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Cash cows and climate talks: agricultural emissions under the Paris deal

Much of the local media focus has been on the ‘headline’ issue of the adequacy or inadequacy of New Zealand’s provisional offer to reduce GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, the equivalent of an 11% reduction from 1990 levels. Following a predictable trajectory, the 11% offer has been condemned as inadequate by local and international environmental NGOs and commentators and staunchly defended by government representatives. Meanwhile, large chunks of the New Zealand citizenry seem unmoved by climate issues generally. Debate over New Zealand’s climate target will, no doubt, continue up to and beyond the historic negotiations at the Paris-Le Bourget Conference Centre in December. However of just as much interest – and probably of greater significance to New Zealand in the longer run – are some of the non-headline issues up for discussion, and on which it is safe to assume that the New Zealand negotiating team will be spending a great deal of time working on in the lead up to the event.

One of these issues was the subject of an intriguing, but little reported-upon, speech by the Minister of Trade and Climate Change Issues Tim Groser in Dublin on 16 July. The speech was headed “Ireland and New Zealand Agriculture: Trade and Climate Change”. As well as talking up New Zealand’s (not undeserved) international reputation as a carbon-efficient agricultural producer, the Minister outlined the case for a fresh approach to treatment of agricultural GHG emissions, or more precisely, ‘enteric methane from livestock’. As is well known, New Zealand’s emissions profile is, for a developed OECD country, unusual, in that around 50% of calculated emissions come from primary-sector methane.

Part of the problem with the existing international framework for agricultural emissions, the Minister suggests, comes from a policy decision made early in the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol negotiations to adopt a system whereby various greenhouse gases would be assigned a 100 year GWP or ‘global warming potential’ metric.

Molecule for molecule, methane traps considerably more heat than carbon dioxide and so rightly is assigned a heavier accounting weight in emissions inventories. However methane persists in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than other gases, including carbon dioxide. Amongst other factors, the timeframe selected for the measure makes a big difference to the assigned accounting weight. Are we concerned about immediate warming? If so, we should adopt a 20 or 50 year timeframe which would penalise methane-heavy economies such as New Zealand. Or should we be looking out further to 200 years or 500 years, when major planetary changes are of most concern? In that case, methane would have less relative weight.

The Minister has a clear view: adopt a different GWP coefficient, or a different metric entirely. But beyond that, and noting that New Zealand happens to be in a similar situation in this respect to many developing nations for whom food production and food security is a priority, “we need to have a more honest debate about how agriculture will be treated in a new long-term comprehensive agreement.” This implies that treatment of agriculture under previous instruments, notably, the Kyoto Protocol, may have been politically rational at the time, but is not an acceptable or appropriate model for a new comprehensive climate change agreement in the 21st century.

Options outlined include adopting intensity targets for agricultural emissions rather than absolute limits, setting targets around food loss and wastage, and upgraded commitments to research and development. New Zealand is already ahead here with its Global Research Alliance on Agriculture Emissions

There will, almost certainly, be objections from some quarters to what will be perceived as attempts by New Zealand’s to avoid stumping up with ‘hard’ emissions reductions, including from the “eat less meat, drink less milk” camp. However, the Minister has a point when he notes (conveniently, it must be said) that the international treatment of agricultural emissions is no longer just ‘a New Zealand problem’. It will be interesting to observe how that particular item on the Paris agenda shapes up in the months ahead.

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