He spoke to Eloise Gibson in Canberra about that report, about Aussie farmers’ growing acceptance of climate change, and his take on New Zealand’s methane debate.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Newsroom: You gave a great talk recently on the IPCC’s special report on land use and you were really careful to say that the report wasn’t “calling for” people to do anything, despite all the headlines saying ‘IPCC says eat less meat’ etc.

Mark Howden: Yes, IPCC reports are not policy prescriptive.

Newsroom: But they do lay out what you might call obvious areas for action. What do you see as the most pressing areas?

Mark Howden: The biggest one is to reduce fossil fuels and not just in agriculture, across the board – energy, transport, industry. That’s the first cab off the rank, and to some extent there’s a risk of displacement activity, so that focusing on smaller and more difficult sectors takes the eye away from dealing with the big sector, fossil fuel use.

…[But] methane does add to the net greenhouse gas load, because methane is much more active a greenhouse gas (than carbon dioxide). And most of the nitrous oxide and methane is from agricultural activities.

NR: If we do sort out fossil fuels, what’s the priority for the land use sector?

MH: We have to do multiple things at once, it’s not sequential, it’s parallel. We have to move on direct methane emissions and direct nitrous oxide emissions, from livestock and cropping particularly. Partly that’s a rationale from climate change, but partly it’s a rationale from good management. Methane lost from an animal is energy the animal has lost that could otherwise be used for productive purposes. Nitrous oxide lost from pastures and crops is nitrogen lost from the system that will be replaced at great expense. So tightening up on those. There are already smart ways being developed, for example New Zealand is leading on the anti-methanogen technologies.

NR: How big of an impact is diet? Your presentation on the IPCC report had a really interesting slide showing the impact of various dietary changes like going vegan or flexitarian, but then you get people in the agriculture industry saying, well that’s only the equivalent of a return flight to London or whatever. Do we spend too much time talking about diet?

MH: In addition to dealing with direct emissions there are other areas, and they include changing diets, tightening up on waste, and also land use change, so reducing land use change that results in large scale CO2 emissions.

Diet is very difficult from a policy perspective because most governments don’t want to regulate on diet unless there’s a pressing need. 

Some governments have regulated with sugar taxes but generally speaking governments stay away from dietary issues. But, increasingly we are seeing governments interested in preventative health, so in order to defray medical costs in the future, the modification of diet and exercise is a major avenue.

NR: There’s a lot of pushback against the idea that reducing meat has a climate and health benefit. There’s this interesting mix of groups involved, you have the high fat-diet people who are pushing back against the traditional low-fat dietary guidance, you have the paleo-type people who eat a lot of meat, then you have some scientists pushing back against the idea that reducing methane should be a climate priority, saying methane is not that big of a deal and calling for lighter methane targets. We are seeing a lot of this discussion in New Zealand, because we’re debating methane targets in the Zero Carbon Bill right now. It’s quite a mess of competing views – does any of that get thrashed out through the IPCC process?

MH: Well, we did have dietary specialists and food security specialists involved in the last IPCC report. We drew on them as well as on the literature, which covered diet and health and diet and climate links and that evidence is pretty strong. The fact we’re getting pushback from specific industries is not surprising. It would almost be remiss of them not to push back in some ways. But our future shouldn’t be driven by narrow industry interests. Governments have a role in taking a longer-term vision.

NR: But we’re seeing pushback from scientists too

MH: There are some proposals around about how you treat methane. They don’t deny the radiative forcing of methane, it’s how we treat methane within a carbon cycle, and I think increasingly what we’re seeing is that those proposals aren’t supported by governments. They were not accepted in Katowice or Bonn. The approach that Myles Allen and others have taken, if you take it to its logical conclusion, will result in making climate change worse and yet if you asked them what they are trying to do they would say they’re trying to make climate change better. I don’t think they’ve thought through how industry lobbying will take their proposition and use it in ways which it wasn’t originally intended.

Science is a competition of ideas and people will push their own babies, their own ideas, and this is an example of that.

I think New Zealand would be well-advised to look long and hard at what’s being suggested and the ultimate consequences of the different positions.

NR: When you say these proposals will make climate change worse, do you mean because they allow agriculture – at least the methane from agriculture  – to keep up its share of emissions where it is now? [Federated Farmers, Beef + Lamb and other farming groups have used Allen’s and other scientists’ calculations to suggest reducing methane by just enough to keep its share of global warming roughly the same as it is today, on the basis that reducing carbon dioxide to zero will also keep warming caused by carbon stable, at best]. 

MH: When it’s applied in that simple way, that’s one of the consequences. It also takes the pressure off looking at research which actually reduces methane.

If you accept that there is a win-win from reducing methane emissions, from both increasing productivity (by saving the cow or sheep energy) and in terms of the environment, then what we are doing is foregoing that win-win by taking our eye off that ball.

