Opinion: Living under the Zero Carbon Act

  • Opinion
  • 12/05/2019

By Andrew Hoggard.

OPINION: I have been a farmer for the majority of my working life. Like any farmer, I always look at what I can do to make the farm better, to improve production, or just make life easier. I don’t know whether my girls will want to go farming or do something else, but at the back of my mind when I think about what we do on farm there is always that long term view, of making it better for the next generation.

With the Zero Carbon Act announcement some are saying that it’s far away, what are you worried about? But it is not far away, it’s just the next generation away. For me I don’t look at those targets and think about what the right PR spin thing to say now is, to improve the corporate brand, and who cares if the farmers can’t achieve it?

Instead my first thought is what will that mean if the girls go farming? Will they want to go farming with that hanging over them? And is it fair?  

Some will point to the threat of climate change and say the next generation doesn’t have a future if we don’t all act now. We are not saying let’s not act, what we are saying is that the action of reducing methane by 10 percent by 2050 and going to net zero nitrous oxide, will put our farms in a position where they are net zero carbon dioxide equivalent. 

The 10 percent reduction target for methane by 2030 gives us a deadline for going beyond net zero more than 20 years earlier than for any other sector of New Zealand. Because make no bones about it reducing current methane emissions by 10 percent is the equivalent of net zero carbon dioxide, due to methane’s short-lived nature. 

So, in terms of fairness a 10 percent reduction of methane by 2050, and having nitrous oxide be at net zero by 2050, treats agriculture the same as the rest of the economy.

So, what would happen if these government proposed target cuts stick? What is going to have to happen on my farm to achieve reduction levels like that? Well there is already a number of trees on my farm soaking up carbon dioxide, and more can be planted, these could be used to good effect to offset a good portion of the farm’s nitrous oxide emissions. But for the rest of it and assuming say a 35 percent methane target. Probably if I spent more time farming and less time on my phone, I could be slightly more efficient, and get perhaps a 5 percent reduction in methane. For the rest of it there are two options, take some land out of pastoral production, or hope for some silver bullet solutions. 

With land coming out of production, I could grow other things.

The challenge is of course with dairy and meat production, we have been building those markets and logistics since the SS Dunedin sailed back in 1882, I know a tanker will come and collect my milk every day and I will get paid for it. Similar for beef, I know I can send my cattle to the works and get paid, so there is a level of security in those industries for farmers. 

The other level of security is that pastoral livestock production is a very resilient system, we can harvest additional feed from times of surplus to feed to our livestock when things are not growing, we can manage the numbers to match the climate conditions. Crops aren’t so resilient at times. Also, if the rewards were worth the risks, I would be doing it already, and if a whole bunch of us are forced into new farming systems, what is that increased supply going to do to the prices the existing producers receive? Let alone all the new suppliers.

In terms of the potential silver bullet options, well hopefully the science comes off, hopefully the cost isn’t exorbitant, hopefully we are allowed to use them and hopefully consumers will be okay with them. 

We should not be basing our economic future on hope, when we do not actually need to make cuts as severe as demanded in order to be in a position where we can promote our produce as being net zero carbon dioxide equivalent. 

Andrew Hoggard is Federated Farmers National Vice President and Climate Change spokesperson.

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