20 May 2019

It's all about the cow burps

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 20 May 2019
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Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Since the details were released earlier this month, the Zero Carbon Bill – as it’s come to be known – has sparked a conversation about how New Zealand earns its money, and whether that needs to change.

Undeniably, New Zealand is a nation of food producers. The country’s economy relies on being able to send its cheese, meat and milk around the world.

Also undeniable is that the planet is getting warmer. 

Animal agriculture on a mass scale is accelerating that process, through the production of methane and nitrous oxide. Both are greenhouses gases which linger for less time than carbon dioxide, but which have a greater contribution to warming while they’re around.

Eloise Gibson, Newsroom.co.nz’s science and environment editor, says New Zealand must worry about all three gases, yet pay special attention to nitrous oxide and methane emissions. Having to do so is “unusual” for a developed country, she says.

“We’re really the only developed country… that has really high per-capita emissions of methane. It’s generally poorer farming nations that are affected by this, because they tend to have small industrial sectors, small manufacturing sectors, and a lot of agriculture.”

The Zero Carbon Bill – or more accurately, the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill – is New Zealand’s attempt to legislate emissions targets, in line with what was agreed to in the Paris Agreement.

“What it does is takes this big, lofty, far away target of zero emissions by 2050, and breaks them down into five-yearly emissions budgets,” says Gibson.

Specifically, it sets a net-zero target for nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, and methane by 24-47 percent, by 2050. The base mark for the reduction is 2017.

“The other thing that it does is set up an independent climate change commission,” she adds, which she says would issue the budgets and review any targets.

While both the agricultural industry and environmental groups were unhappy with the proposals in the bill, Gibson says New Zealand will end up having to change because of it.

“There are two competing visions here,” she said.

“We keep farming a lot of cows and sheep but we get super high-tech, so we have a methane vaccine, methane inhibitors… and we just do everything we can to bring our emissions down and then we say, ‘Hey – we’re still making some methane, but we’re the most efficient producer in the world and if you’re going to buy meat and dairy – buy ours'.

“The other vision is – we just need to do something else.”

Photo: RNZ