Zero Carbon Bill is just the start for agriculture’s greenhouse gas adaptation

The Zero Carbon Bill introduced to Parliament this week answers some questions but raises many others.  There are big challenges ahead for everyone, but particularly for farmers and their leaders.

As always, the devil will be in the details. These details have yet to be spelled out. More importantly, it is apparent that many of the details have yet to be determined.

If rural leaders wish to have some influence on these details, they will need to be much better skilled-up than in the past.  The next few months will be crucial as the Bill works its way through the committee stages for enactment.

In the meantime, farmers are entitled to think they are in danger of being left to carry much of the pain.  This is because the rest of the community can lean on forestry, whereas methane is to be excluded from those forestry credits.

One important positive aspect of the Zero Carbon Bill is that short-lived methane (CH4) will be in a different basket than the long-lived gases of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O).  That creates the basis for logical and nuanced discussions relating to the specifics of short-lived methane.  Until now that basis has been missing.

It would seem that placing methane in a different basket only came about because of the persistence of New Zealand First. They heard the message from Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, which neither the Greens nor Labour were keen to accept.

However, getting methane into its own basket achieves nothing by itself. It is simply the starting point.

One of the rules of greenhouse gas accounting system is that the costs are assigned to the country where the emissions occurs.  That works well in situations where production occurs in the country of final consumption, but that is not the case for New Zealand’s export-led agriculture.

For example, when Australian coal and iron ore are exported, then the carbon dioxide released from burning the coal and making the steel is assigned to the overseas countries where both production and consumption occur. In contrast, when New Zealand butter and milk protein are consumed all around the world, then it is New Zealand that carries greenhouse gas liability because this is where the methane-producing cows are located.

The biggest negative for agriculture in the Climate Change Bill is the scale of the proposed long-term methane targets. These are going to be destructive. Ten percent over ten years may well be manageable albeit challenging, but the proposal for something between 22 percent and 47 percent over thirty years is unachievable with current technology.

There may be smarter ways to manage our global climate issues.

One of the challenges for rural leaders is to get a better grasp on the science of methane. There are very good arguments as to why New Zealand’s ruminant-sourced methane, which decays rapidly, is much less of a long-term threat to climate than carbon dioxide. This is because the ‘methane cloud’ from New Zealand’s pastoral agriculture is now close to stable whereas carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere remain on an inexorable upwards journey.

However, if rural leaders then claim that methane has no effect on global warming because it is simply part of the natural carbon cycle, they are going to be laughed at in official circles.

In fact, each atmospheric methane molecule has strong absorption of outgoing energy at two specific wavelengths. Also, the physical scientists can argue that there are residual effects after the methane has left the atmosphere, sometimes called ‘climate inertia’.

Focusing first on the next ten years, a big question for agriculture is how can those initial 10 percent methane savings be achieved?

The easy part will come from shifting some of the hill country to forestry. This will indeed reduce methane emissions by removal of the sheep and cattle that are currently there.

However, the 2018 Cabinet paper on the ‘Billion Trees’ program suggests that most of the tree plantings will be either replacement plantings or on land that is currently scrub.  So, it seems that loss of farm land to forestry may not have a large effect on sheep and beef numbers, and hence oon methane emissions, at least in the next ten years.

Apart from forestry, the other changing land use can be through more cropping. We need to keep reminding both the politicians and the broader urban community that there are major biophysical constraints to shifting most pastoral soils to cropping.

Most of these pastoral soils are much more difficult to crop than the fertile soils of Britain and Europe where most of our forebears come from.

Similarly, the New Zealand situation is very different to the USA, which has wonderful fertile soils across much of the country, and a climate well suited to broad-acre cropping.

To use the language of economics, New Zealand’s competitive advantage has always been in relation to pastoralism. Apart from some specific crops such as wine and kiwifruit, in very specific locations, it’s very hard work trying to earn export dollars from cropping.

