Comment: The Zero Carbon Act unjustly transitions Taranaki toward further uncertainty, writes Federated Farmers Policy Advisor Climate Change and Trade Macaulay Jones.

The Zero Carbon Act targets make it a double whammy for Taranaki from the coalition government.

As host of The Just Transitions Summit, the province's residents will be feeling justifiably hard done by after the Zero Carbon Act (ZCA) announcements earlier this week.

The recent ban on oil and gas exploration hit the Taranaki economy hard and the methane reduction target looks set to have a similar impact on the other lifeblood of the region - livestock agriculture.

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The ZCA sets out a 10 per cent gross methane reduction target for 2030, and a 24-48 per cent gross methane emissions reduction target for 2050.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

As methane is the gas that makes up three quarters of agricultural emissions, the farming sector, prevalent in vulnerable rural regions like Taranaki, is being told to go beyond being climate change neutral more than three times faster than other sectors of the economy.

These demands might be fair or reasonable if it was manageable, or even possible for livestock farmers to significantly reduce methane emissions without culling stock numbers.

However, this is not the case and despite years of hard work by researchers all over the world, including in New Zealand, there is still a fixed relationship between the feed consumed by a ruminant animal (cows, sheep, goats and deer) and the methane emissions they burp – about 22 grams of methane for every one kilogram of dry matter consumed.

Short of a silver bullet-like technological breakthrough, the ZCA targets will require severe cuts in the feed consumed by livestock, and therefore the numbers of livestock in New Zealand.

Fewer livestock will mean less income for small businesses and less employment in rural communities, fewer customers in local stores and fewer students in rural schools.

If the methane emission reduction targets are to be achieved, and the agricultural sector is forced to go beyond equivalent net zero carbon dioxide more than two decades before all others, then there are many jobs which will be required to be quickly transitioned justly into other unknown industries in Taranaki.

According to Infometrics, dairy farming and dairy processing were the two largest employers in the region in 2018 and meat processing and beef farming created the second and fourth most new jobs in the same period.

Farmers in regions like Taranaki are not only being asked to do more than their fair share to meet international climate change targets, but methane is bizarrely also the only gas in the ZCA which is not allowed to be offset.

Methane makes up about three quarters of agricultural emissions, yet despite being a short-lived greenhouse gas the harsh reduction targets require gross methane reductions, unlike all other greenhouse gases which are permitted to make net emission reductions.

This is in complete contradiction to the most recent independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) report, which recommended forestry offsets be limited to biological emissions, such as agricultural methane, and be prevented from being used for long-lived fossil emissions like carbon dioxide.

Flying in the face of the elegant PCE recommendations, the government has now put forward a policy where a carbon atom in a pine tree in South Taranaki is seen as being as securely locked away as one in coal a kilometre under the ground.

Astonishingly, under the ZCA a coal power station operator will be encouraged to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by buying up farms and blanketing them in pines, but a farmer will not be allowed to offset their biological methane by planting trees on their own land.

New Zealand farmers and rural communities like Taranaki are willing to do their bit, but the ZCA has set out a road map for a transition that is seemingly more just for some than others.