A key forthcoming decision for New Zealand is how it will report to the United Nations on its Paris Agreement milestones. On the surface, this many seem something for the bureaucracy to deal with, but the reality is very different. The issue is of fundamental importance.
The big question is whether New Zealand highlights the so-called total carbon dioxide equivalent number (CO2e) or whether it highlights the separate targets and achievements for short and long-lived gases. Once determined, the reporting metrics are locked in.
This question has been raised by the Climate Change Commission (CCC) in its draft report. Unfortunately, the issue has subsequently been largely ignored by the media, by commentators and also by rural industry groups, all of which have failed to recognise its importance in shaping the issues.
The CCC lists many recommendations in multiple categories and asks 24 consultation questions. Recommendation One in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) category is that New Zealand should report internationally using a combined figure for short and long-lived gases. Question 22 is whether or not this is the best way to do it. I say that it is not.
To understand why this is so important, we need to backtrack about three years. At that time the dominant perspective within Government was that short and long-lived gases could all be bundled together. But then, Simon Upton in his role of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment presented arguments why they should be considered separately.
Neither the Greens nor the Labour Party were impressed with those arguments, but Winston Peters picked it up. Hence, separate targets have been listed in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019.
This Act says that New Zealand must reduce net emissions of all greenhouse gases except biogenic methane to zero by 2050. In contrast, biogenic methane has to be reduced by 24-47% below 2017 levels by 2050, including 10 per cent below 2017 levels by 2030.
Those emission reductions for methane are going to be challenging, but not impossible. The target is much more achievable if the 24% minimum figure is the one that is retained.
There are two very good reasons why agriculturally sourced (biogenic) methane needs to retain its strong separate focus. The first reason is very specific within Article 2 of the Paris Agreement.
Article 2 says that countries should “adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production”.
This statement is not hard to find. Article 1 of the Agreement is simply definitions. The statement about food production in Article 2 is in the first substantive paragraph of the Agreement.
So, let me say it very clearly: the Paris Agreement is not meant to threaten food production. Linked to this is something else I have said many times before: most of New Zealand’s pastoral soils and topography are not suited to crops.
Despite the prominence of the Paris Agreement statement about not threatening food production, it is almost never referred to either by mainstream New Zealand media, nor emphasised by rural industry groups. Instead, the agricultural industries have allowed themselves to be side-tracked into fights that they can never win.
Too often we read about rural groups arguing that agriculturally-sourced methane is unimportant in relation to global warming. Yes, it is correct that the agriculturally-sourced methane in New Zealand is produced from carbon dioxide that is drawn from the atmosphere by photosynthesis, and this eventually ends up back in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. However, in the meantime while it is in the form of methane for approximately 12 years on average, it does contribute to global warming. Based on the science, we can never win an argument to the contrary.
People also get unduly distracted by issues of soil carbon. Yes, the carbon that is contained in the soil is very important, as is the carbon contained in the world’s rain forests. But greenhouse gas policies are measured by new sequestration and not by stores of carbon. If agriculture wants to get credit for soil carbon, it will have to be new carbon that is sequestered net of any carbon that is being lost, for example by draining peat soils and by cultivation on all soils. Agricultural interests might win a few battles but they won’t win the war this way.
The second area that agriculture should be focusing on is the impact of bundling the methane into units of carbon-dioxide equivalence. This started almost by accident way back in the 1990s using the 100-year warming estimate of a tonne of carbon dioxide as the baseline. Most countries did not care greatly about the use of carbon dioxide equivalence for methane, given that for most countries biogenic methane is a minor component of total emissions. But for New Zealand and some other small agricultural exporting countries like Uruguay, it is a choice that totally screws the scrum. If, for example, the effects of methane and carbon dioxide are compared based on 200-year effects then we would get a greatly reduced proportion of CO2e coming from methane.
The key issue with CO2e measures for methane is that it is like comparing apples and onions. There is no sensible way of bundling up the onions into apple equivalents. It could be on the basis of sugar, carbohydrate, fibre or even some unit of smell. Take your pick and get your answer!
Way back in 2006, I took up the issue of flaws in the CO2e concept when applied to methane. The article was published in the Journal of Primary Industry Management. Almost certainly, I was the first person to take up this issue in New Zealand. But no-one seemed particularly interested and at the time I had other fish to fry. I did not persist with the issue.
The key message in all of this is that the rural sector of New Zealand needs to fight to keep methane issues separate from carbon dioxide. Once they are bundled up into unts of CO2e, there is no way that methane will receive the separate consideration that it needs. That includes the way that we report these issues to the United Nations, which will flow straight back into New Zealand reporting.
In contrast, the CCC report (p163) advocates bundling everything into one headline number. It suggests that there might be other ways of highlighting the special issues of methane but gives zero indication of how that might occur. I see that as a big cop-out. And it locks in that headline number as a mandatory requirement.
One of the problems for the rural sector has been insufficient expertise on greenhouse gas issues within industry bodies such as Federated Farmers. I have yet to find any professional staff in that organisation who can engage with the issues at the necessary level of depth. The industry has been fortunate that people like Parliamentary Commissioner Upton have rolled up their sleeves and generated useful debate from a position of insight. But that does not replace the needs for groups such as Federated Farmers to have their own professional specialists who can engage with these issues from a similarly informed position.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.