Tackling agricultural emissions: the NZ story

In this guest post, Josh Pemberton, an intern at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, describes the Ag Dialogue exercise Motu ran last year. This interesting and thought-provoking short film exploring what reducing emissions really means for New Zealand’s farming communities was one result.

New Zealand is, in many ways, an unusual country. We pride ourselves on punching above our weight in international relations and sport; but we cherish the fact that we are a small and uncrowded nation, happily occupying our own little corner of the earth. We admire our rugby and Olympic heroes yet our national symbols are relatively innocuous: an upside down fern frond (the upper side of a silver fern is, of course, green) and a flightless, nocturnal bird. It must say something about our mentality that in recent years we treated an unshorn sheep like a national celebrity, and that a shortage of our favourite spread triggered panic-buying and created ongoing headlines.

Something else which is unusual about New Zealand — considering that we’re a developed nation — is that agriculture is responsible for almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is, of course, vitally important to our economy – providing jobs and crucial export dollars. These two factors together give rise to a tension which can inhibit conversation about the effect of agriculture on the environment. It’s easy to end up with “naïve greenies” and “conservative farmers” (as they may perceive each other to be) talking past one another, and missing an opportunity to make real progress.

In the past two years, Motu Research has sought to increase the quality of the conversations that people are having on this topic. Motu set up and ran the Ag Dialogue group, bringing together farmers, scientists, iwi, government representatives and other experts to talk through issues around greenhouse gas emissions. There was no specific output in mind, although the Dialogue did catalyse a significant amount of research by Motu economists. The Dialogue also led Motu to release The New Zealand Farming Story: Tackling Agricultural Emissions, the short film embedded above.

Motu have also launched a blog focusing on agricultural emission issues, and released a set of teaching resources to accompany the film. One idea which came through in the Dialogue was that regulation of environmental problems is most effective when it is preceded by awareness building and capacity-raising (see this blog post for an explanation). The film, teaching materials and blog are a recognition of this, and an attempt to build the profile of the issue of agricultural emissions.

What do you think? Are agricultural emissions something that we should focus on tackling? And if so, how can we get broad buy-in? Some argue that New Zealand’s contribution to global warming is too small in global terms to make a difference. Those people forget the traditional role played by silver ferns, that unusual national symbol. The colour of the fern meant that it reflected moon and star light, making it perfect for marking walking tracks in dark night-time forests. If New Zealand can make meaningful progress on the issue of agricultural emissions, we can serve a silver fern-like purpose in setting a path for the world to follow.

In worldwide terms, agriculture is responsible for around 10-12% of all human-caused emissions – which isn’t so insignificant. If we develop new ways of thinking and doing things that the rest of the world can adopt, we can lead the way in making a real difference. I think that something about that is quite fitting, for a far-flung and small country that likes to punch above its weight.

17 thoughts on “Tackling agricultural emissions: the NZ story”

  1. [Snipped: off-topic. This thread is about how to go about emissions reductions, not trying to argue they’re not needed. GR]

    NZ has far more pressing environmental issues to concern itself with than ruminant methane emissions.

    1. Ok, then if the non-problem of methane emissions is off topic, then we can solve this non-problem by dramatically reducing the size of NZ’s herd, or even completely removing our primary industry from the marketplace.

      This is already acknowledged as the only way to deal with this “problem”

      1. Well done, Andy. You’ve learned something about not locking our agricultural enterprises into high emissions pathways.

        As long as industrial dairy — which has many drawbacks beyond carbon or nitrogen wastes — continues to grow without restraint, the more distorted our agricultural economy will become. An increase in diversity and an emphasis on lower emissions/more adaptable crops would stand us in far better stead than a blind devotion to the udder.

  2. Also Lucy Craymer at the Wall Street Journal seems a little confused as to the purpose of using DCD—the chemical behind the recent scare; on the 24th of January it writes:

    Farmers apply DCD to pastures to prevent nitrate, a fertilizer byproduct that can also cause health problems, from getting into rivers and lakes.

    However the next day, another article from the same author has a photo caption:

    The chemical, which farmers apply to pastures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, is toxic to humans in high doses.

    The original text remains, but is buried near the end of the article. If you watch the news report, Lucy (apparently a Wellingtonian) explains early in the story (~0:25) that is it applied to stop climate change, and answers a question much later (~2:45) and goes into the other reasons that leached nitrates are bad.

