Agriculture is not being let off the hook when it comes to climate change says Sam McIvor, chief executive, Beef + Lamb New Zealand in this opinion piece.
We often hear agriculture is responsible for 48 per cent of New Zealand's annual greenhouse gas emissions and that agriculture is being "let off the hook" by the methane reduction targets in the Zero Carbon Act. The first point is misleading and the second one is plain wrong.
To see why, all you have to do is look at the science on methane in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC's) latest report.
There is a whole section on methane, which is vital to the discussion we are having in New Zealand, and it makes it clear there is a fundamental difference between emissions and warming.
The current metric used to report on annual emissions is GWP100, which is very effective in measuring the emissions and additional warming created by CO2, every unit of which remains in the atmosphere for over 1000 years.
However, the IPCC report states GWP100 is not a good metric to use for methane's warming impact as it overstates the effect of constant methane emissions on global surface temperature by a factor of three to four over a 20-year horizon.
Biogenic methane has been either stable or reducing nearly each year in New Zealand since 2001, and so its contribution to global warming is grossly overstated.
Beef & Lamb New Zealand is calling on the Government to report both on emissions of gas and warming each year so we can properly compare and understand the impact of each.
The most important line in the IPCC report is: a "0.3 per cent reduction per year in methane is equivalent to net zero for carbon dioxide" – so there is no additional warming from methane at this level of reduction.
Using the science in the report, a similar target to net zero for carbon by 2050 would be a 10 per cent reduction in methane. The report also says if methane is reducing by more than 0.3 per cent per year, then it is actually reversing previous warming.
New Zealand has set the target of a 10 per cent reduction in methane emissions (on 2017 levels) by 2030 and suggested a 24 to 47 per cent reduction by 2050.
The IPCC report makes it clear that by setting targets at this level, the Government is asking agriculture to do far more than be responsible for its own emissions. It is being asked to also cover the impacts of fossil fuel emitters. It is hard to see how that is being "let off the hook".
The differences in what are being asked of the gases makes this even more stark.
The Climate Change Commission's projections to get to net zero for CO2 are based on CO2 only reducing about 40-70 per cent by 2050, and the remaining emissions to be offset from trees (largely through the conversion of sheep and beef farms into forestry).
So CO2 emitters get to keep adding more and more additional warming every year up until 2050, while methane (which in a New Zealand context has not added any additional warming since 2001) has to start to 'cool' in a few years from now.
The methane reduction targets in the act will be reviewed in 2024 and the legislation specifically states this will be based on the latest science.
Climate scientists are primarily concerned (and rightly so) with keeping the overall rise in the planet's temperature under control but the reason many of them want to see sharp reductions in methane is because they want to use methane to cool to buy more time to reduce CO2.
According to the IPCC, it's going to be very difficult to reduce CO2 quickly enough and prevent global temperatures increasing by more than 1.5 degrees. They want to turn the dial down more quickly on methane so there is more of a chance to stay within the 1.5 degree goal.
This makes sense from a climate perspective but raises very interesting questions from an equity and fairness perspective.
If people want methane to cool because we can't reduce CO2 fast enough, farmers should be recognised and rewarded for doing this, rather than painting them as villains.
Some climate scientists say a target of only 10 per cent is letting agriculture off the hook as account must be taken of previous warming. This is a fair point, but our response is why isn't a similar approach being taken to CO2? If you apply the same logic then CO2 emitters should have to pay a charge to make up for all of their historic emissions over the past millennium.
Yes methane is increasing globally, it has a significant impact on warming – so it absolutely needs to be brought under control.
The red meat sector is committed to playing its part and to the He Waka Eke Noa Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership. We won't shirk from our climate change responsibilities but we want a fair and equitable framework.