As the world’s focus on methane emissions intensifies, New Zealand stands to be embarrassed at the big UN climate forum in Glasgow 

A global push for sharp cuts in methane emissions will be a major feature of the UN’s COP26 climate negotiations beginning in Glasgow in three weeks’ time. This will put a harsh spotlight on New Zealand, given our methane is a double anomaly internationally: it’s a far bigger share of our greenhouse gases compared with other countries; and we are managing it differently from the international norm.

Until this year, most of the climate debate revolved around carbon dioxide, given vast long-lived emissions from fossil fuel use. While methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, its short life in the atmosphere made it seem a less pressing problem.

But the escalating climate crisis, and the failure of countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, is now intensifying the focus on methane. There is growing recognition that all sources of global heating have to be cut simultaneously if we are to stand any chance of limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5C.

“One of the surprise stories at this COP might be about methane because it’s been so important in driving the temperature change that we’ve seen so far, and it could be so important in reducing temperature increases in the future,” Chris Stark, the chief executive of the UK Climate Change Committee, akin to our Climate Commission, said in an interview with Newsroom here in the UK. 

“It’s definitely not just about agriculture. It’s also about methane released from oil and gas exploration, and paddy fields and all the rest. The point of methane is that it’s addressing temperature quickly. After all, that is the thing that we’re worrying about.

“It means methane should have a more prominent role in this discussion. I don’t know how that will go at COP26. And of course, it wouldn’t end at COP26. The discussion on agriculture…is becoming more prominent.”

The first sign of a heightened focus on methane came in a report in May from the UN Environment Programme and Clean Air Coalition, as I reported in this column

Next the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global authority on climate science, called in its latest assessment report in August for “strong, rapid and sustained reductions in methane.” The two main human-induced sources of methane globally are oil and gas exploration and transmission, and food and farming, with waste streams the third but smaller source.

Then a month ago, the US and EU announced a partnership aimed at reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 across the three sources – a cut three times larger than New Zealand’s current methane reduction goal. At COP they will urge other countries to join them, with the UK, as co-host of the Glasgow negotiations, signalling it will sign up.

UK farmers are also showing willing. Back in 2019 their National Farmers Union committed to making UK farming net carbon zero by 2040.

In contrast, Fonterra and its farmers, who are responsible for some 20 percent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions, only announced a net zero by 2050 goal at their recent financial results. But the co-op and its shareholders have yet to announce what their methane targets and timeframes are within that; and how they intend to achieve them. The only climate strategy information it gives is skeletal.

Yet, Fonterra’s recently released sustainability report revealed a number of shortfalls in its suite of goals. For example, it has made only modest progress cutting emissions from its own energy use; and, far worse, it has achieved only a 3.1 percent reduction in on-farm emissions in the past six years. That’s only half the 1 per cent a year reduction in methane intensity the NZ dairy sector has achieved over the past 25 years.

Three years ago, Fonterra established a Sustainability Advisory Panel. One of its founding, and current, members is Paul Gilding, an Australian. He was a former executive director of Greenpeace International and is a long-time fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

“We are about to go through the most profound shift in the climate debate in 20 years,” Gilding wrote in an essay he published on his website on August 24. “The result will be the end of the gas industry’s hope of being a transition fuel, a brutal market disruption to the agriculture and livestock industries and the arrival of the climate emergency into public consciousness. This will all be driven by the acceptance of methane as the critical response to the climate emergency.

“Even rapidly accelerating the end of fossil fuel burning will not slow warming in a timeframe relevant to this threat. If we don’t change our approach there is a reasonable likelihood the climate will go through tipping points that will then self-accelerate and we will have lost control. The road to economic collapse and global chaos is then quite a short one.

To slow warming we must keep our focus on cutting CO2 but now also focus intensely on the shorter lived, far more potent gases such as methane.”

He went on to note: “Over 10 years, methane is in the order of 90-115 times more dangerous than CO2. It is the nuclear weapon of climate change – a weapon of mass destruction.”

This reality is fast-shifting the climate debate, Gilding wrote. “The brutal market, political and economic logic suggests the brunt of the impact will be felt by two sectors. It will be the final nail in the coffin for fossil fuels, including gas. Already in terminal decline, the industry will now need to be largely gone – at least in its twilight years – within a decade. Secondly, livestock within agriculture will face transformation and/or disruption through a perfect storm of public and consumer pressure, policy action and new technologies. Beef and dairy in particular will have to radically transform, or shrink to a small fraction of their current size. This is all predictable.”

As this column has long argued, New Zealand’s farmers are refusing to accept their climate responsibilities or acknowledge their competitive weakness. They argue that their grass-fed cattle and sheep produce lower emissions per kilogram of milk solids or meat than their competitors overseas. Thus, it’s up to those farmers abroad to catch up with them rather than for them to change their practices much at home.

Using its political clout, the farming lobby has forced successive NZ governments to go easy on agriculture by setting minimal targets for emission reductions and by treating methane separately from carbon dioxide. The lobby is also a very keen supporter of efforts by a small group of climate scientists to devise a different way to measure the climate heating impact of methane. Their initiative has achieved minimal traction internationally.

But this two-pronged climate strategy by New Zealand farmers has finally hit the wall. Diet-change among consumers is accelerating rapidly, as are farming practices in more countries. Last month, for example, Brazil became the first country in the world to approve a feed additive that reduces methane emissions from cattle by as much as 55 percent.

“This approval is important because Brazil is the biggest exporter of animal protein. It reflects what the country has become — it knows that if you want to keep your presence as a [agricultural] leader you have to be innovative,” Mauricio Adade, LatAm president of Dutch group DSM, which developed the product, Bovaer, with Brazilian scientists, said in a recent article in the Financial Times  about Brazilian farmers’ response to the climate crisis.

“If we feed Bovaer to 1 million cows, it is the equivalent of planting 45m trees,” he added. And growing consumer demands for sustainable produce would compel farmers to adopt such measures despite the added costs. “This is a global trend that will not go away.”

And New Zealand’s split-gas climate framework is attracting greater scrutiny internationally, as Dr. Kennedy Graham, a former NZ diplomat, UN official and Green Party MP, notes in his recent research paper for Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

Having examined the history and implications of New Zealand’s split gas approach — versus the international convention of accounting for all gases by way of their carbon dioxide equivalent warming potential — he concludes:

“There is no valid reason to avoid identifying New Zealand’s 2050 Target in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent. There is an associated lack of clarity over the 2050 Target, discernible in the media and even in official statements by government leaders. A ‘transparency gap’ is developing between the domestic presentation of climate policy (the 2019 legislation and the 2021 Commission Report) and the international requirements of New Zealand’s reporting of the Target and progress towards it.”

So, given the failure of our farmers and politicians to keep up with the play on methane, New Zealand has set itself up for sharp criticism and difficult negotiations at COP26.

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