Farmers might get away politically with doing as little as possible on emissions for a while, but ultimately the big players who take their produce will force an acceptance that more needs to be done.

Comment: We live in a schizophrenic country.

On Tuesday, the primary sector raged against the government’s response to He Waka Eke Noa, the industry-government-Māori consortium charged with creating a mechanism to reduce agricultural emissions. Sheep and beef farmers say it will force herds down to uneconomic sizes. The National Party claims production will simply ‘leak’ to other high-emitting countries. Federated Farmers predicts the end of small-town New Zealand.

Meanwhile, at the Oceania 2035 ag-food-tech conference in Auckland, Professor Mark Howden, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, and Anna Turrell from UK food giant Tesco, warned that the ag sector remains a dangerous outlier when it comes to reducing emissions.

“Globally, food systems produce 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emission, on par with electricity at 33 percent,” Howden told delegates. “Unlike electricity, though, food shows no sign of reducing emissions any time soon. Our electricity systems, industrial systems, transport systems are all decarbonising. So the food percentage will increase unless we start putting a cap on it right now … Ag’s contribution to emissions is far too big to ignore.”

Who to believe? The vested interests of farmer lobby groups with a long history of resisting climate science? Or the director of the International Centre for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions at Australian National University and vice-chair of the IPCC Working Group 2?


According to the Ministry for the Environment, roughly half New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture. Yet consistent lobbying and weak-willed governments have allowed the sector to escape accountability. This matters. Howden says the goalposts keep shifting – and not in our favour. The world is failing to avoid the critical 1.5 or even 2-degree centigrade increase in global temperatures by 2100. Our current trajectory is for 3 degrees, which triggers a host of climate change events, including catastrophic tipping points.

“In the years since this graph (above) was produced, we’ve chewed up so much of our greenhouse gas emissions that we now have to get to net zero before 2050 … Indeed the de facto standard should not be net zero. It should be about how you get to net zero and then keep going. ‘Below zero’ needs to become the language for climate action”, says Howden.

Generous terms

What’s especially galling about the reaction to the Government’s proposals is that the terms are more favourable for the primary industries than for any other sector – and in some respects more favourable than those originally proposed by He Waka Eke Noa.

Like every other sector, farmers have the ability to reduce the cost of their emissions – by reducing emissions. They have some levers to do this – by shifting to new technologies such as low emissions breeds, feed additives or methane and nitrogen inhibitors. The dairy giant Synlait is already doing this effectively, making a commitment to a ‘45 percent reduction of absolute scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 2028 from our 2020 base year’. Farmers could also change land-use to lower-emitting activities or consider carbon farming with permanent forests. The levers are limited but tools are fast emerging, including climate-friendly finance, such as sustainability loans and interest rate rewards from the likes of BNZ.

That makes sense. Farmers, like those in any other industry, should be rewarded for reducing their gross emissions. A system involving government and suppliers is emerging to support them. As Professor Dave Frame says, a just transition should be available to all vulnerable communities.

But farmers get more. For one thing, unlike what is reported globally, this is not a ‘burp’ tax. Farmers keep the levy to fund research into their own industry. The money stays in New Zealand for the benefit of New Zealand farmers and growers. No other industry has that privilege.

And more. As Marc Daalder points out in Newsroom, under the proposed scheme farmers get rewarded tenfold for every tonne of CO2e saved. “When a farmer saves 36 kilograms of methane emitted (equivalent to about a tonne of carbon dioxide) the government will reduce the levy by between $2.86 and $5. In addition, the farmer will receive $50 for every 36 kilos they don’t emit.

“The Government, following the lead of He Waka Eke Noa, has gone further in its proposal by applying a 10 times multiplier to that payout.”

That’s right, 10 times. On current modelling the payout to farmers will be about $60 million once the scheme is running. This feels inequitable. Again, no other sector is so rewarded for reducing emissions.

What makes it even worse is that modelling by the Ministry for Primary Industries suggests the additional payment will have barely any additional impact in emissions savings. “This vast increase in payouts, which would see more than $60 million go to farmers instead of a few hundred thousand dollars, has relatively little impact on emissions and does relatively little to spare farmers from negative economic impacts,” writes Daalder.

Tesco is watching

The barking from the farming lobby reinforces the perception that this industry remains in climate denial. More fool them. At the same conference, sustainability director at Tesco Anna Turrell beamed in to tell us the UK’s largest grocery retailer understands the problem well and is watching to see how New Zealand farmers respond.

“Food is one of the largest sources of global greenhouse gas emissions. Second only to the oil and gas industries today. By 2050, we’re projected to overtake those industries with emissions from fertilisers, farm animals, delivery trucks and food waste. We are facing a major problem,” she told delegates.

Tesco is looking at its supply chain for climate commitments. “We’re asking our suppliers to come on a journey with us to set a net-zero commitment, back it up with science-based targets and make some quick progress by switching to renewable energy. We’ve seen some great progress so far, but there’s loads more work ahead of us.”

If “come on a journey” sounds like a lovely idea then you don’t know the retail business. It’s code for ‘get yer ass on our climate bus or be left behind’. If the primary sector kicks this can down the road yet again, it won’t have just that nasty James Shaw to account to, it will be customers like Tesco who rightly will ask ‘WTF – you had a plan that rewarded you handsomely for what you must do anyway, and you did what?’

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