Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor at Lincoln University. She is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown, and a producer-appointed member of Deer Industry New Zealand.
OPINION: Heatwaves of unprecedented severity have been experienced in the northern hemisphere. Wildfires have been reported across many countries. Floods have dominated the news in both hemispheres.
The focus on climate change mitigations is ramping up, yet the elephant of fossil fuel keeps being ignored.
In total, energy contributes almost three-quarters of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Approximately 5.8% of the contribution comes from fugitive methane emissions – leaks from fossil fuel extraction.
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Coincidentally, animal agriculture also contributes 5.8% of global methane emissions. But whereas there are technologies for capturing fugitive emissions, technologies for altering ruminant physiology in a practical manner have not yet been released.
The United Nation’s 2021 methane report suggested not only that capturing fugitive emissions would be relatively easy, but also that doing so would be low or neutral cost. So why isn’t it done?
Bizarrely, billions of dollars are given by governments globally as subsidies to fossil fuel producers (to avoid unemployment and triggering inflation and a depression), and fossil fuel consumers (to keep prices affordable).
An article by Jocelyn Timperley in Nature last year gave the numbers.
More than 50 advanced and emerging economies, representing about 90% of global fossil-fuel supplies, gave subsidies worth an average of US$555 billion each year from 2017 to 2019. This half-a-trillion US dollars a year was described as “one of the biggest financial barriers hampering the world’s shift to renewable energy sources”.
If the producer subsidies were refocused on implementing the available technologies, the industry would be less wasteful and would have reduced emissions.
If the consumer subsidies were removed people might rethink their requirement for travel, their methods for heating and cooling of buildings, and their desire for “stuff”.
In New Zealand, however, part of the fuel tax was removed in March when fuel prices escalated. The tax relief has now been extended to 2023 to help keep the cost of living down – at a cost of another half billion dollars of revenue, and the release of more greenhouse gases as people continue to travel in their normal way.
New Zealand tends to be omitted in global reports because it produces less than 0.2% of global emissions. The reports focus on the big emitters and sectors, and although agriculture is a significant contributor overall, most countries are so concerned about food security that they have not tackled agricultural contributions.
In contrast, New Zealand agriculture is being brought into a taxation scheme, and while farmers are doing the sums, other countries continue with subsidies for food production, just as they do subsidies for fossil fuel.
Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation 2022 shows that the 54 countries monitored – including all OECD and EU economies, plus 11 key emerging economies – provided on average US$817 billion of support to agriculture each year over the 2019-21 period. This was a 13% increase from 2018-20.
Worryingly for the future, within the overall increase, the share of support for areas such as innovation, biosecurity and infrastructure decreased to 13% of the support, down from 16% two decades earlier.
These services are vital for increasing sustainable productivity growth and therefore reducing GHG emissions associated with agriculture.
The report recommended phasing out market price support and payments with strong potential to harm the environment and to distort markets and trade, and reorientating investment to improve the performance of the agricultural sector.
It also suggested implementing an effective pricing system for agricultural GHG emissions to incentivize the transition to low-emission agriculture.
New Zealand, operating without subsidies, is already ahead of the recommendations.
The May budget announced increased investment in GHG research, and we already have the data indicating efficient production systems. This makes it very difficult for them to do better, without compromising food production and therefore economic viability.
Farms are businesses just like corner dairies and other enterprises – they are economically fragile. And record prices are not the same as record profits.
Further, the regulations that are increasing here, and not being imposed in other countries, means that food from overseas is arriving on our supermarket shelves at what appears to be a good price.
Understandably, consumers will buy products that look like a good deal, but might like to ask questions about what caused the price difference.
The answer is clear in the case of pork products, 60% of which come from overseas (85% of ham and bacon).
To buy sandwich ham labeled “from New Zealand” costs approximately double that of the same brand with the label “produced from local and imported products”.
why? Because some of the systems used overseas to create cheap food are illegal here for animal welfare and environmental reasons.
If the cost of production of food increases in New Zealand because of charges for greenhouse gases, consumers will be attracted to imports from countries where food is cheaper to produce because the associated emissions are not taxed.
The global elephant of fossil fuel has a relatively quick fix in methane reduction. Ruminant methane will take longer. And food security is a burning issue.