Ralph Sims - New Zealand's going to have to make some hard decisions over agriculture to meet its long term climate change targets. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand can reach its “modest” Paris Agreement climate target relatively easily, a leading climate scientist says. But to achieve the Government’s goal of the country being carbon neutral by 2050 will be much harder, including shifting the agricultural industry away from emissions-heavy livestock farming.

Massey University professor Ralph Sims, a regular contributor to the seven-yearly Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, says New Zealand can meet its Paris Agreement climate targets by using existing technologies. That will come down to “dollars and political leadership”.

To meet long-term goals, however – and to help stop the planet warming to dangerous temperatures – New Zealand’s livestock numbers will have to be cut, he says.

“We can’t keep producing the food in the way we’re doing. The world will have to move away from animal protein, to a large degree. That means New Zealand’s milk and beef products are going to be up for question. There’ll still be niche markets, but because of the emissions involved we’ve got to go to vegetable-type synthetic protein diets, with synthetic meat.”

Newsroom asked Federated Farmers president Katie Milne for comment but she didn’t respond by publication deadline. The lobby group’s website says action should be taken to address climate change. But to protect our food supply and exports, Federated Farmers says New Zealand’s policies should focus on making farm production more efficient rather than penalising agricultural production.

(Agricultural professor Keith Woodford, of Lincoln University, wrote in a blog last week that there are strategies to deal with agricultural emission that don’t need to destroy the dairy industry. He says the key to what he calls “pastoral dairy sustainability” is dairy composting barns, to keep cows off paddocks during the second half of autumn and through much of winter.)

The John Key-led Government ratified the Paris climate agreement in October last year. But the target, by 2030, of reducing emissions 11 percent below what they were in 1990, has been criticised as being woefully inadequate.

The Jacinda Ardern-led Government is talking tough about climate change. During the election campaign, Ardern described climate change as “the nuclear-free movement of our generation”. At a climate conference in Germany this month, Climate Change Minister James Shaw said New Zealand had turned a corner and would now be a world leader on climate change. The Government plans to set up an independent climate commission and enshrine its net-zero target in a Zero Carbon Act.

As industrialised nations continue to spew out billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, and carbon-absorbing forests are cut down, the climate science continues to show worrying trends. Last year was the hottest on record and carbon dioxide readings in the atmosphere are now about 406 million parts per million, the highest concentrations in more than three million years.

If the warming world causes ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland to collapse, that would be disastrous for humanity, much of which clusters in low-lying coastal areas.

Plotting the path forward

In April last year, Sims and other scientists set out the challenge of reducing New Zealand’s climate emissions in a Royal Society of New Zealand report, Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand.

For example, the Government could set fuel-efficiency standards for transport, more road freight could be shifted to rail and shipping, and the open-road speed limit could be lowered to 90 kph. More electric cars would help, Sims says, as would dairy giant Fonterra switching from coal-burning factories to forest waste.

The Paris Agreement says developed countries, like New Zealand, should lead the way with actual reductions in emissions, basically because those are the economies that have benefited the most in the past from burning fossil fuels.

Professor James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, says if any country in the world can be carbon neutral it’s New Zealand.

“I think we should be leading the way on reducing actual emissions by going to 100 percent renewable electricity, electrifying the vehicle fleet and so on and so forth.”

Renwick, who used to manage climate research for the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, or NIWA, says New Zealand can actually go quite a long way towards the Paris goal while ignoring agriculture. That’s because transport, industry and energy production sectors have been responsible for much of the emissions growth in the last 20 years. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions have increased 78 percent since 1990.

Renwick: “But if we are going to get to zero net emissions by 2050, which is the new Government’s goal, then we will have to do more than just plant trees. We will have to reduce the total emissions from the agriculture sector, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to reduce the intensity, especially of dairy farming.”

Sims says technology is yet to emerge that will reduce enteric methane, from the likes of cattle and deer, by giving them a vaccine or changing feed. He dismisses reducing emissions per animal while improving productivity as just “tweaking the edges”.

“We cannot get to zero emissions or anywhere near zero emissions without changing our land-use substantially.”

(Agriculture puts a brave face on its support for climate change action but not everyone’s convinced the industry’s taking the threat seriously enough. Fonterra’s latest plan to reduce its net carbon emissions to “zero” by 2050 has been called a “fudge” by veteran business and political commentator Rod Oram.)

“All countries should be doing everything they can to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sims’ comments underline work by Vivid Economics, produced earlier this year for a cross-party group of MPs, which concluded New Zealand needed to cut livestock numbers and plant more trees to achieve climate goals. Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has told Newsroom the country “may have got close to the maximum number of cows”. And in a rare public appearance in May, former US president Barack Obama raised concerns about increasing agricultural emissions.

The previous government’s line that New Zealand only emits 0.2 percent of global emissions doesn’t hold much water for Victoria’s Renwick. He says this country is in the top 10 of per capita global emitters and we’re fortunate not many people, by global standards, live here.

(University of Canterbury associate professor Bronwyn Hayward, the director of The Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research group, has recently published a book Sea Change: Climate politics and New Zealand. In an email she says: “The Paris Agreement was created on the expectation that citizens, and other nations, will bring increasing pressure to bear to challenge governments to disclose what they are doing honestly and do more. Looked at cynically, you could suggest New Zealand’s very modest targets were initially set to give the government wiggle-room in the future without having to make significant impacts but still increase our contribution.”)

Renwick says there’s now urgency to the issue of climate change, which is the biggest problem humanity has faced. The science shows that, given the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the world is close to thresholds for ice melt and sea level rise.

“What we decide to do globally with emissions in the next 10 or 20 years has the potential to determine the fate of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” Renwick says. “All countries should be doing everything they can to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sims says the world has to reach net-zero emissions sometime around about mid-century to keep climate change-fuelled temperature increases below two degrees centigrade, above which the world’s weather will be radically different. Global emissions are nowhere near tailing off, he says, despite a slowly bending curve because of the Paris Agreement.

“So by mid-century or soon after, or thereabouts, it’ll be too late for two degrees and we’ll be at three degrees or four degrees. It won’t worry me, but it might worry you and some of your grandchildren.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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