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The flaws in the primary sector’s promises

The promises made by the primary sector on climate change action come with five big weaknesses, says Rod Oram.

Are our farmers willing at last to take up their responsibility to play their role in tackling the climate crisis?

They have made some promises that they will in the agreement their representatives have just signed with the Government. They say they will, over the next few years,  begin at a farm level over the next few years to measure and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and to price their emissions from 2025.

They say their plan – Our Future in Our Hands – “outlines our collective commitment in response to the challenges posed by climate change and to contribute to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, whilst maintaining food production.”

To that end, the document lays out eight courses of action the alliance of 11 primary sector organisations say they will initiate. Those range from developing farm environmental plans and farm-level emission reporting systems, to sharing knowledge of how to reduce emissions and developing an on-farm emissions pricing system.

The document was their pitch to the Government in July to avoid being included in the Emissions Trading Scheme, which covers the rest of the economy. They succeeded. Those pledges form the basis of the agricultural emissions agreement they’ve just signed with the Government.

But their promises come with five big weaknesses. Any one of them could thwart the pledges.

First, the agricultural alliance has set no targets for emissions reduction. That removes an essential discipline used by all organisations serious about the climate crisis to help drive their transformation to low or no emissions.

Yet, climate science tells us exactly how big those reductions have to be to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5c. Globally, humankind has to cut all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to net zero by 2050; and reduce emissions of biogenic methane by about one third.

So, those are the targets our Government has proposed in its Zero Carbon Bill, which it is confident a parliamentary majority will approve by early December. In the case of biogenic methane from farming, it modified the goal to a range of 24–47 percent below 2017 levels by 2050, including a 10 percent cut by 2030.

Second, the eight courses of action are skeletal. Yet, that underplays the knowledge and actions already underway. For example, the accord promises all farms will have an emissions reporting system in place by 2025. Yet, Fonterra says all its farms will have them by next July. Likewise, many farms around the country already have environmental plans encouraged or mandated by regional councils.

Worse, the promise to develop an on-farm emissions pricing mechanism consists so far of only a few broad principles. Yet, for farmers that is the most contentious pledge. Fierce rows about it run the real risk of no progress before the 2025 deadline.

That was exactly what happened when the National Animal Identification and Tracing System was introduced in 2012. Shortly afterwards, a Federated Farmers survey found that 2 percent of its members supported NAIT and 80 percent opposed it. When mycoplasma bovis struck the country in 2017, it spread rapidly because of the high level of non-compliance among some farmers. There had only ever been one fine for non-compliance, a mere $150.

... the farming signatories to the climate agreement are woefully under-resourcing their efforts.

Fed Farmers is one of the 11 signatories to the climate agreement with the Government. Yet its press release is less than enthusiastic. For example, it repeats yet again its line that when it comes to cost-effective methane mitigation tools for farmers there are “none available”. That is absolutely the opposite answer given by, for example, the report last year of the Biological Emissions Reference Group, of which it was a member, or the ag emissions report this year by the government’s Interim Climate Change Committee.

Mindful of such machinations among farming groups, the Government has wisely added a review mechanism to the climate agreement it has signed with them. In 2022, our new Climate Change Commission will assess progress on the pledges. If it deems it inadequate the Government says it reserves the power to bring agriculture into the ETS.

Third, the farming signatories to the climate agreement are woefully under-resourcing their efforts. For example, DairyNZ, the sector’s farmer-funded research organisation, currently allocates only $18 million a year towards its client “being a low-emissions, sustainable, and competitive dairy sector.” Similarly, Beef+Lamb allocates only “$5.4 m annually towards supporting the sheep and beef sector's transition to a carbon neutrality at the farm gate.”

In total, the signatories say they have rounded up some $25 m a year for their work on the climate accord. Yet, that is only 0.1 percent of the $23 billion of export revenues of just the dairy and red meat sectors in the past 12 months.

Yes, there is other money trickling into agriculture’s response to the climate crisis from the Government, processing companies, farmers, researchers and others. But the sums are ludicrously small given the economic importance of the agricultural sector and the scale of its climate challenges, both to reduce emissions and to adapt to changes in climate, technologies and consumer choices.

For a guide to what real climate investment looks like, and the benefits from it, a definitive source is the report last year by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Fourth, the 11 agri-sector organisations that produced the Our Future in Our Hands proposal and signed the climate accord with the Government seem to have little to say about vital, big and positive roles agriculture must play in the climate crisis. Without that sense of mission and urgency, it’s hard to imagine them achieving much by their 2025 deadline.

For insight and inspiration, for example, they could read the recent report Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use from the Food and Land Use Coalition. Its members include the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which in turn has major agribusinesses among its members, and the World Resources Institute.

Or they could read the study Contribution of the Land Sector to a 1.5c World in the latest edition of the journal Nature Climate Change. It shows how known pathways for reducing biogenic methane and other agricultural emissions, reducing food waste, diet changes, restoring wetlands, avoiding deforestation and achieving reforestation are some of ways land use could achieve 30 percent of the reduction in emissions we need for a 1.5c world.

Or if they wonder what consumers in the US, for example, are up to they could check out this interactive New York Times article Your Questions About Food and Climate Change Answered: How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world.

The fifth weakness of this agricultural climate agreement is party politics.

If National fails to whole-heartedly back it and the Zero Carbon Bill, then plenty of farming leaders and their followers will hope the next National government will render this crucial initiative useless, as it did with the Emissions Trading Scheme on its previous return to power.

So, this agricultural climate agreement is a good start. But it will fail if its signatories don’t fix its weaknesses.

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