Climate Change Commission Chair, Dr Rod Carr.

The future of farming went on the line yesterday when the Climate Change Commission presented its first review of New Zealand’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The Commission said New Zealand’s target was unlikely to be consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of holding temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

If everyone in the world contributed the same level of warming per capita as New Zealand, total warming would peak with a temperature rise of five degrees and decline to around 4.3 degrees by 2100, the Commission said.

Even more embarrassing, if global emissions were allocated to countries entirely on a per capita basis, New Zealand would emit way above the global per capita allocation in 2050.

Because 51 per cent of New Zealand’s warming emissions come from livestock farming, the Commission has focused much of its advice on this.

That is maybe why the Government announced on Sunday that it was setting up an independent review of the Commission to examine the methane emission targets for 2050.

That announcement reflects the delicate politics around farm emission reductions and a debate among scientists about how much warming farming contributes.

Ironically, the Commission believes farmers are likely to achieve the lowest of the 2050 methane targets, 24 per cent, which National wants to review.

Commission Chair Dr Rod Carr said that could be achieved through a number of different actions, including some reasonable assumptions about land use change.

“Some sheep are coming off as the forestry goes in,” he said.

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The Commission’s model assumes that sheep farmers will reduce their stock numbers by 12 per cent by 2050 and replace that livestock with carbon-absorbing trees.

That estimate is not far short of the widely criticised Ministry of Primary Industries 2022 forecast, which suggested that land used to run sheep and beef cattle would fall by around 20% by 2050.

National’s then-agriculture spokesperson (now Minister) Todd McClay claimed that the Labour Government’s emissions reduction plan for farming risked closing down up to 20 per cent of sheep and beef farms.

But Carr made the point that the Commission doesn’t envisage the farms “closing down”; rather, that farmers will plant trees, particularly on steep, difficult-to-farm classes seven and eight land.

And though dairying attracts most of the criticism from organisations like Greenpeace and the Green Party, the outlook for the industry’s ability to reduce emissions is more hopeful.

The Commission’s modelling assumes that dairy cow numbers are reduced by 23 per cent. Still, they say that it is possible to lower stock numbers while maintaining relatively stable production levels of milk solids.

Just as with sheep and beef farming, the farms would not be “closed down” but converted to what in some areas might be more profitable land uses, such as horticulture.

The Commission says the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre has identified that changes in farm management practices, such as reducing stocking rates and fertiliser, could reduce emissions while improving animal performance.

Meanwhile, on the remaining dairy farms, improvements in farm efficiency are constantly increasing per-cow performance.

DairyNZ figures show that milk solids per cow have increased by six per cent over the past twenty years.

But Carr told POLITIK other factors could be considered apart from land use change.

 “If you look across the dairy herds in New Zealand, some have eight kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of milk solids, and some have 18,” he said.

“If you can get some of that 18 out of the national herd replace them with 12 kg, that’s a significant reduction in methane without a reduction in production.

“So, some of that is breeding, feeding and farm practices, and some of it is about land use.

“If you take that all into account with a little bit of technology, and we are kind of assuming something turns up from 2036 to 2040, it might be a vaccine, it might be a bolus release. And that is why we think a 24% reduction (in 2050 gross methane emissions) is achievable and feasible.

“And that’s why that’s the assumption in the budget.”

Carr is conscious of the situation’s politics and says he is not phased by National’s decision to call for an independent review of the 24 – 47 per cent target range.

“The Commission has never had a monopoly on advice to the government of the day,” he said.

“The Government of the day has always taken advice from other ministries and agencies, from other experts.

“So I don’t at all feel that it’s a vote of no confidence. I think it’s a logical thing for a government to seek other opinions.”

Nevertheless, Carr argues there could be consequences if the Government’s review proposes a retreat from the 24 per cent reduction target.

“How should we think about burden sharing between sectors in New Zealand?

“If the farmers contribute less in terms of their effort to reduce, other sectors will have to contribute more, or we will have to plant more trees, or we will have to buy more offshore mitigation. And so that’s the question.”

The whole question of forestry as a carbon sink is closely allied to farming.

The Commission is forecasting a slower rate of planting over the next 26 years from what we have seen since 2020.

Only forests planted since 1990 can enter the Emissions Trading Scheme and thus earn carbon credits.

The theory is that because carbon emissions are increasing, any carbon sinks should add to the total stock of carbon sinks (forests) across the country.

The Commissions says this has contributed to a sense of unfairness among pre-1990 forest owners, including some iwi/Māori representatives.

However, Carr suggested that changing this might be a case of needing to be careful about what you wish for.

“We made an assumption that pre-1990 forests were carbon stores,” he said.

“They weren’t sequestering anything new materially, but they also weren’t degraded.

“But if you’re going to look at the pre-1990, you have to look at both sides; how much of our native forests are being degraded by deer, goats and other pests.

“You can’t just look to add more if you’re not looking at the damage that’s being done.

“And so that’s why we’re saying if these forests are managed, then there may be a case for actually assessing whether they are adding or releasing carbon dioxide.”

Ultimately, whether we make the 2050 targets is going to be largely dependent on whether or not farming can make its targets.