NR: The backdrop to all this is the need to increase the food supply, unless we radically cut waste, and the IPCC report seems to be saying that cutting waste is not going to be simple…

MH: And that is the other main topic. Loss and waste is a big one but difficult to do from a policy perspective. Food loss is largely accidental, people don’t want their grain to go off in the silo, they don’t want their food to be eaten by rats.

That said, we have much better technologies to deal with this than we had 10 or 20 years ago. And they are not just hard technologies, some of them are social technologies, so rat control in Vietnam, for example, is a social technology. If you look at the portable grain silos we have in Australia, they could alleviate a lot of grain loss in the developing world, so there are cost-effective technologies. In terms of food waste, which is when your yoghurt gets past its use-by date in your fridge and you throw it out, or when restaurants or supermarkets throw leftover food out, there are approaches to deal with it – NGOs who take discarded food from supermarkets, composting at home, but the bigger issue is one about regulation and that trade-off between our concern about food-borne diseases from food that’s been in the fridge too long versus the greenhouse gas emissions from food waste. That’s an intersection we need to explore more thoroughly.

NR: What about the effect that climate change is having on farmers. Farms are also major climate victims, and I know you’re seeing that already in Australia. You’ve worked a lot with Australian farmers. Do you think the risks to them are well understood?

MH: Australian farmers until recently have been fairly out of step with farmers almost anywhere else. I can go to Sri Lanka and talk to a farmer and they will acknowledge climate change, and the same in Vietnam and India, South Africa, in other places there’s a public acknowledgement of the change which legitimises public action as well as private action on the change. Whereas in Australia, up until recently, farmers’ public statements have been very biased towards not acknowledging climate change, so for example they were four times more likely than the public average to express views that climate change wasn’t happening or if it was it wasn’t human influenced. There’s a strong political driver for these views because there’s strong polarisation in the community. Left/right voting relates to climate acceptance and denial in Australia.

NR: How did we come to this?

MH: It’s a long story. Australia and the United States are outliers in this, the US more so than Australia. But what’s happened is that at the same time as the public statements of farmers were biased towards climate change denial, the actions of farmers were actually climate change acknowledgement. The vast majority were doing things that were sensible climate change adaptations. And it’s only recently, with groups like Farmers for Climate Action that the conversation has changed. A lot more famers are coming out and saying climate change is real, we have to take action and all of a sudden that’s changed those conversations in the farming community.

So farmers can go down the pub together and talk about climate change. And that all of a sudden legitimises private action and conversations about possibilities.

The thing that hasn’t happened is that hasn’t filtered up into our political debate to actually translate to very clear policy positions which are acknowledging of climate change and support appropriate action.

NR: Maybe if New Zealand nails its Zero Carbon Bill we can help you out.

MH: Clearly in an ideal world we’d be sharing solutions as quickly and as effectively as we could.

NR: There are all these things – waste, diet – government don’t want to interfere in or it’s tricky. Wouldn’t having a strong carbon price just take care of all of them?

MH: Well it’s a price on emissions not just carbon, because we need to take in methane and nitrous oxide too. I rely on my economic colleagues to advise on what’s the most efficient. Their overwhelming consensus is that a price on greenhouse gas emissions is a necessary but not sufficient first step.

NR: You need the regulatory piece as well?

MH: And a whole host of other things, you need support and community engagement, the IPCC does list quite a few of them.

NR: It seems like many of the things on the IPCC list seem cost neutral or like they would actually save money?

MH: One of the concerns is that there is a lot of very positive discussion about options and co-benefits, in terms of return on investment and health and the environment and it paints out a very positive picture of moving towards reducing emissions and adapting (to climate change). The question then is, why isn’t that happening anyway? If it’s such a positive thing to do why isn’t it happening? And it’s because there are a whole lot of barriers to action. So what we need to be focusing on is what are the barriers to adoption of more sustainable practices.

NR: Any ideas?

MH: Well, there’s a whole list in the report. But the fundamental one is, in our economic system a lot of farmers read the way they should be operating as pushing the margins, going as hard as you can on production. And that leaves you very little leeway for other dimensions of the system, both human dimensions – so looking after themselves – but also looking after the environment. So one of the fundamentals is moving back from that production optimum to a sustainable management optimum, which is less pressure on your system and more flexibility to respond to different factors.

NR: And still allow you to earn a living wage?

MH: That actually comes from having effective prices for agricultural produce, which actually cost in the negatives and pay for the positives and at the moment we don’t have anything as sophisticated as that. In fact, if you look at the prices people pay for food, if you go back a century, people were paying a lot more of their weekly wage for food. These days we pay something like 10-15 percent of our pay packets and if you go back 100 years it might have been 50 percent. And in those circumstances you value food, you don’t waste single skerrick. Because food is so cheap, we’ve actually taken our eye off the value of food, except as a celebrity chef sort of thing.

If we want to solve some of these food system problems we need to actually value food.

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