Zero carbon plan weighs softer targets for farms

The Government is considering setting softer targets for the methane burped by New Zealand’s cows, while reducing carbon dioxide from transport and other sectors to zero.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw today launched a six-week public consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill, ending July 19, as part of an effort to lock in ambitious carbon cuts and discourage what Shaw calls “reductions in ambition” in response to short-term events (such as the softening in climate efforts that occurred after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis).

The consultation document proposes three possible replacements for New Zealand’s current target of a 50 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050.

The most ambitious of the three would reduce all emissions to net zero by 2050, which it’s estimated would require up to 10 percent of New Zealand’s land to be planted in new forestry in order to reduce and offset all greenhouse gases.

The other two proposed targets would result in either no goal for reducing methane or keeping methane “stable”, though the document doesn’t say at what level methane might be stabilised. 

Those two scenarios would likely result in less drastic changes to land use over the coming decades and less rapid impacts on farmers, though the document notes that big changes will be needed under any scenario.

By raising the possibility of two different and parallel targets for farming and other gases, the Government is recognising arguments that have long been advanced on behalf of farmers: that methane, which makes up 43 percent of New Zealand’s emissions, isn’t as bad as carbon dioxide because it lasts for decades, not centuries, in the atmosphere.

A paper from Victoria University recently proposed treating short-lived gases such as methane differently from carbon dioxide, on the basis that they disappear much quicker. 

Not all gases from farming are short-lived, though. Nitrous oxide, the second most prevalent agricultural greenhouse gas and the source of 12 percent of New Zealand’s emissions, is very long-lived.

Under the least ambitious, “CO2-only” target in the document, New Zealand would not cut nitrous oxide, a predominantly farming-related gas produced from livestock urine and fertiliser. It would tackle only the 44 percent of New Zealand’s emissions that come from CO2.

Several studies, including recent ones from New Zealand, have concluded that, because both methane and nitrous oxide are highly potent warmers (notwithstanding methane’s short lifetime) global warming can’t be stabilised within 2C of the long-term average temperature without tackling agricultural greenhouse gases. That is partly because the next few decades may prove crucial to avoid the globe hitting so-called climate change ‘tipping points’, beyond which it becomes harder to keep the climate within comfortable limits.

The question globally is whether agricultural gases should be treated like any others, or whether ag-heavy countries like New Zealand, Ireland and Brazil should take a different approach to farming versus other gases.

In theory, the new consultation document notes, if all countries stabilised short-lived gases such as methane rather than reducing them to net zero, global temperatures would still stop rising, but at a higher temperature than if all emissions were cut to net zero.

One major unknown when it comes to cutting methane and nitrous oxide is technology – in one of the scenarios modelled by NZIER to estimate the economic effects, an anti-methane vaccine being worked on in Palmerston North succeeds and is administered to all cows and sheep by 2030, reducing methane burped by 20-30 percent. NZIER also modelled the effects if global demand for dairy drops 11 percent by 2050 and beef and lamb by 15 percent as people switch to climate-friendlier synthetic meats.

In terms of the overall economic impact NZIER suggests that under the various targets GDP will continue to grow but will be in the range of 10 percent to 22 percent less in 2050, compared with doing nothing – although Shaw notes that doing nothing about climate change isn’t likely.

By 2050, household national income would still have increased by 40 percent, instead of 55 percent, the document says – though it notes the lowest income households could suffer about twice the impact of other households. It isn't yet how the Government proposes to the lessen impacts on poorer people, though Shaw has signalled he’s working on it.

NZIER modelled that if we do nothing on climate the average annual GDP 
growth rate over 2017–2050 would be 2.2 percent compared with 1.5-2.1 percent under the various targets and depending how technological innovation plays out. A second analysis by Vivid Economics came out with a lower emissions price, suggesting less impact, and the consultation document has assumed the real impact is somewhere in between, though it’s not clear where.

In a bid to balance certainty about emissions targets with some flexibility, the Government is mooting leaving the door open to changing the 10-15 year carbon budgets on a rolling basis and allowing quick-fire changes in response to emergencies such as a natural disaster. The five- and possibly 10-year budgets would be more concrete. It’s also proposing that the soon-to-be-created Climate Commission will have advisory, but not binding, powers to steer New Zealand towards achieving the cuts.

The locations and dates of public meetings and hui around the country are here.

Read more: Poorest Kiwis face worst, and best, of climate change

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