Cutting methane is described by the prestigious Climate & Clean Air Coalition as ‘our best shot to slow climate change now’. So why are NZ’s targets so pathetic?

OPINION: The UN is arguing for far greater reductions in methane in a report due for release this coming week. It says a cut in the powerful climate-changing gas by as much as 45 percent by 2030 would help avoid 0.3°C of global warming by the early 2040s, thereby creating substantial climate, health, societal and economic benefits.

In stark contrast, our Government has exempted from our Zero Carbon Act methane generated by agricultural and waste streams, even though they respectively account for 37 percent and 6 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. The Government’s current target for them is only a 10 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 and a 24-47 percent reduction by 2050 from 2017 levels.

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Our Climate Change Commission was only slightly more ambitious in its interim recommendations on methane. It suggested application of existing farming technologies could reduce emissions of biogenic methane (methane from biological sources) by 19 percent by 2035.

The global push for sharp cuts in methane have gained extra momentum from the latest analysis by the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global levels of atmospheric methane posted their biggest gain last year in the 37 years it has measured them, NOAA reported in early April.

About two-thirds of methane emissions are caused by human activity, and one third by natural processes. Of the human sources globally, agriculture accounts for 42 percent, fossil fuel operations for 36 percent and waste streams 18 percent. Analysis shows agriculture was a greater driver of the latest increase than was oil and gas production and use, NOAA says.

“Urgent steps must be taken to reduce methane emissions this decade” will be the key message in The Global Methane Assessment report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, a partnership of governments, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organisations.

The main themes of the upcoming report are articulated in a recently posted opinion piece on the coalition’s website written by Inger Andersen, the UNEP’s executive director, and Drew Shindell, chair of the coalition’s Scientific Advisory Panel. Its title is: “Our best shot to slow climate change now: Cut methane.”

“Reduced emissions from both fossil fuel facilities and waste also improve local health, which will predominantly benefit the disadvantaged who live near such places. Within agriculture, improving animal health is a key step to reducing methane in many developing countries, whereas in wealthy countries decreasing consumption of cattle-based foodstuffs to healthy levels would benefit both people and planet. Investments in methane reductions are thus multipliers for economic growth – they generate jobs, provide energy, and improve health, all while addressing the climate crisis and inequalities,” the authors write.

“The benefits that would come from reducing human-caused methane by 40-45 percent by 2030, a level consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to keep warming to 1.5°C, are also quantified and they’re enormous. It would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s and, each year from 2030 onward, prevent more than 250,000 premature deaths, more than 750,000 asthma-related hospital visits, more than 70 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat, and more than 25 million tonnes of crop losses globally.”

The Climate & Clean Air Coalition’s website lays out multiple ways to reduce methane from agriculture, fossil fuels and waste management. In agriculture, for example “rapid and large scale implementation of improved livestock feeding strategies” could reduce methane emissions from animals by 20 percent by 2030; and “full implementation of intermittent aeration of continually flooded rice paddies (known as alternate wetting and drying cultivation) could reduce emission from rice production by over 30 percent.”

This latest UN report will heighten public awareness of methane as a powerful driver of the climate crisis, and thus increase consumer and political pressure for deep cuts in methane emissions. Citing established science, the coalition says methane is far more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping the sun’s radiation, even though it has a far shorter life in the atmosphere. “Per unit of mass, the impact of methane on climate change over 20 years is 84 times greater than CO2. Over a 100-year period, it is 28 times greater.”

Yet, almost all our farmers and their leaders argue they only need to make very modest reductions in methane, if any, because their farming practices generate less methane than those of their competitors overseas; and methane is short-lived.

Cutting agricultural methane emissions would absolutely not let off the hook urban emitters of carbon dioxide such as businesses and consumers. Instead, it would help build a strong sense of shared responsibility and ambition among all New Zealanders. Then we would all take ownership of our emissions and work together to reduce them so we can meet the climate pledges we’re making to ourselves and the rest of the world.

We’ve got a very long way to go. For example, another troubling example of our unpreparedness for the climate crisis – both as a threat and opportunity – came this week in the verdict of Swiss Re, the insurer, in its report on the economics of climate change.

New Zealand “ranks relatively low in terms of current adaptive capacity compared to other advanced economies,” it says in its interactive presentation of its analysis of 48 economies.

While we’re only middle-ranked among the countries in terms of adverse climate impacts, we are still likely to suffer significant setbacks from sea level rise, losses in tourism and declining health. If we slightly overshoot the Paris Agreement’s goal of a 1.5°C maximum temperature rise, Swiss Re estimates we’d lose 4 percent of GDP by 2048. If the rise was 3°C, we’d lose 14 percent of GDP.

While our economic losses would be smaller than many countries will suffer – for example, China’s economy could shrink by a quarter if the temperature rise was more than 3°C, Swiss Re estimates – that would be no comfort in a world we’d helped to massively compromise.

Source: Swiss Re

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