Although sound science and an elegant logic underpin Simon Upton's recommendations for climate change, it appears politics might win the day once again writes Federated Farmers Policy Advisor Macaulay Jones.

In the countdown to the anticipated announcement by the coalition government on whether - or how – they will move agriculture into the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), a new report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was a curve ball the Coalition would probably rather hadn't been thrown.

Sound science and an elegant logic underpin Commissioner Simon Upton's recommendations in Farms, forests and fossil fuels: The next great landscape transformation?

In summary, the report said biological (methane and nitrous oxide from livestock) and fossil fuel (carbon dioxide) emissions should be treated separately, and only the former should have access to offsetting by way of tree planting.

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The logic was threefold:

• Methane and nitrous oxide stay in the atmosphere for relatively short periods, around 12 years and 120 years respectively, aligning better with the ability of trees to sequester (or store) carbon during their life cycle. The warming impacts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere go on for a thousand years or more.

• Biological emissions and carbon sinks (trees) are often co-produced and co-managed in our landscapes, and by treating them with an integrated approach, there would be opportunities to better incorporate other environmental co-benefits such as erosion control, water quality and biodiversity with the number, type and placement of trees.

• Carbon dioxide is the most significant global warming culprit. If transport, energy and other sectors that burn fossil fuels are able to offset emissions by tree planting, there is less pressure on them to hurry the switch to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton. Photo / Supplied

In Upton's words, without such an approach, New Zealand by 2050 might be able to claim "an accounting triumph", but in reality we'd still have only halved CO2 emissions when they need to be zero.

However, it appears politics, not science, might win the day once again.

It's easier for politicians to insist farmers must be taxed for the burps from their livestock than to tell everyone they have to pay even more for driving their beloved petrol car.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw thanked the PCE for its report but said in the interests of "policy stability and predictability for emitters and the forestry sector", the government would be relying on the (tweaked) NZ ETS to drive the changes we need to meet our Paris Accord commitments, and do our bit to help the planet stay under 1.5-degrees Celsius of global warming.

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If the Government decides to put agriculture under the ETS, hopefully these words from the PCE report will be front of mind:

"For biological emitters, the introduction of an emissions price would need to be at a pace that would allow time to develop efforts to improve on-farm measurement to accurately estimate emissions at the farm level and deploy new management techniques."

Also:

"Carbon dioxide has been the main driver of warming since pre-industrial times and currently traps significantly more heat than methane or nitrous oxide…Unless large reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are achieved, efforts to reduce methane and nitrous oxide will be of limited long-term value."

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

This sound reasoning from the PCE echoes the words from an international team of scientists, that included the University of Oxford's professor Myles Allen and Victoria University of Wellington's professor David Frame.

The team last year drew attention to the failure of internationally used tools to take into account the short lifetime of some greenhouse gases, such as methane.

Professors Frame and Allen are internationally renowned climate change experts and Allen was a lead chapter author in the IPCC's latest report.

Allen, who gave two public lectures in New Zealand last month, said that while carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced to zero as quickly as possible, methane emissions only need to come down by 10 per cent by 2050 (or around 0.3 per cent per annum), in order for methane emissions to no longer contribute to the warming of the planet.

In other words, a 10 per cent methane reduction by 2050, in global warming impact terms, is the same as net zero.

While methane is a short-lived gas, a 0.3 per cent reduction of methane per year is required to fully take into account the subtle lingering effects it has on the climate.

His analogy hammers the point home - a dairy herd with gently declining methane emissions has the same impact on warming as a de-commissioned coal-fired power station – that is none at all.

Macaulay Jones, Federated Farmers Policy Advisor. Photo / Supplied
Macaulay Jones, Federated Farmers Policy Advisor. Photo / Supplied

Allen suggested if farmers reduce their livestock emissions by more than 0.3 per cent, they should get credit for the cooling effect.

Or if we wish to tax modern farmers for the historic warming of their stable livestock herds then it would only be fair to tax others for their past contributions also.

So, anyone whose great-grandparents drove regularly or used electricity generated from coal may be in for a shock, or perhaps the beleaguered UK should receive a bill for all the greenhouse gases emitted during the industrial revolution?

Some have suggested faster lowering of methane could buy us time for carbon dioxide cuts.

Allen was adamant this would be a mistake, because even a dramatic reduction in short-lived greenhouse gases, such as methane, will have a small impact on future warming.

Modern New Zealand farmers are dependent upon a stable supply of electricity and fuel to perform a wide range of everyday tasks, such as milking cows, shearing sheep and harvesting crops.

Efforts to transition away from a fossil carbon emissions dependent economy will directly impact farmers and present a tremendous challenge to the industry.

In order to meet this challenge we must embrace innovation and be driven by sound science and not dismiss research, such as that by the PCE and Professor Allen, simply because it makes it more difficult to achieve emissions reduction targets through convenient accounting tools.

The task ahead for all New Zealanders looms large , but this task should be achieved through innovative technology, and not innovative accounting.