New Zealand’s new-look approach to methane ‘problematic’, top climate scientist says

The government’s goal of ‘no added heating’ from farming’s methane is problematic, a top Australian climate scientist says.

The government has just appointed a panel to spend four months reviewing the methane part of New Zealand’s climate target, led by former climate change commissioner and former Fonterra board member Nicola Shadbolt.

The panel is tasked with recommending a target consistent with causing ‘no additional warming’ to the planet from farming’s methane emissions.

New Zealand has two climate targets for 2050: Zero emissions of carbon dioxide (from cars, trucks and heavy industry, unless those emissions can be sucked back in again) and 24-47 percent cuts to methane (from belching cows and sheep). An interim target for 2030 of 10 per cent cuts to methane is unaffected by the review.

Taking a ‘no added warming’ approach is likely to see the 2050 methane target reduced.

The review aims to find a level of methane emissions consistent with the country’s farm animals producing the same amount of heating in 2050 as they did in 2017 – but not reducing their impact. The Climate Change Commission has said that would lower New Zealand’s climate ambition.

The concept of ‘no added heating’ has strong support from Federated Farmers, which said the review was “well overdue”.

But 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 is Australasia’s top representative on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Asked if aiming for ‘no added heating’ could meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, Howden said framing the target that way was “problematic”.

“It’s a problematic way of expressing the goal, and a much simpler way of expressing the goal is simply proportional reductions.”

Howden said taking a “sensible” mid-point from various IPCC pathways, methane would need to fall by roughly 60 per cent by 2050 to meet global climate goals, though not all of that reduction needed to come from agriculture.

Oil and gas industry leaks were also major contributors to methane production, and were under pressure to fall much faster than farming methane, because they were easier to stop and did not contribute to food production.

Simon Watts

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”.

He said the Paris Agreement recognised the importance of food security. Methane from farming was harder to slash deeply than carbon dioxide, which had more advanced clean alternatives available (like heat pumps, solar and wind power).

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

Howden made his comments in the context of Denmark announcing what it claimed would be a ‘world first’ law to price agricultural emissions.

“The barrier is about politics and agri-politics and who takes responsibility for emissions,” he said.

“If… agriculture and food gets off scot free, other sectors have to take (more) responsibility. Those other sectors will not be happy and it also doesn’t generate the least-cost pathway for reducing emissions.

“What the science says very clearly is we need to reduce methane emissions – and nitrous oxide emissions and carbon dioxide emissions – very significantly and very quickly if we’re to keep within the band of temperatures we have agreed to under the Paris Agreement.”

RNZ asked to speak to Climate Change Minister Simon Watts about the methane review but had not received an answer at the time of writing.

Danish ‘world first’?

New Zealand previously announced its own ‘world-first’ law to price agricultural emissions, but the former government’s pricing system is being wound back by the National-led coalition government.

According to Reuters, Denmark, a major pork, beef and dairy exporter, will introduce a tax of around NZ$70 a tonne on livestock emissions from 2030, with the price rising after that.

The Danish claim they will be first in the world to tax farming emissions after New Zealand decided to remove agriculture from entering its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the carbon pricing scheme that curbs emissions from the likes of petrol and electricity.

The New Zealand government says it still plans to price farming emissions by 2030, the year the Danish tax takes effect.

Danish farmers will be entitled to an income tax deduction of 60 percent on the cost of emissions, and taxes raised will go towards helping farmers cut emissions as well as projects such as forest planting and restoring wetlands.

The agreement represents a compromise with farmers, industry, labour unions and environmental groups, Reuters said.

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The news outlet reported the tax was first proposed in February by government-commissioned experts to help Denmark reach a legally binding 2030 target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent from 1990 levels.

Howden said the Danish scheme could be a “win-win-win”.

“Denmark, like New Zealand, has a very big proportion of its greenhouse gases from agriculture. If you’ve got almost half your emissions profile coming from a sector and there’s no policies to make reductions from that sector, you can’t meet your legislated target,” he said.

“So the Danes obviously had to do something, but they then had to juggle demands from the farming community and demands from conservation groups and find a compromise.

“It encourages farmers to take action to reduce emissions, and at the same time there is a tax break which applies to those farmers who engage in this, which reduces the financial burden on them.

“The tax on methane gets recycled into the industry … and takes them into new ways of doing things.”

Howden said it “wasn’t a race” to be first in the world to price agricultural emissions.

“But at the same time, it is a race to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions globally and that’s because food and agriculture systems produce about a third of greenhouse gas emissions across the globe. That’s too big to ignore,” he said.

Backstop gone

Advice released to the public this week by the Ministry for the Environment shows environment officials warned the government that the country’s climate targets could be in greater jeopardy if agricultural emissions did not face a price in “the near future”.

The advice was about the government’s plan – now almost complete – to repeal a law that would bring farming into the ETS.

The ETS provision was intended as a backstop, to give farming groups an incentive to work with the government to agree an alternative way to price farm gases.

Analysts warned if it was repealed (rather than delayed) there would be a “higher risk of not meeting emissions reductions targets and commitments if no alternative pricing system is established [for farming] in the near future”.

The law would have required dairy and meat processors to begin paying for fertiliser and livestock processing from the beginning of next year. It would also have required animal farmers to report on-farm emissions from 2026, and begin paying for them the following year.

But the government’s Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Scheme Agricultural Obligations) Amendment Bill will prevent this, in line with National Party campaign policy and coalition agreements.

“It actually supports farmers,” Watts said in a speech to Parliament this week.

“Agriculture is the backbone of the New Zealand economy, it contributes 81 percent of goods exported and New Zealand-grown produce feeds over 40 million people worldwide.”

Watts said the government was committed to supporting farmers to reduce emissions “in a way that does not put farmers out of business and shifts production offshore”.

The government also scrapped He Waka Eke Noa, the government-farming partnership set up by Labour to come up with a non-ETS pricing system.

The government is creating its own farming sector group instead.

The regulatory impact statement on preventing farming from entering the ETS said it would not be immediately practical for farming to enter the scheme anyway, because no work had been done to prepare for it, because it was assumed the He Waka Eke Noa process would find an alternative pricing method.

Although ministers made clear they wanted to ditch any possibility of using the ETS as a backstop, officials still presented them with alternatives including pushing the deadline back but keeping the ETS option in law.

They told ministers that keeping the ETS as a backstop would have retained some incentive for farming groups to reach agreement on an alternative system.

They said leaving farming out of climate efforts by not pricing its emissions could put more burden on the rest of the economy to meet New Zealand’s climate targets.

The advice said, compared to the status quo, scrapping the backstop of having farming enter the ETS created a “higher risk of not meeting emissions reductions targets and commitments if no alternative pricing system is established in the near future.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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