Comment: What does the Zero Carbon Bill mean for urban and rural New Zealanders? Federated Farmers policy advisor Macaulay Jones asks and answers questions on the bill, which he says traps livestock farmers between a rock and a hard place.

Q: Isn't a split gas target what the agricultural sector wanted?

A:

A split gas target for long and short-lived greenhouse gases is required to reflect the dramatically different reductions needed to have each gas no longer contribute to additional warming of the atmosphere.

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The reduction targets announced by the Government go above and beyond what is required for methane to reach net zero carbon dioxide equivalent. The target for methane itself is not viable.

Q: Who said biological methane doesn't need to reduce to net zero by 2050, like the other greenhouse gases?
A: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), the Productivity Commission and most recently the Climate Change Commission in the UK.

Most prominently, the internationally recognised climate scientists from Oxford (including Professor Myles Allen) and Victoria University of Wellington (including Prof. Dave Frame) have published research identifying a 0.3 per cent year-on-year reduction in biological methane would ensure that the gas had no additional warming impact. This equates to a 10 per cent reduction by 2050 (not 2020 as proposed by Government).

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

These scientists have been lead authors in chapters of IPCC reports.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton, in his March 29 report 'Farms, forests and fossil fuels' (pg. 80) said if New Zealand wished to stabilise the contribution of livestock methane to global warming at its 2016 level, it would need to reduce these emissions by 10-22 per cent by 2050.

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

Q: If farmers aren't required to get methane emissions down to net zero by 2050, as with the other greenhouse gases, isn't that letting agriculture 'off the hook'?
A: No. Methane emissions need to only slightly reduce to have no additional warming effect (equivalent to zero gross carbon dioxide emissions). This is because methane is a relatively short-lived gas in the atmosphere.

Under the Zero Carbon Bill targets farmers are being required to reduce another biological emission, nitrous oxide, to net zero by 2050.

Farmers (and processors) are also big users of transport and electricity to harvest/ process/get their goods to market, so like other New Zealanders and industry sectors they will bear the costs of reducing carbon dioxide to net zero by 2050.

Federated Farmers policy advisor Macaulay Jones. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers policy advisor Macaulay Jones. Photo / Supplied

Q: What's wrong with the tougher methane reduction targets and deadlines?

A:

The announced targets disregard the core principal of all gases being reduced equally in order to have the same impact in reducing global warming.

The 10 per cent reduction target for methane by 2030, goes beyond what is needed to achieve no further contribution to warming from methane.

This target is expecting farmers to reduce methane three times greater than required for methane to no longer contribute to additional global warming.

Essentially this means the 10 per cent methane target is required to be achieved two decades before the target for all other gases.

Apart from the obvious significant economic impacts this is also likely to have the counterproductive impact of increasing global warming, as no other agricultural exporting country is setting such tough methane targets.

Less efficient trade competitors will fill the market gap created by the reduced food production in New Zealand. This concept is known as "emissions leakage".

Q: Where does the figure of '24 per cent - 47 per cent' reduction for methane by 2050 come from?
A: There are no Government reports outlining the reasoning for the figures. The Government cannot provide any analysis of how they arrive at the 24 per cent - 47 per cent figure. The numbers are from the 2018 IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Note these are modelled 'scenarios', one of which includes a nuclear power option and another allows for an increase in nitrous oxide emissions.

Q: But can't farmers just plant trees to offset methane?
A: No. The Government has specifically prevented farmers from offsetting methane emissions. A coal power station will be allowed to offset its greenhouse gas emissions by buying up farms and planting pine trees but a farmer will not be allowed to offset their methane emissions by planting trees on their own land.

This is contradictory to the recent recommendations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who recommended a landscape approach to forestry offsets.

Under the PCE's landscape approach the use of forestry offsets would be limited to biological methane, and offsetting nitrous oxide would be limited to native vegetation, and fossil carbon dioxide would not be offset at all by planting trees.

The Government's Zero Carbon Bill announcement makes no distinction between fossil and biological greenhouse gases and operates in a reality where a carbon atom is as theoretically stable in a pine tree in Nelson as one in solid coal a kilometre under the ground.

Q: How can farmers reduce their emissions in order to reach the methane target?
A: Currently the only way livestock farmers can significantly reduce methane emissions is to feed less dry matter to livestock.

The Biological Emissions Reference Group (BERG) commissioned work that shows in order to significantly reduce livestock methane emissions in the future without cutting production many currently unavailable and uncertain technologies will need to be developed and commercialised.

The New Zealand agriculture sector is committed to continuing to fund this research and is hoping for a breakthrough that can significantly reduce methane emissions from the industry.

However, scientific breakthroughs are unpredictable and face a number of economic farm system, domestic regulatory, international regulatory and consumer willingness challenges if made technologically possible.