The difficulties of achieving top-quality cost-efficient cropping products are sufficiently challenging that all the wheat for bread-making in New Zealand is currently imported from Australia.  This has occurred for many years and for good reason.

The notion that New Zealand can develop major export industries based on plant-based proteins has little basis in reality.  Europe, North America, South America and much of Asia are where these crops will be grown efficiently.

Similarly, China will have no problems in growing its own crops for human consumption. It is the feed-crops for livestock that cause the challenges. and hence China’s ongoing interest in sourcing livestock products from New Zealand and elsewhere.

Within livestock farming itself, methane reductions can come from less animals that are more productive.  New Zealand agriculture has been on that journey for a long time. Further increases in efficiency are possible, but they won’t come easily.

In all of the current debate, there is surprisingly little discussion about nitrous oxide. Yet nitrous oxide is clearly a long-lived agricultural gas and it is certainly going to be part of the emission trading scheme. As such, it will be tradable against forestry credits. However, the current evidence says that it is not as long-lived as carbon dioxide. That means that within the proposed GWP100 equivalence system it is going to carry more than its share of the burden.

In this article I have done no more than touch on a raft of complex issues. Unless and until rural leaders can get their minds around the nuances of these issues they are going to do poorly in the ongoing debates at official levels over coming months and years. Yet there are important arguments that rural leaders do need to be putting forward if agriculture is to get the best and fairest outcomes. It is time for more upskilling and informed engagement.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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5 Responses to Zero Carbon Bill is just the start for agriculture’s greenhouse gas adaptation

  1. nigel64 says:

    Thank you for writing this Keith. I feel a deeper decision NZ has to make is what we intend to export (and what a rapidly changing market is prepared to buy – food miles, dramatic rise in veganism in target markets, rise of climate consciousness in China…).

    Surely at some point shipping fuel will come into the equation – shipping is continually being touted as maybe 20% of road freight (not that that’s an option here!), but if shipping’s carbon footprint was included in the equation, what would that mean for import\export of bulky goods? Surely that is where NZ should be thinking first, then work backward to what we should be doing on our land.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I agree that these are all important questions.
      In particular, I agree that the omission of shipping and aviation from the Paris Agreement is a huge distortion. I also suspect NZ would not fare particularly well under such a system.
      I am not a fan of food miles because I think it is a political lobbying system and is itself distortionary.
      I looked on your own website and saw a reference to Peter Wardle’s book. Way back in the 1970s both Peter and I were on the Westland National park Board and I enjoyed many drives over the mountains from Christchurch with Peter. Very educational for me.

      • nigel64 says:

        Thank you Keith, I use Peter’s Vegetation of NZ regularly as it is still superior to all the databases and so-called methodologies for assessing native habitats. He must have been a very clear thinker and a good teacher and friend.

        Agree re food miles, all the factors should be weighed in these things, but easy for activists and pols to drive wedges.

  2. Robin Gardyne says:

    Every blade of green grass is absorbing carbon.Recognition must be given to the 1000’s of hectares of grass and crops grown.

  3. Thanks for the article Keith. Reducing emissions from agriculture is a challenge and perhaps, if we can look far enough ahead, an opportunity. Whatever we do certainly needs to start with science and much better understanding on the sources of emissions, their effects and also the development of systems, investment and management responses that can address the multitude of needs. As you have written about, farms have a multitude of requirements to meet including producing manageable levels of nutrient loss, the need to use water carefully, the need to lower emissions and whilst still producing sufficient economic returns to produce food over the long run.
    There is some innovation in this space possible, with both specialist Manuka Plantations and forestry having dual production; honey and wood respectively along with sequestering carbon. Its possible, as we are doing with, to build an investment model where one activity (in this case manuka plantation) offsets the emissions of another (horticulture). Let’s not bury our head in the sand but work on the solutions to a sustainable low emissions agriculture sector.

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