Here’s a conundrum for New Zealand: pastoral farming last year produced more than 40% of the country’s export income, but the Climate Change Commission is calling for a 15% fall in the national headcount of sheep and dairy and beef cattle by 2030 and another 5% by 2035.
Even if the productivity of the animals can be improved, the commission appears to be saying that NZ will have to adjust to a flattening out of its export income from farming, and therefore to a slower rate of what already is a slow rise in living standards.
So what is going to fill the gap when the headcount of dairy cows falls?
Or (a better question, surely) is there a better way of meeting NZ’s emission reduction targets than the methods the commission recommends?
It’s a fact that methane emissions comprise 49% of NZ’s total emissions but methane, although a potent greenhouse gas, has a relatively short-lived impact.
Dairy farmers who argue that their work, besides providing them with their livelihoods, benefits the national economy through foreign exchange earnings, will find this doesn’t wash with the wider community .
As Brian Fallow in the NZ Herald put it, NZ is internationally accountable for its emissions and if those who profit from them continue to escape any cost and therefore receive no price signal to reduce them, then that is a subsidy from the rest of us. The subsidy’s days are numbered.
He Waka Eke Noa, a collaborative process between farmer bodies and the government, is developing a farm-level emissions pricing mechanism to come into effect in 2025. The Climate Change Commission is charged with reporting next year whether sufficient progress is being made to meet target dates.
So, in conjunction with the new emissions pricing mechanism, should the same outfits be pursuing more vigorously at the same time the science to intensify the productivity per animal and along with it the trend decline in emissions intensity (methane emitted per kilogram of milk solids).
Surely it is time for the government to accelerate scientific programmes, including genetic work to produce animals and grasses aimed at cutting methane emissions.
The problem is that there appears to be little action or even interest at the highest levels of government to get to grips with the basic issues.
Despite the Prime Minister declaring not long after she took office that climate change would be her government’s “nuclear-free moment” she has done little since to promote that “moment”.
Perhaps even more disappointing, it doesn’t seem to have attracted more than cursory attention from Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
As for Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, he seems too busy with the trade side of his ministerial responsibilities and advising Australia to be more “respectful” in its dealings with China.
Perhaps the Productivity Commission and its new chairman, Ganesh Nana, are on the case?
No such luck.
So should New Zealanders be resigned to accepting that dairy production volumes can go no higher and export receipts will flatten out?
That’s like confronting the country with the unpalatable reality that this is as good as it gets so far as living standards are concerned.