    This is a shameful editorial decision by the Wall Street Journal, they are clearly demonizing climate change through this change in emphasis. But then, the WSJ contributing to the tension you mention is not news.

  3. The only reason our animal emissions are 50% of the total is that we burn hardly any coal for our electricity. If you look at the World Bank figures we are miles lower than the UK or the USA.
    We help those countries by exporting our dairy and lamb products and leave the emissions here.
    It would be vain hope that we could invoice our customers for the emissions to go with the products.
    Having said that, the cattle make a big mess of our waterways and the farming community needs to work harder to clear up the mess that their cattle make.
    I have said before that the easiest way to reduce our emissions even further is to convert more of our transport to electricity

    1. This ‘ Gapminder’ graph of CO2 emissions and per capita income -http://www.gapminder.org/world/#$majorMode=chart$is;shi=t;ly=2003;lb=f;il=t;fs=11;al=55;stl=t;st=t;nsl=t;se=t$wst;tts=C$ts;sp=6
      like a star luminosity chart, goes from feeble, low emitting poor countries like Zimbabwe and Afghanistan to bloated supergiants like Canada and the States. It has New Zealand pretty much on the ‘main sequence’: not much better than the UK considering our hydro and geothermal assets and low population density. Countries well below the curve include Brazil, with lots of big dams and ethanol; France, Switzerland, and Sweden, with mainly nuclear and hydro power; and the Chinese city states Singapore and Hong Kong. If non CO2 greenhouse gases were charted too, New Zealand would be punching well above its weight, but not in a good way.

    2. Hi Bob. When you say “The only reason our animal emissions are 50% of the total is that we burn hardly any coal for our electricity”, what do you mean? Are you implying that because we don’t burn all that much coal for electricity our aggregate emissions are lower, and therefore agriculture is made to look higher? If so, I don’t think that you are correct. Which World Bank figures are you referring to? These ones here would suggest your statement is inaccurate http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC. The reason agricultural emissions make up a large part of our emissions profile is because we have so many animals, and they (and products used to help grow them) produce a lot of nitrous oxide and methane.

      1. Josh – The link you provide is for CO2 emissions per capita.
        Where is the information about the stock levels?

        However, it is interesting that NZ emissions per capita are below those of the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

        It’s also interesting that China’s emission per capita are half of NZ’s, yet they emit more CO2 than the rest of the world put together, and continue to accelerate away from the rest of the world

      2. Looking at the Table of CO2 per capita I was surprised that our emissions were 7.7 and the same as the UK. But this is part of the problem. we have abnormally high farming emissions and we export the product (to the UK?) and leave the emissions here.
        With transport we are very bad as we have cheap fuel, so we squander it and we have old inefficient cars. Even the new cars are mostly Australian gas guzzlers with old technology.

  4. Gareth, I have been unable to watch this video as my only browser that handles embedded videos, a beta port of firefox 4, has a significant memory problem and is choked to death by your popups. It can download this video to cache but with so many errors that I usually only get to see a few frames. Often I can find the video elsewhere and get a decent download but in this case need the youtube url. The linked pages are even more irritating as they refuse to allow a download unless I have certain software not available on my platform which can otherwise display any format. A port of Firefox 19 is on the way but probably months away yet.

      1. Thanks John. I actually found it

        here almost as soon as I asked and got a clean download.

        I have supported the view that if we got CO2 emissions down globally agricultural methane emissions would not be an issue. However, CO2 emissions are not anytime soon, even with best efforts, going to get low enough for this to be true. Yet the most significant methane emissions come from melting tundra and what goes on under the arctic seabed. There is not a thing we can do about that except cool the planet down again.

        On a personal front I am a vegin so do not contribute via food to ruminant sourced emissions which drives some farmers I’ve known spare.

        1. Here’s a proposal for blasting arctic methane with radio waves tuned to oxidise it to water. No idea how plausible it is, or whether the problem is as bad as this article makes out.
          Presumably the noctilucent clouds resulting from this would also affect the earth’s heat budget, but less dangerously. This paper looks at methods to reduce cirrus clouds as a method for buying some time while we decarbonise our economy.

  5. Think I linked this video some time ago – Agresearch tried putting tannin genes in white clover to cut methane from cows.
    Just in case someone has a stroke from seeing the ‘GE’ acronym they’ve sent the result offshore for evaluation; a few years delay putting the research into the field can’t do any harm can it?

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