Comment: Time is running out to turn climate policy into a fairer, more scientifically robust direction, writes Steven Cranston.

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest our agricultural industry is making a net contribution to climate change and this Government knows it.

This seemingly bold claim flies in the face of everything our climate scientists, politicians, media and even farming leaders are telling us.

Several months of OIA exchanges with the Minister for Climate Change have now confirmed this statement beyond refute.

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But how could it be that agriculture, our largest emitter, an industry responsible for a full 48 per cent of our countries emissions may not actually be adding to climate change?

There are two main reasons for this, firstly the warming effect from methane is grossly overstated using existing accounting methods.

Secondly, no one has yet completed a net emissions budget which includes both emissions and the vast amount of carbon offsets from farm trees.

Read more: Climate Change Minister snubs two-tier Emissions Trading Schemes

All assertions to date have only included one side of the equation, this information on its own tells us nothing.

What is being omitted from the equation is the 1.4 million plus hectares of trees growing on farms around the country.

The 1.4 million hectare figure was derived from work done by Beef + Lamb NZ and relates only to sheep and beef farms - trees on dairy land will add hundreds of thousands more hectares to this total.

What little relevant information that was provided in OIA responses was telling.

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The Minister has confirmed that they hold no data at all relating to the area of trees or amount of carbon sequestered on farms.

Without half the data it is impossible to complete a net emissions budget and impossible to calculate agriculture's net contribution to climate change.

When the Minister for the Environment was asked how they concluded definitively that agriculture is adding to warming, the response was cynical.

"We don't have all the data but the data we do have suggests agriculture is adding to warming".

Not a surprising result when you only include the half of the data that fits the Government's narrative.

It would be easy to pass this off as an irrelevant distraction and assume that just because we don't understand the carbon offsetting capability of agriculture, it doesn't change the fact that farming is bad for the climate. Unfortunately for the Government, it does.

Multiple reports have now concluded that methane emissions only need to be reduced by a minuscule 0.3 per cent per year to avoid any further warming.

The just released 2017 MfE GHG Emissions Inventory shows that methane has been reduced by a full 3.4 per cent since 2014.

That's 1.1 per cent per year and well ahead of the no warming target.

Interestingly the 6 per cent increase in methane since 1990 was deemed more suitable for the report summary then the rapid 3.4 per cent reduction since 2014.

This is typical of how selective information is being used to build a case against farmers.

Agricultural and Environmental Consultant, Steven Cranston. Photo / Supplied
Agricultural and Environmental Consultant, Steven Cranston. Photo / Supplied

Methane's downward trend means farmers must only offset their nitrous oxide emissions to ensure no net contribution to warming.

If we assume a typical native forest sequesters around 8t of CO2 per hectare per year, the industry would only need around 1 million hectares of trees to be completely carbon neutral.

Rather than paying an ETS tax to the Government, agriculture could actually be selling surplus carbon credits to emitters that really need them like Air New Zealand.

So why are we ignoring the trees?

The Minister has insisted that all pre-1990 trees can not be included because of agreements made when we signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Luckily for farmers that rule no longer applies to the Paris Agreement so there is absolutely nothing prohibiting this Government from including all agricultural GHG inputs and outputs in the equation, however inconvenient they may be.

Read more: Steven Cranston: Good news for farmers on emissions

The Government's inability to calculate the net warming impact of agriculture will mean any ETS tax on agriculture is fundamentally flawed.

The Paris Agreement specifically relates to limiting warming, if we do not calculate the warming then we are simply placing an arbitrary tax on farmers without any way for them to measure success against the stated goal of the Agreement.

The debate should not about if farmers should be in the ETS or not.

An agricultural ETS is unavoidable in this era of increasing environmental awareness and if done right it should be embraced.

The real battle is for the hearts and minds of consumers.

Our industry requires a smart, science-based GHG scheme to compete against synthetic proteins and anti-agriculture marketing campaigns.

Minister for the Environment, James Shaw. Photo / Stuart Munro
Minister for the Environment, James Shaw. Photo / Stuart Munro

Indeed those campaigners would need to look no further than our own flawed ETS data for their ammunition.

The survival of many hill country farms and rural communities will depend entirely on the design of the Carbon Zero Bill.

Currently the policy is skewed towards corporate forestry companies who continue to snap up farms at a concerning rate.

It's these very hill country farms which have the most to gain from fair ETS policy.

Many are net sequesters of emissions and should be entitled to another valuable income stream.

I encourage all farmers to get along to the upcoming Interim Climate Change Committee consultations set for May and June.

Supposed advocates such as farming leaders and the National Party are letting farmers down badly and that shows no sign of changing.

Take responsibility for your own economic future and make your voices heard.

One simple question is all that's required. What must NZ agriculture do to avoid any further warming?

The fact there is not a substantive answer to this yet tells you everything you need to know about this flawed and highly politicised process.

- Steven Cranston is an agricultural and environmental consultant for Cranston Consulting based in the Waikato.