Guy Trafford compares New Zealand's drive to reduce agriculture emissions with other country efforts. They have done it passively by herd reduction; we have a tougher challenge despite our renewables focus

Guy Trafford compares New Zealand's drive to reduce agriculture emissions with other country efforts. They have done it passively by herd reduction; we have a tougher challenge despite our renewables focus

As most farmers are aware, much of the emphasis on greenhouse gas reduction in New Zealand has been focussed on agriculture and livestock farming in particular. This is for the obvious reason that at 48% agriculture makes up the biggest signal sector.

With the new year nearly upon us and the initial Paris Climate Agreement commitments kicking in, it is perhaps timely to see how New Zealand is doing, particularly agriculture and how agriculture rates against other countries.

No other country has made the same drive to lower agriculture emissions as New Zealand and for other countries the omission to make agriculture liable is driven largely by food security issues. Even the Paris Agreement mentions agriculture emission reduction should not come at the expense of food production.

Although no other country has pulled livestock into an ETS scheme, farmers have been asked to use best practise and do what they can to lower their GHG outputs and as the following graphs looking at Australia, the UK, USA and the EU show, there has been some positive progress. Certainly more than New Zealand agriculture has managed to achieve and with less governmental pressure applied.

A look at what New Zealand has committed to, and where we stand, shows that we have a steep challenge ahead, not just agriculture. The Government's recent declaration of a “Climate Emergency“ and the associated commitment to convert the government service road fleet to electric is one of the first real tangible efforts to take on board some direct responsibility for emissions.

Between 1990 and 2018, emissions from the agriculture sector increased by 17.1%. The believed difference between New Zealand’s agricultural emissions and the other countries studied is:

1. The change in livestock numbers. Most countries have decreased numbers overall but in New Zealand’s case the reduction in sheep and beef cattle were more than replaced (in emission terms) by dairy cattle. (An 85.6% increase in the national dairy herd since 1990 and an increase in the application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser of 670% since 1990. The populations of sheep, beef cattle and deer have decreased by 53%, 19% and 12.6%, respectively since 1990).  The other countries already had large sectors of industrialised cow dairy so the gains from them didn’t occur - in fact some dairy herds have decreased.

2. Many countries agricultural sectors were big users of energy. This area improved in efficiency, and changed from being more carbon based to more renewable sources. New Zealand was never a heavy user and what it did use was already largely renewable.

Within New Zealand the only thing that agricultural can take some heart from is the fact in that ag has increased at a lesser rate than most the other sectors, with the biggest rises coming from energy (which includes transport).

Perhaps interestingly, despite energy being the greatest growth area in emissions (34.3% for energy versus 17.1% in ag and transport as a subset of energy 101%), agriculture still gets lumped in as to being alongside as a growth area for emissions. However, regardless of the seemingly bias in reporting most would agree that agriculture needs to reduce GHG’s. Especially, if ‘we’ are to reduce net emissions by -5% of 1990 levels by 2020 and -11% by 2030 and meet the nearer term Paris Agreement reductions.

According to the Government: “New Zealand is projected to meet its unconditional 2020 emissions reduction target by using 108.0 million units from forestry activities and 14.6 million units carried over from the first commitment period (CP1).”

Given net emissions have risen by over +50% through the 1990-2016 period, I find this surprising, but if it can be done great. (see Fig 1.)

 Fig 1. GHG over 26 year (1990-2016) period

As can be seen below, agriculture has grown but the big mover is energy. This is an area in most other countries that real gains were made, largely moving from coal fired power generation to renewable systems but also through newer cars and technological improvements.

Fig 2. Major contributors to GHG emissions.

New Zealand looks bad on a per capita basis (Fig 3). However, if we reduced ag to say 10% to match other countries the picture would be vastly improved. But our standard of living would take a huge knock and something which also would presumably produce some GHG’s would need to replace it.

Fig 3. Per capita comparison.

