Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has produced a remarkably unbalanced report on our attempts to tackle climate change. On one hand he’s punishingly hard on fossil fuel emitters; on the other he’s complacently soft on agricultural emitters.

He’s wrong on both. Fossil fuel emitters need far more help and incentives to play their emissions reduction role than he suggests; and agricultural emitters will have to make a far bigger transition to radically different farming techniques, types of food and land use than he believes. Farmers need more help than the easy life in an ETS split between the two types of emissions, which he advocates.

He is also wrong to attempt to split fossil fuel emissions and biological emissions into two separately managed camps. Yes, there are significant differences between the two in terms of origins and climate impacts. But there are also great synergies to be achieved in an integrated system to tackle climate change. For example, new sources of clean energy adopted by urban New Zealand will help farmers; and new environmental management techniques they will have to pioneer will help urban New Zealand manage its ecosystems better.

He also makes a flawed case for reserving trees for offsetting farming emissions. He argues the two are connected because they are biological systems. But the trees only sequester the residual carbon dioxide left after agricultural methane breaks down. But in its short-life, methane is an immensely potent driver of climate change. Moreover, the trees don’t sequester nitrous oxide, the other powerful agricultural emission.

Therefore, to truly offset the climate impacts of farming’s methane and nitrous oxide, we would need to plant a prodigious volume of trees to absorb large volumes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions to give us the equivalent reduction in climate impact. But he’s opposed to that.

He is right, though, about two aspects of trees. They have a far shorter life than the carbon dioxide they sequester. Therefore, they are only a temporary and partial solution to reducing emissions while the world works on technologies for deep cuts in emissions and permanent sequestration; and blanket planting of short-lived tree species for harvesting, predominantly radiata pine, is damaging to ecosystems, landscapes and communities.

But again, we could better address those two issues in an integrated system, rather than the split one he advocates. For an in-depth description of his approach, please read this Newsroom article by Eloise Gibson, our environment and science editor.

When it comes to agriculture’s impact on the land and climate, Upton offers an important historic insight:

“While most attention is currently directed to agricultural greenhouse gases, land use change emerges as New Zealand’s biggest contribution to global warming. More than 3 billion tonnes of carbon have been shifted to the atmosphere from the land, largely as the result of forest clearance to make way for agriculture. The approximate scale of warming associated with these changes is estimated to be around seven times larger than our contribution of fossil emissions.”

Yet, he misses the current significance of agriculture’s impact on climate here and around the world. In aggregate through land use changes and emissions from artificial fertiliser use, raising of ruminant animals and cultivating rice paddies, agriculture is the biggest driver of climate change, bigger even than fossil fuel use.

For example, ruminant animals globally produce roughly one-third of anthropogenic methane emissions. Here in New Zealand biological methane from agriculture accounts for around 86 percent of New Zealand’s total methane emissions, and with nitrous oxide, nearly half our total emissions.

Evidence is accumulating rapidly that we need massive changes in current agricultural practices and the food they produce.

“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.”

So declared The Lancet’s editorial accompanying the study released earlier this year by its Commission on the global food system. The joint project by the British peer-reviewed medical journal and EAT, a Scandinavian NGO, involved 37 leading scientists across relevant disciplines from 16 countries. For full coverage, please read this column I wrote in February.

Such views are expressed by other leaders, such as Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, France’s candidate for the role of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, as Newsroom recently reported.

… he appears to have a one-dimensional view of farming and climate.

Upton, though, does not share the anxiety of such scientists. In his report, he writes: “If global diets change away from red meat and dairy products to diets based on crops and non-ruminant animals (e.g. chicken), this would result in lower biological emissions and may also reduce other environmental impacts. These are certainly things New Zealand farmers could consider, but it should be noted that New Zealand’s food production is largely driven by overseas food demand.”

Upton’s passive view of NZ farmers being market-led is at odds with his view that as “an agricultural leader, any action taken by New Zealand to mitigate biological emissions will be noted internationally.” And as “an acknowledged leader in both the measurement and management of biological sources and sinks, New Zealand cannot avoid taking a leading role in this debate.”

Moreover, he appears to have a one-dimensional view of farming and climate. “Climate is just one of a number of stressors that plague our landscapes. Water pollution, soil depletion, biodiversity loss and pest invasions are just some of the problems.” Yet, the big changes in farming systems needed to address climate change would also significantly help to heal those related ills too.

That understanding of the bigger, inter-dependent factors at work in farming on climate change and related issues is far more thoroughly explored by the Productivity Commission in its massive report on our transition to a low emissions economy, by Vivid Economics for GLOBE-NZ, the all-party group of backbench MPs, and by Jan Wright, Upton’s predecessor as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Upton only briefly summarises the emissions-reducing science and technology pathways opening up for farmers. He does not explore, as some of the above authors have, how these and other factors at home and aboard will significantly shift farming systems and land use here in the next few decades.

By ignoring such analysis, he significantly undercuts the case he makes for separating emissions from fossil fuels and biological emissions into two separate regimes. Where he does make a connection, he makes a serious error. He writes: “Farmers are also heavy users of fossil fuels when it comes to processing raw materials and moving commodities to market. So they would face the same fossil emissions prices for those activities as other fossil emitters.”

But as Fonterra, the largest single source of emissions by far in our economy, points out, emissions from its manufacturing, transport and distribution only account for 10 percent of its overall emissions. Moreover, it is reserving the right to still be building new coal fired plants in 2030. Those could have a life of up to 30 years.

Energy emissions on farm are minimal. The other 90 percent of Fonterra’s overall emissions are on farm from animals and artificial fertiliser. On those, Fonterra is only pledging to keep its methane levels unchanged by 2030. If its farmers achieve any reduction in methane per litre of milk a cow produces, it will put the gains to higher milk volumes.

In contrast, Upton offers little comfort to fossil fuel emitters: “For industries where fossil emissions may be hard to reduce because no realistic alternatives exist, a number of pragmatic industry-specific solutions could be explored. These include the continuing use of free allocations, access to international units and using some of the NZ ETS revenues for the research and development of low carbon technologies for these industries.”

Such an approach, though, would do little to deliver the steep reduction in such emissions Upton rightly argues for. Thus, his report will make only a minor contribution to the development of our climate policies. It won’t cause the radical rethink he is arguing for.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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