Cattle farmers have taken heart from recent reports that suggest methane should be treated differently in accounting for a greenhouse gases. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Farmers’ relief at smaller-than-expected methane emission cuts appears short-lived. David Williams reports.

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a wake-up call for New Zealand over methane reductions, a Kiwi academic says.

Sheep and cattle farmers have taken heart from recent reports that suggest methane, burped by their ruminant livestock, should be treated differently in accounting for a greenhouse gases because it’s shorter lived than carbon dioxide. They’d hoped this would lead to smaller cuts to livestock numbers without denting the country’s credentials in tackling climate change.

(New Zealand has the largest per-capita emission rate of the gas in the world – six times the global average.)

An IPCC special report, released yesterday, warns that “large, immediate, and unprecedented global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases” are needed to avoid catastrophic warming. It says to keep below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, compared to pre-industrial levels, global methane has to be reduced by 35 percent by 2050.

“If New Zealand is serious about being a leader in climate change, that matters,” University of Canterbury political scientist Bronwyn Hayward says. She was a lead author for the IPCC report’s chapter on sustainable development, poverty eradication and reducing inequalities.

One of the IPCC report’s lead authors, Bronwyn Hayward. Photo: University of Canterbury

Hayward says the report will be “a wake-up call and a bit of a shock” for New Zealand because a 35 percent reduction, compared to 2010 levels, is far higher than recent reports suggesting the country could farm cows and have a clean climate conscience by roughly stabilising methane or cutting it by 10-22 percent. Plus, “It really ups the standards for what’s expected globally.”

(Federated Farmers’ climate change spokesman Andrew Hoggard, who hasn’t read the IPCC report, says: “That’s the biggest thing that’s confusing the snot out of me. You’ve got a bunch of PhDs saying one thing and a bunch of PhDs saying the other thing. Which PhD’s correct?”)

Just over a week ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the United Nations general assembly about climate change. She said the effects were “not academic, or even arguable” – that undermining climate-related targets and agreements will be catastrophic.

Hayward says the IPCC report puts pressure on Ardern’s Government to walk the talk. “The Government is now seen internationally as a progressive climate leader, but we need to be able to deliver that,” Hayward says.

Countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement agreed to cuts in their greenhouse gases emissions. But none of those will be deep enough to achieve the 1.5C target, the IPCC report warns. Hayward says for New Zealand that means taking a serious look at methane. “What this report is asking for is real change within the next 10 years – really visible on the ground, deep cuts. That’s going to be hard.”

‘Wait on methane’

Victoria University of Wellington professor of climate change Dave Frame disagrees with Hayward. While the IPCC report’s valuable for pointing out the the scale of decarbonisation needed to limit warming to 1.5C, he says the problem is mainly about carbon dioxide.

“We have to crack on with that – that’s the bit where we get the pass or fail mark. And all the countries of the world will have to do a lot more on CO2 to get anywhere near 1.5C.”

Earlier this year, Frame and six other scientists published a paper that argued short-lived gases, like methane, should be accounted for differently in emission budgets because of their lesser warming potential over time.

Frame’s view – which he’s sticking to in the face of the IPCC report – is that cuts to methane can be made later, before global warming peaks. Carbon dioxide’s a “stock” pollutant while methane’s a “flow” pollutant – one builds up and the other dissipates. “I would wait on doing more on methane until you see that you’ve really got the CO2 under control.”

Frame also knocks Hayward’s view – and that of environmental groups – of New Zealand becoming a world leader in climate change. Big players, like the United States and China, will determine the outcome, he says. If either country continued on a business as usual trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions, he says that would effectively make it impossible for all other countries to limit warming to 1.5C.

(Newsroom columnist Rod Oram, however, argues our farmers can’t escape looming changes to global food systems and the industry must do better.)

“You could spend a huge amount of money turning off all the carbon tomorrow and the rest of the world wouldn’t really notice.” – Dave Frame

New Zealand can be world-leading in some areas, like electricity generation, Frame says. But in other areas, this country will have to rely on others – like Japan to manufacture emissions-lowering electric cars.

In a woeful, but most probably accurate, statement about global political apathy on climate change, Frame says scientific reports detail the benefits of climate mitigation, but meaningful political change relies on the costs of achieving it – and on new technologies lowering those costs. He says the New Zealand Government would be silly to expect the rest of the world would chase the 1.5C target “just because of an IPCC report”. His view is the world will go “zooming past” 1.5C.

