The Government may have attracted criticism from Greenpeace over its inquiry into farm methane emissions, but its proposal may have outwitted the Groundswell farmer protest movement.

The inquiry panel includes some of the more high-profile critics of the blanket reduction approach to farming greenhouse gas emissions.

But those critics are not climate change deniers, and they do not support the idea that farmers should not be responsible for their emissions.

Though the inquiry is highly likely to recommend a reduction in the 2050 methane targets, it is not likely to buy into the climate change denial that Groundswell likes to promote.

Nevertheless, the inquiry will attract criticism from the Greens and raise questions about whether farming is being given a free pass in the campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem for National and its coalition partners is that Groundswell and the arguments it has been making have some support within rural New Zealand, particularly in the South Island, and therefore within National’s traditional voter base.

That much was evident at a Primary Production Select Committee hearing yesterday into the Ministry of Primary Production estimates.

National’s Waitaki MP, Miles Anderson, asked Agriculture Minister Todd McClay what would happen if the methane review showed that farming was at net zero already due to carbon sequestration by farmers.

McClay ducked the question.

“That’s a little bit hypothetical until we get through it and we work the numbers out,” he said.

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And then he subtly put the case for agriculture continuing to try and reduce its emissions.

“I think the wider point is that the conversation that we’re having is quite similar; it is how do we meet our obligations in such a way that we can continue to produce, to feed the world the food that they demand and they deserve so that the New Zealand economy can grow,” he said.

“We must keep an open mind.

“We can’t sit here and say, well, one day there will be a solution that will be a silver bullet, and therefore, let’s do nothing at all.”

But in the background is another rural protest group, The Methane Science Accord (MSA), which is backed by Groundswell and other organisations that oppose any levy on farm emissions; Facts About Ruminant Methane (which has connections to ACT) and the Groundswell-supporting Rural Advocacy Network.

All those organisations are based in the South Island, but one other group that supports the MSA, the 50 Shades of Green, opposes the afforestation of farmland for carbon farming. This group had its origins in the Wairarapa and has much closer connections to National.

Its original spokesperson was Mike Butterick, who is now the National MP for the Wairarapa.

The MSA is promoting a letter to McClay and Climate Change Minister Simon Watts, strongly criticising the appointments to the panel to investigate the 2030 and 2050 Zero Carbon Act methane targets.

The author, Hugh Gardyne, a Gore sheep farmer, is a former president of Southland Federated Farmers and was behind a move last year to have a vote of no confidence in the board of Beef and Lamb NZ because it supported He Waka Eke Noa, the primary industries partnership which attempted to get an agreement with the Labour Government on levying farm emissions.

“I, for one, have lost confidence in the panel already and the narrow focus of the Terms of Reference, which ignore the economic and social effects for NZ,” he said.

“It also will not report to you on the increase of emissions worldwide that result from mis-targeted taxes here.

“Commissioner Simon Upton’s recent paper to the Environment Society summarised the in-convenient truths that need accommodating for a working profitable economy. 

“The panel selections, the Terms of Reference and the suffocating secretarial cloister illustrate once again politics and all the brains getting in the road of common sense.

“I expected you would do better.”

He is particularly critical of Professor David Frame’s appointment to the panel. Frame is a Physics Professor from the University of Canterbury whose work on climate change has influenced several agricultural organisations, including Dairy NZ.

“David Frame has acted in a consultative capacity to the debunked He Waka Eke Noa created by James Shaw and David Parker, so predictably comes onto the panel with pre-determined bias,” he said.

But Frame has consistently argued that methane’s warming effect is different from that of carbon dioxide; unlike carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, methane lasts only for 50 years or so.

Thus, though it has an intense warming effect on the climate while it is in the atmosphere, it does not contribute nearly as much warming over the long term as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

Frame, along with another panel member, Bill Collins from the University of Reading in the UK, were among a group of authors of a paper in Nature last year arguing for a split gas approach to emissions (which New Zealand has already adopted in its Zero Carbon Act ) and the reporting by countries on the warming effect of their emissions rather than just the quantities of greenhouse gases emitted.

It is that argument that the Government wants the panel to address.

Its terms of reference specifically require it to look at “Methane’s warming impact in order to provide advice on what a biogenic methane target consistent with the principle of no additional warming would look like for New Zealand.”

There are scientific criticisms of this approach.

Yesterday, RNZ reported that Professor Mark Howden, the director of the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at Australian National University, said basing a goal on ‘no added heating’ was “actually confusing.”

Howden said there was no need for methane to fall as much as carbon dioxide, and New Zealand’s approach of having a split target with less stringent targets for methane was “sensible”.

But he said there was no way to keep global heating under 1.5C or 2C without tackling methane emissions from food production.

Greenpeace has argued that the panel is simply a distraction from the main goal of cutting emissions.

“Because methane is a superheating gas, cutting methane emissions from the dairy industry now will have a real impact on lowering New Zealand’s climate pollution – which we know is desperately needed. This review panel is simply a distraction from the task at hand,”  its spokesperson Niamh O’Flynn said after the Government announced the panel last Thursday.

“The dairy industry is New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter, and successive Governments have failed to take any meaningful action to restrict its emissions.”

Former Greenpeace campaigner and now Green MP Steve Abel told McClay at the Primary Production Select Committee yesterday that if farmers adopted lower stocking rates, they could lower their input costs and produce a higher-value product.

“It’s axiomatic that if you’ve got a lower stocking rate, you’ll have lower methane,” he said.

“Or is this a position you have that we cannot countenance the consideration that lower stocking rates is one absolute way to reduce methane emissions.

“And it’s not that we don’t keep farming; we just farm differently and smarter.”

McClay replied that the debate should be less about emissions reduction and more about emissions efficiency.

“If that’s the point that you’re making, then I agree with you,” he said.

“If through breeding and other things that we develop, we can produce more per unit of output from a cow, then that’s a great idea.

“And so the answer to your question is that there is research going into a lot of things, not just one thing.

“And I think that’s the reason why the scientists themselves say it won’t be a silver bullet.

“It’ll be lots of different things.”

Abel: “There is land use practice which is reducing methane right now in New Zealand; you don’t need flash possible vaccines to do it. You can do it with land use practice.”

McClay:” We’re pretty keen on a range of tools.”

There is no way a National Agriculture Minister can agree to reduce stocking rates to reduce methane emissions.

McClay is going to have a difficult enough job as it is convincing the extremes of farmer opinion of the need to take any action on methane.