous - that ceiling should reduce over time". She also wanted a ban on the purchase of carbon credits offshore.
The committee has now finished its sittings in Auckland. Over three days, most submitters urged the MPs to strengthen the bill.