New Zealand’s best to tackle climate change as part of a cluster of countries, Frame says – like a cycling peloton. “We want to be one of the countries who are working quite hard on this problem, but we don’t have to go charging off on our own.”

He adds: “You could spend a huge amount of money turning off all the carbon tomorrow and the rest of the world wouldn’t really notice. I think the Government, they understand that. They’re not going to freak out over this.” (Climate Change Minister James Shaw said in a statement yesterday that the IPCC report was broadly in line with the Government’s direction on climate change.)

Warming effects are multiple and measurable

Since pre-industrial times, the global mean surface temperature has increased by 1C, causing measurable changes in the climate. They include increased heatwaves on land and at sea, as well as more rain in some places and more frequent droughts in others. Warming is happening fastest at the poles.

That’s a huge problem for instability of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which could result in multi-metre-rises in sea level. There’s “medium-level confidence” in the IPCC report that these instabilities could be triggered between 1.5C and 2C of global warming.

According to the report, the benefits of restricting global warming to 1.5C, compared to 2C, by 2100, include 10cm less sea level rise, which would displace 10.4 million people in coast-hugging communities. The report estimates keeping to 1.5C will also mean about 420 million fewer people will be frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves. That’s not to mention warming’s effects on food production, freshwater and human health, as well as species loss and extinction. With 2C of warming, coral reefs could all-but disappear.

Storm surges and coastal erosion are already costing New Zealand millions of dollars. A report for Treasury, by NIWA and Victoria University of Wellington, conservatively estimated climate change-related floods caused $120 million in privately-insured damages over the past decade, while, in the same period, droughts sucked $720 million of losses from the economy. It’ll inevitably cost more to fight the increasingly tempestuous weather. Sea level rise could swallow low-lying areas, like Christchurch’s South Shore, South Dunedin, and parts of the South Island’s West Coast, like Granity and Westport.

Counting the cost of climate inaction

Ten years ago, New Zealand, with roughly half of its greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, embraced an “all sectors, all gases” emissions trading scheme (ETS). But it didn’t properly account for methane emissions from agriculture. The scheme became a bit of a scam, in that respect, and, to no one’s surprise, it didn’t work.

Between 1990 and 2016, New Zealand’s gross emission climbed 19.6 per cent, with methane from dairy cattle and carbon dioxide from road transport contributing the most. Forestry harvesting helped push up net emissions over the same period by 54.2 percent. The ETS was meant to put a true cost on emissions. But it was so weak, and the carbon price so low, that hardly anyone noticed and it did little to change behaviour.

(While coal-fired power plants were closed at Huntly, Fonterra built coal boilers to dry its milk into powder for export. The dairy giant is now cutting its coal use.)

When the Labour-led Government passed the ETS legislation in 2008, two months before being steamrolled by the John Key-led National Party, agriculture was to be included in 2013. National pushed that out to 2015. Then it fell off the back of the policy truck, never to be seen again.

The Key Government’s mantra was that New Zealand would balance its environmental responsibilities with economic responsibilities. However, after the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes, the economy took precedence.

Time to act

The current Government is reviewing the ETS and considering setting a net zero emissions target by 2050 under a proposed Zero Carbon Act.

Bell Gully partner Simon Watt, a leading climate change lawyer, says the IPCC report highlights the need for the act. And while New Zealand might have to be more ambitious in coming years with its emissions reduction targets, he’s willing to accept methane being treated differently if a political consensus can be achieved. Watt says New Zealand doesn’t need to get way ahead of other countries but it needs to react to the science, giving certainty to businesses, so they can confidently make investment decisions.

Given New Zealand’s two biggest industries are tourism (including long-haul, international flights) and agriculture, any move to make deep greenhouse gas cuts poses real headaches for the Government. It may have to re-think its decision to extend existing oil and gas exploration permits. Individuals, meanwhile – well, those who can afford it – will have to re-think how they get around and what they eat.

The real test for PM Ardern’s coalition Government is certainty in agriculture. Watt says the industry should be brought in to the ETS, while recognising that methane’s a shorter-lived gas.

At her election campaign launch in August last year, Ardern said of climate change: “There will always be those who say it’s too difficult. There will be those who say we are too small, and that pollution and climate change are the price of progress. They are wrong.”

Yesterday’s IPCC report is a direct challenge to that rhetoric.

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

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