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Climate Commission Ignored Climate Benefits Of Cutting Synthetic Nitrogen

A hidden report uncovered by Greenpeace shows that the Climate Change Commission ignored its own internal advice that could cut agricultural climate emissions by a third or more.

The internal Climate Commission report, titled ‘Eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on dairy farms’, shows New Zealand could achieve significant greenhouse gas emission reductions simply by eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. However, the Commission ignored its own advice when putting together its final climate recommendations, which are now being considered by Parliament.

Greenpeace lead agriculture campaigner Christine Rose says the report clearly laid out evidence proving the emissions reduction benefits of removing synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

"My question is why did the Climate Commission ignore its own internal report on the benefits of cutting out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser? Why did it prioritise the short term maximising of milk production ahead of cutting greenhouse emissions - the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. Who does it work for: the people of New Zealand or Fonterra?" says Rose.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has enabled dairy intensification in many parts of the country, leading to increased methane emissions from more cows. It is a direct source of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser also contributes to nitrate contamination in freshwater and groundwater, leading to health concerns and degradation of rivers and lakes.

"This report, prepared by Climate Commission staff and not released publicly before today, shows clearly how phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser can cut climate pollution - and yet there was no mention of this mechanism in the Commission’s recommendations," says Rose.

"When applied to land, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser emits more climate pollution than all of New Zealand’s pre-Covid domestic flights. Cutting synthetic nitrogen fertiliser directly stems the flow of nitrous oxide, while shifting from reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to organic systems can cut significantly cut methane."

The report quoted a study by Journeaux et al (2020) who found potential emissions reductions of between 10-31% from eliminating synthetic nitrogen, depending on the region.

The report also reflected on price premiums attached to organic dairy products which could offset reduced production volumes from reduced herd sizes from less synthetic fertiliser use.

The report said ‘there seems to be robust evidence to support the intuitive notion that eliminating synthetic nitrogen use would reduce agricultural emissions. Eliminating synthetic fertiliser could also have significant co-benefits.’

However, in its final recommendations to Parliament, the Commission backed away from its own internal report and did not advocate for phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. In fact, it went so far as to undermine the evidence reported on in its own internal paper. The Commission said only ‘We reviewed the limited evidence available on the potential emissions reductions impacts of phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on dairy farms,’ and recommended the Government work on pricing mechanisms.

The Commission’s final report noted its consideration of input controls, such as restrictions on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and its doubts about on-farm methods to reduce climate pollution, but ultimately rejected fertiliser controls in favour of unproven on-farm methods.

Rose says it’s extremely disappointing that the Climate Change Commission has buried its head in the sand on the issue of cutting synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, despite significant climate benefits.

"The Commission has prioritised short-term milk production maximisation ahead of a stable climate. This is the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. We hope the Government has more sense," says Rose.

"The climate crisis is already here. We’re already feeling the effects of more frequent and intense droughts, storms and floods. If we’re to stem the flow of climate pollution, Ardern’s Government must cut synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, lower cow stocking rates and support farmers to shift to regenerative organic farming."

Notes:

The report quoted:

Journeaux et al (2020) found potential emissions reductions of between 10-31% from eliminating synthetic nitrogen, depending on the region.

Reisinger et al (2017) found greenhouse gas reductions between 6-13%.

Monaghan et al (2008) found emissions reductions from 5-14%

‘Our Land and Water Science Challenge’ research found that converting to organic farming could reduce emissions by 23- 37% and increase profits by 42-67% (Lucci et al., 2019)

Carroll and Daigneault (2019) concluded that organic conversions in Aotearoa would result in animal numbers decreasing by 20% which would lead to methane reductions of 20% and nitrous oxide reductions of 51%

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