Industry sectors began being liable for emissions progressively since 2008, however, the introduction of the ETS appears to have done little to date to reduce emissions. The best that could be said is that growth has slowed down.

Fig 4. ETS price since 2010.

The UK

The UK has made large reductions both overall with a nearly -29% gross reductions in the last 10 years and with the agricultural sector dropping around -18%. Overall, this is one of the largest falls of any industrialised country.

Fig 5 Gross GHG emissions in UK.

Fig 6. Agricultural sector by gas.

However, agriculture increased by +1% from 2016-2017 and accounts for 9% of total emissions and there has been little if any reduction since 2008. What reductions that did occur were largely due to falls in numbers of cattle and pigs. Agriculture in the UK aims to reduce agricultural emissions by 3 million tonnes (CO2e) between 2018-2022 (about 4.5%).

Fig 7. Agricultural sector by gas.

The EU

In the EU agriculture makes up about 12% of total GHG emission (2016 figures). (The UK was part of the EU for most if not all of the available data due to being in the “pre-Brexit” phase). There is no particular reduction target with more of an emphasis on education. Member states make up their own policies. There does seem to be more of an emphasis on the soils, both as a sink and also as a source of emissions if released through cultivation. Overall reductions are similar to the UK (although less overall) with falls both overall and in agriculture.

Fig 8. EU total emissions

Fig 9. EU Agricultural emissions since 1990

In 2017, EU GHG emissions were down by 19% compared with 1990 levels, representing an absolute reduction of 935 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents, putting the EU on track to meet its 2020 target, which is to reduce GHG emissions by 20% by 2020 and by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990. Reductions in agriculture have slowed however.


In Australia agriculture makes up about 12.7% of total emissions although between year variations can be up to 5% of the total due to the influence of droughts vs good years. However, over time there has been a gradual decline with a drop of 4.7% since 1990 and agriculture as a percentage has reduced considerably. This is largely due to a drop in overall livestock numbers. Dairy cow numbers have dropped from a peak in 1990-2000 of 2.17 million to a provisional figure of 1.44 million in 2019.

Given this reduction, it is perhaps surprising there was not a greater drop in GHG’s. In recent years with the USA pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement and providing a ‘foil’ to countries not engaging in reduction policies, the Australian government has not done a lot to instigate any mitigation processes. Despite this, they say (Australia Government) they are now 14.3% below 2005 levels (the baseline year for the Paris Agreement) in the year to March 2020. There does seem to be some disagreement over the interpretation of the numbers with the Government using a per capita rate which puts a rosier complexion on the outputs.

Fig 10. Australian emisions by sector

Fig 11. Overall Australian emissions.


American agricultural outputs are relatively flat and while at a national level little appears to be being done, at the state level quite a bit of activity has occurred. This is likely to ramp up further once Trump is out of the White House, although it will take time to bed in any new cultural changes.

The global view

Looking at the world’s major polluters’ China stands out head and shoulders ahead of the rest (although not by per capita). President Xi announced in September that China will achieve peak GHG’s by 2030 (see Fig 14) so still some increases to come but hopefully at a slower rate.

Fig 12. USA emissions by sector

Fig 13. World emissions by country.

 Fig 14. China’s emissions and forecasts. (September 2020).

New Zealand’s emissions only make up 0.17% of the world’s total so whatever we do makes little difference. However, given most other countries are making positive steps, China and India excepted, New Zealand does need to be making more progress in its reductions.

This is not all about agriculture but as the largest emitting sector it certainly has a role to play and if some easier runs can be achieved (yet to be seen) it will move New Zealand ahead dramatically.

In the meantime, it is good to see the load start to be spread.

A final graph of interest is the makeup of the cost of fuel in New Zealand which has got the ETS included and provides some food for thought as to why transport appears unaffected by the ETS. Not much of an incentive here to switch to electric even with the rise in the cost of carbon.

