The Government published a consultation paper on climate change yesterday, and it makes a major concession to agriculture.
For the first time, the Government has formally proposed that the two big farming greenhouse gases — nitrous oxide and methane – could either be split altogether from any targets for carbon dioxide or methane could be split away from nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
This has been talked about by both the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and in the recent Productivity Commission’s report on climate change, but it has not formally been proposed as an option.
There are sound scientific reasons behind the new proposal which are set out in the discussion document.
The move has left farmers in a very different position to 2003 when the-then Clark Government proposed a levy on methane produced by farmers – the so-called “fart tax” – which saw National MP, Shane Ardern, drive his tractor up the steps of Parliament.
Not surprisingly, Federated Farmers has welcomed yesterday’s move.
“It’s a positive that the ‘document, recognises that methane from livestock is recycling, not accumulating, greenhouse gas,” said the Federation’s Climate Change spokesperson, Andrew Hoggard.
“Methane has a half-life of around 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
“The alternatives the Ministry has called for feedback on includes the valid and practical option of stabilising emissions of short-lived gases, including methane, while pushing for net-zero long-lived gases, including nitrous oxide, by 2050,” Andrew said.
“Keep in mind that since 1990 the amount of methane produced by New Zealand agricultural livestock has only increased by 4-5%, but carbon dioxide from transport has risen by 82%.”
Hoggard refers to the work being done by the Palmerston North-based New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre which is focussing on using vaccines and new pasture plants as a way of reducing both nitrous oxide and methane.
“The research into mitigations is ongoing, but we are yet to produce any ‘silver bullet’ options that will create a dramatic change in emissions beyond the incremental gains we have been making year on year,” Hoggard said.
“So while this work is extremely positive we can in no way bank on the fact that farmers will have available to them options to reduce their methane and nitrous oxide emissions in a dramatic fashion.”
Equally not surprisingly, Greenpeace were opposed to the Government’s proposal.
“It is no surprise that the dairy industry want to keep their gases out of the Act – they are the worst industry for avoiding responsibility for emissions,” said Greenpeace climate campaigner, Kate Simcock,
“As the single biggest emitting industry in the country, it would be a travesty to exclude dairy and agricultural gases like methane, which make up half of New Zealand’s total emissions.”
Simcock said that without including agricultural emissions, and banning international carbon credits from being purchased instead of actively reducing New Zealand’s emissions, the Zero Carbon Act would be a much weaker climate commitment than what has been promised.
But the Government put up a scientific case for its proposals on the agricultural gases.
It said short-lived gases like methane decayed relatively rapidly in the atmosphere.
“They last for decades rather than centuries.
“ This means global temperatures can be stabilised without necessarily reducing emissions of these gases to zero. “
On the other hand, the document says Long-lived gases like carbon dioxide either need to reduce entirely to zero or at least to the point where emissions can be balanced out by an equal amount of removals, for example, by planting new forests.
The purpose of the document is to begin the debate on the proposal to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
For that reason it proposes three scenarios:
• Net zero carbon dioxide by 2050: this target would reduce net carbon dioxide emissions in New Zealand to zero by 2050 (but not other gases like methane or nitrous oxide).
• Net zero long-lived gases and stabilised short-lived gases by 2050: this target would reduce emissions of long-lived gases (including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) in New Zealand to net zero by 2050 while stabilising emissions of short-lived gases (including methane).
• Net zero emissions by 2050: this target would reduce net emissions across all greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.
But regardless of which option is pursued, economic growth will slow.
Using research done by the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research, the document says that if we agree to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, per household national income would still have increased by 40 per cent, instead of 55 per cent.
“Supporting lower-income households will need to be part of our approach – otherwise the impacts on these households could be disproportionate,” it says.
National, which has said it was waiting for this document before it formulated its full response to the Government’s net-zero proposal, was cautious in its response yesterday.
But it did focus on the economic consequences of the proposal.
“The consultation document shows that stricter targets will result in lower incomes for families, higher costs for electricity, fuel and food, and an acknowledgement that this will be felt most strongly by those lower-income households,” said their climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller.
“As you look further out, the carbon price is set to soar which will have a huge impact on our industry, business, fuel prices, incomes and GDP.
“These are significant costs, and we need to get the balance right to ensure we play an appropriate role in what is a global challenge.”
Climate Change Minister James Shaw was, however, looking on the bright side.
“The economic analysis we’ve done shows that our economy can continue to grow as we reduce emissions and underlines the importance of innovation and planting trees,” he said.
“We know that taking action sooner will reduce costs in the long term, and also that action to reduce our impact on the climate will lead to less traffic congestion, cleaner water, and cleaner air.
“This is New Zealand’s chance to upgrade our economy.
“ Businesses across many sectors, from energy generation to manufacturing to agriculture, are already taking action or committing to action.
“We can develop new jobs in areas like forestry, alternative energy, electric vehicles, agricultural research and more so we can take advantage of the change.”
Both Shaw and Muller are adamant they want a cross-party consensus on the ultimate policy that is developed.
Today’s document suggested that may not be impossible.