Ministers in the Ardern government are getting to grips with the Climate Change Commission report which, if adopted in full, will reshape the NZ way of life. Some say if all the recommendations the commission has framed are applied, it will put NZ in the vanguard of the battle against global warming.
Just why this country should want to be among the front-runners, and possibly the first, to meet its commitment under the Paris agreement to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 is not exactly clear.
Nor may there be any deep conviction that the Ardern government has the capacity to deliver the most appropriate measures to meet its climate targets, given its long list of policy failures including Kiwi Build, wiping out homelessness, eliminating child poverty, and improving mental health, not to mention the Covid vaccination rollout.
NZ’s CO2 emissions are considerably less than those in the US and Australia (which is among the highest in the world). Transport makes up 33% of NZ’s “long lived” gases.
Where NZ’s emissions are said to be around 0.9% of the world’s total, China’s leads the world at 27%, with coal supplying 60% of the country’s energy.
How is China fighting climate change? The Economist says its coal consumption has risen significantly since it joined the Paris agreement in 2015. The total capacity for such plants approved for construction or being built is larger than America’s entire active coal-fired sector.
NZ has its own individual issues in tackling global warming and some critics argue it should not seek to be in the vanguard until other larger emitters show how effective particular measures prove to be.
The agriculture sector is regarded in some quarters as one of the country’s biggest polluters and Greenpeace (for example) is calling for greater reductions in dairy cow numbers as well as a reduction in livestock numbers overall. Greenpeace and other anti-farming lobbies are always quick to identify problems but are cavalier in their analysis of the economic outcomes.
But how sensible is it, at a time when NZ is without its largest export sector in the form of tourism, to carve down the second largest export earner?
Defenders of the climate performance of the agriculture sector point out the international comparisons and standards that NZ has signed up to in the Paris Agreement are related to economy size and not the absolute emission levels.
NZ emits about 80m tonnes of GHG per year for a country with a total land area of 267m sq km. About 50% of that is agricultural, or 40m tonnes/year.
Per unit of food, that is about the world-leading best. The UK is 242m sq km in area emitting 325m tonnes of GHG of which 15% is from their rural sector, or 50m tonnes/year. Ireland is 84m sq km emitting 61mn tonnes of GHG of which 30%+ are rural or 20m tonnes/year. But all countries are required to reduce by percentage, which benefits those countries that started with very high levels such as the UK, and other European nations.
Point of Order has seen comments from Dr Harry Clark, who is the director of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre in Palmerston North and one of the seven members of the Climate Change Commission.
He says farmers should now be making as many small improvements as they can, once they know their emissions level, because that could deliver about a -10% improvement over the next five years.
That compares with a -1% improvement per year that has actually been delivered on a GHG-per-unit-of-food basis over the past 30 years.
There is unlikely to be a big technical improvement available until at least five years at the earliest, so this set of small improvements is important.
The next big technical projects are being worked on, but nothing is certain. Vaccines, breeding, seaweed, and other methane and nitrogen inhibitors are some of those worked-on areas.
The reductions of methane of -10% by 2030 and -47% by 2050 with current technologies will be challenging: so what will the government do?
Options include slashing cow numbers. But wouldn’t it be more sensible to work harder on scientific and technical solutions?
For its part, the commission considered, given that funding for the PGGRC finishes later this year and government investment into Research, Development and Demonstration (RD and D) is only secure until 2025, a more certain roadmap needs to be laid out on the future of research in methane and other on farm GHG reductions.
For the ‘long lived’ gases they endorsed the view that a pricing system would enable farmers to find the best way to reduce emissions on their farms.
That underlines the kind of complex decision which Cabinet ministers will have to deal with. For example, just where would the pricing fall?
The commission said as part of the process to spur farmers to move away from livestock systems, the government needs to roll out policies, tools and incentives and invest to create future emission reduction options.
All New Zealanders should be urging the government to choose that route rather than the punitive measures favoured by the anti-farming lobbies.
The government has only until the end of 2022 to shape its policy—and pass the legislation to implement it. This means the politicians and their officials could be burning the midnight oil (but without too many emissions) to get the job done.
And will we still be questioning why NZ should be leading the world in cutting emissions (and production) in the agriculture sector, the backbone of the export economy?