Primary Industries

Farmers at odds with public on greenhouse gases

The farming sector and the general population remain at odds on how to tackle climate change, while the Government wrestles with drafting a bill that can get bipartisan support, Thomas Coughlan reports.

Submissions on the Government’s flagship climate change legislation, the Zero Carbon Bill, show farmers digging in their heels over proposed tough greenhouse gas targets.

The bill will set New Zealand's long-term emissions goal and establish an independent Climate Change Commission. 

More than 15,000 submissions were received on the proposed legislation, and 91 percent of the “long” submissions supported the Government setting a target of net zero emissions across all greenhouse gases by 2050. But fewer than 5 percent of submitters from the agriculture sector backed this model.

Roughly half of the agriculture sector submitters wanted a “two basket” approach, which would set a target of reducing the net level of long-lived gases such as carbon dioxide to zero, but take a more lenient approach on short-lived gases like methane (which would be “stabilised”). Nearly forty percent of agricultural submitters wanted neither option, opting for the "other" box.

There is widespread support for including all greenhouse gas emissions in the Zero Carbon Bill. Photo: Ministry for the Environment

The thorny issue of agricultural emissions is at the heart of New Zealand's climate change debate. Nearly half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, but most of this is from animals burping methane, a short-lived gas that contributes aggressively to global warming but doesn’t persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide. 

Cutting all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero would require substantial emissions reduction from the agriculture sector.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Newsroom that the public’s response was clear, but added he was mindful that the responses of those who took part in the consultation were likely not representative of the public’s views at large. 

“You have to acknowledge its the most interested people, not a representative sample,” he said. 

Shaw said he did not want to take a “majoritarian” approach and would respect the small, but vocal minority that was opposed to net zero greenhouse emissions across all gases. 

“You’ve got to take everyone with you — You’ve got to take account of that minority view as well,” he said.

The agriculture gulf

Agriculture and other primary industries are the only sectors with significant support for the “two basket” option. 

Opinion in the agriculture sector is at odds with others. Photo: Ministry for the Environment

Nearly 75 percent of submissions from the forestry sector support the total net zero emissions, possibly seeing an opportunity for increased tree planting. Submitters from the waste, building and architecture, retail and hospitality, and healthcare sectors also expressed a strong preference for targeting all greenhouse gases. 

But other significant players still support the “two basket” approach. This year, reports from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and the Productivity Commission have both set out an economic and environmental case for treating short-lived agricultural emissions differently. 

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s submission argued any target “should include some reduction in the flow of methane, while acknowledging that methane emissions – unlike carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide – do not need to reach net zero to avoid further warming".

Unsurprisingly, this view was shared broadly by the significant organisations in the agriculture sector. Dairy NZ said it supported the “split gas target”, and asked for Government help in meeting that target.

This position was echoed by Federated Farmers, Fonterra, and Ravensdown

Balancing this was widespread support for the all-encompassing net zero emissions target, which came from organisations as diverse as Canterbury District Health Board and Sky City Entertainment.

Canterbury DHB said only targeting carbon dioxide would “not address the other major sources of New Zealand emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide produced by agriculture”, adding climate change had serious health implications. 

Now for the hard part 

Consultation is only part of the story. The wellspring of support for action on climate change has created the political impetus, but precisely what form it takes now depends on the parties negotiating the final text of the Zero Carbon Bill.

The challenges of those negotiations means the Government has quietly pushed back the introduction of the bill.

National has committed to working with the Government on the legislation, and National's climate spokesperson Todd Muller is currently locked in negotiation with Shaw on a final text. 

Shaw said negotiations were “constructive” and “it’s a very principled set of conversations”, but the legislation was taking time.

“It is pretty crunchy in terms of the detail and how you interpret and apply that principle in terms of legislation,” he said. 

Muller told Newsroom his party was still taking a “bipartisan approach to climate change”.

“Long-lasting change requires broad and enduring support. That’s why National is working with the Government to make meaningful bipartisan progress towards an independent, non-political Climate Change Commission,” he said. 

But negotiations appear to have stalled.

Muller said the bill had yet to be drafted and Shaw conceded it was taking longer than anticipated. 

Shaw told Newsroom a bill was likely in the next “few weeks, or in the next couple of months”, which means it may miss out on being introduced in the Parliament’s remaining sitting days. There are just two more four-week sitting blocks left this year.

Meanwhile the Ministry for the Environment has quietly shifted the goalposts on its website. Earlier this year, the ministry said a bill would be ready in October, now the website says the bill drafting process will be completed in December. 

Shaw said the Zero Carbon Bill would be delivered, whether or not there was consensus. 

“Neither of us can guarantee that we’ll get consensus or full consensus, but we’re giving it our best shot,” he said.

“I think it is more important that we get it right than rush it,” he said.

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