New Zealand farmers need accelerated progress on technology to help meet 2050 methane targets or face having “large reductions” of stock, says Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton.
Speaking at the recent New Zealand Agricultural Climate Change Conference in Wellington, Upton outlined the challenges facing livestock farmers as they attempt to meet the legislated target to reduce biogenic methane emissions by 10% by 2030 and 24–47% by 2050, relative to the 2017 level.
Upton said promising new mitigation technology is the pipeline – including methane and nitrification inhibitors, breeding low-emission sheep and cattle, low-emission feeds and feed additives, and “the Holy Grail, a methane vaccine”.
All are at different stages of development and each has its own challenges and barriers to overcome.
“But it is clear that without accelerated progress on some of these technical fixes, the only way we will meet our 2050 methane target will be through very large reductions in stocking rates,” Upton said.
“The work being undertaken by our science and research organisations on reducing agricultural emission is therefore a critical component of New Zealand’s climate change policy.”
Upton agreed with the government and Climate Change Commission’s move to introduce targets to reduce emissions.
“I would simply observe that the current target of 24-47% reduction by 2050 is so wide a range that the scale of transformation expected from the primary sector is very unclear.”
If the 2050 target is updated, he would encourage the government to choose a narrower range.
A solid consensus is needed on ways to meet the targets. Reductions in emissions from livestock could be reached from two strategies, lower stocking rates and reducing emission per animal through changing management practices and using new technology as it becomes available.
He said he has “grave doubts” about NZ’s reliance on forestry offsets as a way of meeting emission targets for fossil carbon dioxide.
“We should wean ourselves off this option.”
“On the other hand, I have suggested that using whatever forestry stock we generate to offset the warming caused by our agricultural emissions might be more justifiable.”
However, the number of trees needed to offset the warming from a given herd of animals is not small, and could only ever be a part of the solution.
Upton said international collaboration will also be vital in the race to meet targets.
“However we arrange things, we must avoid a convoluted labyrinth of governance arrangements crippled by risk aversion and the temptation to second-guess those most familiar with the field.”
Upton said high income international markets are taking greater interest in the emissions footprint of their food and drink. Being able to show that NZ products are associated with the lowest possible emissions will be essential if the country is to continue to be a preferred supplier.
He said the government’s commitment to help fund emissions solutions presents a significant subsidy, but one he considers justified. If the research opens up new mitigation opportunities the next challenge will be to get them adopted.
“Putting a price on agricultural emissions should be designed to incentivise the uptake of less-emissions-intensive management practices. That’s how environmental taxes are supposed to work.”
When setting the level of any levy, regard has to be given to the availability of mitigation options.
“There is little point in using economic tools to incentivise behaviour change if there are no ways to change behaviour. Equally, if new mitigation options arise, levies should rise to expedite their uptake.”