Comment: Climate change is more about burning fossil fuels than the farming of animals, writes Federated Farmers climate change spokesman Andrew Hoggard.

To borrow the words of climate champion Al Gore, the "inconvenient truth" about climate change is that it's more about the burning of fossil fuels than the farming of animals.

It is inarguable that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the world's No 1 global warming culprit, and that's no less so in New Zealand, never mind our significant pastoral farming profile.

During the Just Transition climate change conference earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans for a clean energy centre in Taranaki.

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That's a welcome start because, buried deep in her speech she acknowledged the crux of achieving real and lasting reductions in New Zealand's contribution to global warming, namely the intention to "…invest in early stage research into cutting edge energy production".

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

The conference saw the same old myths about New Zealand's contribution to global warming trotted out.

While we can admire the talent behind the Titanic and Avatar films and their ex-Canadian, now New Zealand, producer James Cameron, great care should be taken when greater weight is given to the views of celebrities than scientists.

The Camerons' championing of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is appreciated – what is not appreciated is when the solutions presented are inaccurate and a diversion.

Everyone becoming vegetarian or a vegan will not save the planet or automatically make its people better off.

New Zealand is a world leading food producer, with the greenhouse gas footprint per kilogram of milk and red meat produced on our shores being much lower than almost all of our international competitors – and lower than for many-plant based proteins.

Those who eat New Zealand meat and drink New Zealand milk have no need to feel guilty for doing so, and provided they eat a balanced diet that includes a good serving of fresh fruit and vegetables, should be able to lead a healthy life.

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Equally, those who choose to obtain their protein from plant-based sources should be free to do so and not be ridiculed for it.

New Zealand feeds 10 times our own population, meaning we're doing our bit towards another crisis for mankind – feeding a world population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

To make no contribution to additional warming (i.e. a carbon zero equivalent), the methane emissions from our livestock sector need to reduce by an average of 0.3 per cent per

Federated Farmers climate change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers climate change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied

Reaching this target without culling stock will require the application of new, unproven technology but our farmers can commit to such a target as nations strive to tackle global warming.

We have made some progress already, with biogenic methane emissions in New Zealand being 1.3 per cent lower in 2017 compared to 2012.

But instead of this science-based stretch target, the Zero Carbon Bill proposes an unfair, and (without the decimation of farmer livelihoods and the national economy) unachievable, target of 10 per cent methane reduction by 2030, and 24-47 per cent reductions by 2050.

The agricultural sector will put its shoulder to the wheel but it should not be expected to make between three and six times the contribution expected of others.

A range of gases present in the atmosphere affect global temperature – too much and the atmospheric temperature rises, the icecaps shrink and we slowly cook; too little and the temperature falls and we eventually freeze to death.

A bit like a balanced diet, we need to get the mix right.

The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Each gas has a different warming effect and lasts a significantly different length of time in the atmosphere.

While each molecule of methane and nitrous oxide have a greater impact on global warming, neither - especially methane – last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Photo / File
Photo / File

The source of methane burped by ruminants (cattle, sheep and deer) is the carbon dioxide sequestered by pasture.

Within a relatively short time in the atmosphere, methane reverts back to carbon dioxide.

The global warming effect of ruminant methane is eliminated once the methane reverts back to its source, carbon dioxide, stored in growing pasture.

It's a closed loop. This is also why burning biomass, such as wood pellets, is considered a climate friendly renewable energy source.

Carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels is a very different story as it effectively stays in the atmosphere forever unless consumed by plants.

Relative to carbon dioxide the other greenhouse gases are a sideshow, though farmers here are also committed to getting nitrous oxide emissions to net zero by 2050.

Those not wanting to face up to what needs to be done, to use the PM's words, to tackle the long-term challenge of climate change, have reached for short term solutions that will only delay the problem and put New Zealanders through unnecessary economic pain and social disruption.

New Zealand is one of only a handful of countries that continues to rely on offsets (planting trees) to "balance" out our emissions.

If New Zealand cannot reduce our gross greenhouse emissions the only way we can achieve net zero is to continually plant more and more trees as the benefit of each tree stops when it reaches maturity, and stops storing carbon.

What we all have to face, as raised by both Greenpeace, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Productivity Commission and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, is a world that is much less dependent on the burning of fossil fuels.

Currently about 40 per cent of New Zealand's energy needs (transport, heating, industry, etc) are supplied from renewable sources.

We all have to find a way to lift this percentage dramatically, thereby reducing our gross carbon dioxide emissions.

Replacing petrol and diesel vehicles will only contribute to this goal if the extra electricity required comes from renewable sources – in other words, a move to electric vehicles will be pointless if the extra generation is from the coal-fired Huntly power station.

It would also be pointless, or even counterproductive, to cut short-lived agricultural methane emissions in order to delay real decisions, and allow for the continued creation of long-lived fossil carbon dioxide.