​Carbon Zero Bill - step change or step too far?

Submissions on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill (the Bill) close on 16 July 2019. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a framework to develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies that contribute to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

A pleasing aspect of the Bill is to distinguish between biogenic methane as a short-lived gas, and all the other greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide), rather than set a single target for all greenhouse gases. While different to the approach of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), splitting out methane better reflects New Zealand's economic base which is still heavily reliant on the production, processing and sale of agricultural products.

Within the Bill there is an interim requirement to reduce biogenic methane emissions to 10% below 2017 levels by 2030. While this target is highly ambitious, it is felt within the agricultural industry that this is achievable through the implementation of a number of changes within farm systems and promising research coming through the system.

However, the next target to reduce biogenic methane emissions within the range of 24% to 47% below 2017 levels by 2050 represents a considerable challenge for the agricultural industry based on what we know today. This aspirational target would appear to be heavily reliant on some yet to be seen new scientific breakthrough and/or technological advancement to effectively mitigate methane emissions levels proposed in the Bill.

The 2050 target has caught many by surprise in the agricultural industry. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, quotes modelling that shows methane from New Zealand agriculture does not cause extra warming beyond 2016 levels, and emissions need to reduce by at least 10% to 22% by 2050 with further reductions by 2100, which is significantly below the Bill's 2050 targeted range.

No doubt the final biogenic methane emissions targets will be hotly debated as the Bill progresses its way through the submission process.

The 2050 target will be immensely challenging and we should not underestimate the task ahead of livestock producers should this target be passed into legislation. I hope that science and new innovative on-farm practices come to the fore in helping farmers reduce their methane emission levels, while ensuring they can continue to maintain profitable and sustainable farm businesses into the future. However, given the enormity of the task at hand such optimism seems severely stretched.

For the type of step change required to achieve the 2050 targets under the Bill, we need to be prepared to test a range of different and innovative approaches to mitigate methane emissions on-farm, rather than restricting ourselves to the narrow range of research streams currently in the pipeline.

This involves pushing the boundaries of research endeavour further, which could include areas such as genetic modification in forages, among other potential options. Weighing up the inevitable conundrum of such research possibilities for what is possible and permissible needs to be deeply considered to reduce methane emissions to the scale proposed in the Bill. As difficult as this type of debate could be, this would better shape the discussion in developing a broader range of research strategies to mitigate greenhouse gases, and in determining future methane emission targets going forward.

Whatever the final targets will be, reducing on-farm methane emissions (along with improving water quality) is one of the most important issues faced by livestock producers in the future. As an industry we need to be far better at providing well-researched and easily accessible definitive sources of information for rural professionals to better guide their discussions with their farming clients in exploring different options in adapting their farm systems and in the identification of various actions to mitigate methane emissions and other greenhouse gases on-farm.