Comment: The Ministry for the Environment's greenhouse gas emissions tracking tool shows it's not just agriculture contributing to climate change, writes Federated Farmers Climate Change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard.

Unless large reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are achieved, efforts to reduce methane and nitrous oxide will be of limited long-term value.

That's a statement straight out of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's March 2019 report, Farms, forests and fossil fuels.

Simon Upton was underlining indisputable science that because Co2 is a long-lived gas, global average temperatures will not peak at any level until atmospheric concentrations of Co2 stop rising.

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He likened emitting carbon dioxide to turning up a thermostat that cannot easily be turned down.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

"By contrast," Mr Upton said, "biological greenhouse gases [methane, nitrous oxide] are removed more quickly from the atmosphere by natural processes. This means emissions do not need to go to zero to stabilise the atmospheric concentration (and warming contribution) of these gases."

All this is why the latest data from the Ministry for the Environment's greenhouse gas emissions tracking tool will be unsettling and confronting for all Kiwis committed to tackling global warming and meeting our international climate change commitments.

The tracker shows greenhouse gas emissions from 'Energy' (road transport and electricity production) rose 5.7 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

Emissions from 'Industrial Processes and Product Use' dropped 0.4 per cent in the same period, and emissions from 'Agriculture' went down 0.1 per cent.

 Federated Farmers Climate Change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Climate Change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied

Over a much longer period, 1990 to 2017, emissions from agriculture rose 13.5 per cent but during that same period greenhouse gases from industrial processes and energy/ transport jumped a massive 38.8 per cent and 38.2 per cent respectively.

Delving deeper into the figures for biological emissions, methane from farm livestock fermentation and manure rose 7.5 per cent between 1990 and 2017.

But between 2005 and 2017, methane emissions dropped 2.8 per cent.

The year 2005 is significant, because under the Paris Agreement 2005 is a marker year for measurement (i.e. New Zealand had pledged to reduce its greenhouse gases to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030).

The recent decreases are a welcome trend when one considers the strong scientific evidence from the international team led by Oxford University's Myles Allen and Victoria University of Wellington's Dave Frame that methane emissions need only be reduced by 0.3 per cent each year between now and 2050 to have no further global warming impact.

Keep in mind also, that the total number of dairy cattle increased 68.6 per cent from 3.84 million to 6.47 million between 1994 and 2017 (though the rate of this increase plummeted to just 0.45 per cent between 2012 and 2107) [Statistics NZ].

And between 2006 and 2017m the export value of Dairy, Beef and Lamb very nearly doubled, going from $10.811 billion to $19.778 billion.

So at a time of massive growth – and the earnings and employment this meant for New Zealand – production efficiencies by farmers kept emissions to relatively modest levels.

The other biological greenhouse gas is nitrous oxide, and farmers agree we need to up our game further on this front.

According to the MfE, New Zealand's N20 emissions increased 28.8 per cent between 1990 and 2017, but were stable at a 0.1 per cent decrease between 2005 and 2017.

Just for comparison, Co2 emissions from all New Zealand sectors rose a massive 75.7 per cent between 1990 and 2017, slowing to 4.1 per cent between 2005 and 2017.

Feds has always said all sectors need to take action – and that includes farmers.

But I do wish some commentators and lobby groups would stop pinning the blame badge on agriculture when clearly it's carbon dioxide which is our most pressing issue.

Farmers will need to play their part if we are to meet our Paris Accord commitments – and we also add to Co2 emissions with our vehicles and processing of our products.

But we will keep hammering the message home that small but sustained reductions in biological methane emissions will mean that source will not increase global warming.

New Zealand also needs to earn its way in the world if we are to meet all the demands for extra money for health, education, superannuation and welfare.

Putting agriculture under the ETS when biological emissions are already tracking down, and the real tools to get them down further are still being researched and developed, does nothing other than putting our farmers at an economic disadvantage compared to our trade competitors.