We only get one chance to get climate change response right and we all need to do our share, says Jeremy Baker, but is more being expected of farmers than anyone else?
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world – and farmers are among the first to feel its impacts.
With our economy still largely dependent on agriculture, it's vital that we get our response to climate change right, not just to get rising global temperatures under control, but also so as not to inflict significant damage to our economy and disruption to rural communities in the process.
At a high level, the equation at play is what the cost is to our economy of transitioning to a lower emissions future versus the cost of having to adapt to climate change if we do nothing. While New Zealand is only a small contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, by the same measure larger economies are reluctant to make changes too if smaller, more nimble players like us don't do our bit.
It means that leading on climate change is a good space to be in, but it reinforces why we need to get that response right.
Zero Carbon Bill changes
How our response looks is dictated by being signed up to the Paris Agreement.
This sees parties to the agreement working towards the long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels; and to limit the increase to 1.5C as this will significantly reduces the impacts of climate change.
This is where the Zero Carbon Bill comes in, as it's how the Government intends to translate our international commitments to a New Zealand context.
The Government has proposed setting targets of net zero for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2050. That doesn't mean there are no more emissions of these gases, but rather what is emitted is offset by trees being planted as carbon sinks, and so from 2050 neither of these two gases will add any additional warming to the atmosphere above the 1.5C increase.
The Government has also decided to treat methane differently in two key ways. The first is giving it a separate reduction target in what's known as a split gas approach.
It's something the agricultural sector advocated for as methane is a much shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide is, even though its impact on warming while it's in the atmosphere is greater in the short-term (though not in the longer-term).
This reduction target has been split into two parts, a 10 per cent reduction by 2030, and a gross 24-47 per cent reduction by 2050.
On the surface, this looks like methane is getting off lightly, but because of methane's short-lived nature, to get the same "no additional warming" effect as net zero for the other gases, you only need to reduce methane emissions by 0.3 per cent per year, which roughly equates to a 10-22 per cent reduction by 2050.
The 24-47 per cent target has been picked by the Government so methane reductions are used to effectively cool the planet from the get-go in order to buy time to get carbon dioxide under control.
It means farmers are being asked to do more than the rest of the economy.
Farmers being hit twice
The other different treatment of methane is that it has a gross, rather than a net, target. So while the Air New Zealands and Z Energies of the world can offset their carbon emissions by planting trees, farmers can't offset methane emissions in the same way.
The net effect of this is farmers get hit twice – their farms get targeted for land for tree planting to offset emissions elsewhere in the economy and they also have to downsize their operations to achieve the methane reduction targets required.
While research is being carried out on technology to reduce farm methane emissions – and it's showing promise – there's still plenty of uncertainty surrounding it.
Until we find that silver bullet, the only method available for farmers to meet the Government's steep methane targets is to reduce herd sizes, which will make many smaller, family-owned farms uneconomical.
It's about fairness
Farming isn't just the backbone of New Zealand's economy, it's also the livelihood of rural communities. While those in towns might not notice a couple of hundred dollars less in their pay each year, small towns will notice the difference as farmers shut their gates and the jobs and services that support the farming industry disappear.
This is why the changes to the Zero Carbon Bill that the farming sector wants are about fairness. They're making sure that all sectors of the economy do their bit equally, and farmers aren't having to do more while the rest of the country gets to carry on like nothing has changed.
We want the Government to revisit the methane targets, and, at the very least, allow methane to be offset by trees in the same way that other gases are.
Farmer and office worker alike, we're all in this fight against climate change together, and we all need to do our fair share. Unfortunately, the way the Zero Carbon Bill has been proposed, it's farmers who will be doing the heavy lifting for the rest of New Zealand.
- Jeremy Baker is chief insight officer, Beef + Lamb New Zealand.