Fig 15. Make up of fuel costs

P2 Steer

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Great in depth article.
The ETS offers no incentive to reduce emissions, all companies do is buy some productive farmland and plant trees on it then leave them to rot for the next 100 years.
Transport and electricity production are the areas of increasing output, but they get no media attention, its all about how agriculture is destroying the planet. I hate how they pick on the smaller sector because directing the attention where it counts will annoy the main voter base.

I've been say essentially the same thing for years. But still those in power are buying into it.

Exactly regarding ETS, a flat carbon tax would be sooo much more effective. The revenue gained should go straight back into R&D. Or into something like subsidising new electric vehicles (which every government has been ridiculously slow on).

Transport & Electricity are where we could make major inroads, they are the quick wins/low hanging fruit. But again, consecutively useless governments have failed to incentivise real transition. Arderns pronouncements regarding Climate Change are so ridiculously hollow it's not funny.

Well blame the farmers for the ETS vs carbon tax - drove the tractor up the steps. They wanted a market based system and now moan about that. Read the history. The ETS will work just let it go with no controls. The faster the price goes up the faster it will come down as emissions stop. The rotting pine trees will turn into native forest just look at the hills behind Wellington - it’s ecology

I can assure now that the carbon price is going up there are big changes happening. I would say that within 10 years there will be almost no coal burnt in NZ. Ag isn’t even in the scheme and gets a chance to devise there own way and won’t be at 50%. Ban ICE car sales like UK and others by 2030 or 2035. In reality there’s not huge areas going into trees we still have less forest than 10 years ago anyway.

Ban ICE car sales by 2030 - God help those who have to put up with the destruction lithium mining causes. For some people they get rather upset about orangatauns re palm oil, but those same people are strangely silent re lithium mining and its devastation on communities and environment:

On the surface, emission-free electric cars might seem a significant improvement.

Yet other regions of the world will suffer as humanity transitions to electric cars. Specifically, mining for lithium — the essential element for batteries used in many electric cars, as well as other portable electronics — is wreaking havoc on the world's deserts.

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. In order to obtain lithium, holes are drilled into the flats to pump the brine to the surface. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

Last week, Bloomberg published a report detailing how the boom in lithium mining is irreversibly destroying the local environment of northern Chile’s Atacama desert. Mining for lithium means means removing large amounts of water, which means depleting the water supply for locals. According to the report, the Tilopozo meadow in Chile used to be a shelter for shepherds traveling at night, yet has become barren due to lack of grass or water. That puts a severe strain on local farmers.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist, told Bloomberg. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”


Again, I wearily note that, being as how Ag feeds somewhere between 10 and 40 million souls offshore, a per-NZ-population-figure-capita is worthless......

even the 1990 figure is useless, we have significantly increased both our animal numbers and farming efficiency since then. So in a sense NZ is still developing, where as European countries have actually been at max capacity for 50+ years easy. So our figures should be taken from a different time point. Just like how they expect China and India to keep increasing GHG emissions for several years yet.

No it's not. The same could be said for any country because of their mix of things they provide the world vs their emissions. Any country could justify their own reasons for not showing one particular stat - China could say "Well we are the worlds factory providing goods for 7b people, therefore stat xyz doesn't apply", the US could say "Well, we provide the worlds default currency and security around the world with our big military, therefore stat xyz doesn't apply" and on and on and on.

Output per head of population is near enough perfect IMO as it represents the countries choice of what it produces and it's subsequent GW effect.

You are right in your analysis - but I think ideally the stat should reflect the country of consumption. The fact that China has high absolute levels of emissions, is because we and so much of the world have outsourced our emissions to them. Similarly the emissions from our lamb to the UK really belong to the UK. But I imagine it is near impossible to measure and account for.
Quick article on NZ's animal products production efficiency compared to the rest of the world.

We are marginally ahead , but those fiqures to produce a kilo of meat are staggering . I wonder how it compares to vegetable protein ?

Vegetable protein when measured in KJs energy provided/KGCO2e/Kg vs meat are well behind. Anyone thinking they are saving the planet by going Vegy/Vegan are delusional or ill-informed.

