Science and practicality should underpin the climate change discussion but sometimes that's de-railed by politics writes Federated Farmers dairy chairperson, Andrew Hoggard.

Debate about how New Zealand will honour the commitments we gave under the 2015 Paris Agreement on global warming and climate change is – if you'll excuse the pun – heating up.

In the last few months a series of weighty reports on options and forecasts have been published, notably from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), the Productivity Commission (a whopper, at 620 pages), and earlier this month from BERG (the Biological Emissions Reference Group).

Along with more than 15,000 submissions made during consultation on the Government's Zero Carbon Bill, it's all feeding into the proposed legislation that will come before Parliament early next year.


Meanwhile, over in Poland at the COP24 negotiations, and the Action Agriculture side event at which Federated Farmers President Katie Milne is a speaker, delegates from all corners of the world are hammering out agreements on concrete measures that will lock in action on those lofty goals promulgated in Paris three years ago.

The goal is to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned that significant damage from global warming will occur at +1.5C, and has estimated we could hit that figure as early as 2030.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

Because 83 per cent of New Zealand's electricity is generated by hydro, wind and solar rather than by burning fossil fuels, we have a very unusual emissions profile, with agricultural producing 49 per cent of our total greenhouse gases inventory.

That can lead to finger-pointing when cities and towns are home to more than 80 per cent of New Zealanders - and thus 80 per cent + of voters.

Science and practicality should underpin the climate change discussion but sometimes that's de-railed by politics.

One uncomfortable truth for urban folk is that livestock methane emissions increased by only 4 per cent between 1990 and 2016 but carbon dioxide emissions jumped 35 per cent - transport being the big culprit.

Yet transport is in the ETS, and agriculture isn't.

If the ETS was the answer then surely those numbers should be reversed.


Also, as was demonstrated in Paris only last week, trying to tax people to spur change, which then hopefully encourages some other people to come up with solutions to allow them to change, can backfire.

Or more literally as in Paris, create fires when Molotov cocktails go through windows.

Here's another truth that almost all scientists agree on – biogenic methane doesn't need to be reduced to net zero.

In fact, research by scientists from Victoria (Wellington), Oxford and Reading Universities (UK) identifies that a 0.3 per cent reduction in biogenic methane per year until 2050 is all that's needed to have no additional warming impact (i.e. 10 per cent by 2050).

Even the PCE report indicates a range of 10-22 per cent reduction by 2050 (depending on what reductions other countries are able to make).

That doesn't mean farmers are off the hook.

We still have the thorny issue of nitrous oxide emissions (11 per cent of NZ's greenhouse gases) and our share of CO2 emissions. Discussions about more solar and wind power generation on farms, electric motorbikes and utes would be a good start.

An interesting finding from research commissioned by BERG was that agriculture may be able to reduce total emissions by to 5-10 per cent if all farmers operated using today's best practice.

While it's dangerous and unwise to pin all our hopes on technologies that our scientists and researchers are still developing and testing, BERG noted "medium to high confidence" that a vaccine with the potential to deliver a 30 per cent reduction in biogenic methane will be available by 2050, and "high confidence" a methane inhibitor for grazing systems can do the same by 2050.

We also need to look seriously at options for planting more trees on marginal land and expanding our horticulture sector – but not to such a drastic extent that we kill the viability of our sheep and beef sector, and the surrounding rural communities.

There is no sound case for putting agriculture under an Emissions Trading Scheme when no other country does this. That will just encourage production in less greenhouse gas efficient countries.

By demonstrating practical solutions to biological emissions, we can encourage other countries to boost their production efficiency to where we are already.

In a world already struggling to feed everyone, leadership is about farming smarter, and not simply farming less.