I don't think the amount of energy going into comparisons are that helpful . Everyone needs to make reductions , not fight over who's best or who's worst. China could feel aggrieved that they are doing the worlds dirty manufacturing, and most of their emissions come from that. Doesn't solve anything though .
NZ can capitalise on it efficiency and green credentials, providing they earn it. Eventuality the added value to the product will outweigh the costs of cleaning up .

"Eventuality the added value to the product will outweigh the costs of cleaning up ." Wrong NZ already receives a premium for its ag products globally. How much more do you think they will pay? Since Covid the three biggest value growth areas for NZ beef in USA is organic, grass fed, and antibiotic free. Climate emissions don't come anywhere near. It is a govt beat up that we will get more $$$ for being emissions reduced in ag.

Pretty clear consumers think organic and grass fed and anti biotic are worth a premium, and all would associate with (or be compromised by carbon emissions. In a future where vegetable protein will be a major competitor , "green" will sell .
But carry on , the organic farmers are happy to keep the premiums to themselves.

When I buy my half a cattle beast, I don't actually give a hoot about climate change, emergency, or crisis. I also don't believe that the cow that gave it's all for me was ruining the world's atmosphere by it's very existence. In a secret vote, I suspect a lot of Kiwis would actually agree with me. The Iwi leader sounds like a bit of a pragmatist. Bit too sensible to be given any airtime.

Edit reply to solardb: Perhaps I wasn't clear, those standards are three separate values e.g. some just want grass fed and will pay the premium for that, some want antibiotic free and will pay a premium just for that (NZ sheep industry has done some stirling work on getting this fairly mainstream,) - you don't have to be organic to meet that standard in sheep) Some want certified organic. Basically most NZ pasture raised animals meet the 'grass fed' standards - you don't have to be organic. The Beef & LambNZ Taste Pure Nature campaign targets the conscious foodie
Mainstream NZ dairy export brands have been receiving premiums for years over other offshore exporters.

With regards to vegetable protein - there is room for both. There is a reason some NZ vegetables have been given an exemption to nutrient limits and it's not because they are 'green'.

We will always have Paris....

To the true believers nothing short of Economic Reformation will do.

For the long version

Al said that picture in the back ground was to be 2020 not 2140? I am confused

Iwi leader to fresh water science conference attendees "Iwi do not fear climate change. It is for the generation at the time to decide what measures they want to take if the sea takes our land." Are we hearing only one side of the climate debate, where do our Treaty partners stand on climate change? If their view is as the iwi leader above, whose view should NZ prioritise in climate change discussions - Treaty Partners or Global Treaties?

Rod Carr, Chair of the Climate Change Commission in a Newsroom interview stated "I think in the next budget, climate action needs to be right up there with the budget for health and the budget for education,......." He must move in privileged circles

That's a big red herring , saying that money spent on carbon reductions , leaves less for housing , health etc. there is no shortage of other areas the money can come form , indeed most of the controls are new taxes on emissions. Not one cent come form health or education , they probably benefit by been given money to up date their energy systems.
And you would probably get 100 different views from Iwi on climate change, just like you'd probably get 100 different views from Pakeha. You can cherry pick, but the overall consensus is towards there needing to be action.

Not cherry picking solardb, just stating a fact and asking a question - one which you have not answered. I never said that money spent on carbon reductions leaves less for housing health etc. I gave an opinion that Rod Carr must move in privileged circles as anyone who understands NZ health and education, knows that there are serious funding deficits in both. Updating energy systems is not likely to solve the chronic understaffing issues in health.
Does the govt already receive in carbon tax the equivalent of the health and education budget? (Maybe it does, I am not aware of what it is currently receiving in net carbon taxes) Rod Carr's comment referred to the next budget due next financial year.

From the last graph, it seems that we pay GST on the fuel tax. That seems morally wrong.

Al said that picture in the back ground was to be 2020 not 2140? I am confused...