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For New Zealand, COP26 Is Right On Trend. A Lot Of Talk, Not So Much Action

Of all the commitments to come out of COP26, The Global Methane Pledge is arguably the most significant. While carbon dioxide emissions usually grab the headlines, methane quietly continues to contribute a third of current global warming from human activities. This new pledge by signatories to collectively reduce global methane emissions by 30 per cent this decade is a major move. New Zealand has joined over 100 other nation states in signing up to the pledge, but as COP26 delegates return home, the government needs to confront the fact that we’re walking a tightrope by signing up.

Unlike other signatories such as the US, whose exposure to methane emissions are smaller and easier to solve, New Zealand faces a big problem. Depending on how you measure it, methane makes up around half of our entire greenhouse gas emissions annually, compared to barely 10 per cent in the US. And of those NZ methane emissions the vast majority, 85 per cent, are produced by livestock. And it is far harder to address burping from 25 million sheep and 10 million cattle than it is to plug a leaking pipeline.

New Zealand, more than any other developed economy on earth, needs to get serious on biogenic methane emissions. We are the only such economy where emissions from cows are greater than emissions from cars – in fact more than the total road transport sector. Yet we’re not willing – even now – to have a realistic conversation about how to address this issue. James Shaw has already stated that this latest headline grabbing commitment doesn’t change the government’s current methane emissions strategy.

How is this possible? In basic terms, the government’s plan is to rely on the livestock industry working out a solution and doing the right thing. Several massive assumptions are built into the government’s modelling. Destocking driven by tightening clean water regulations and productivity improvements will hopefully lead to a 10% reduction. To get beyond that level, the NZ Government will either need to aggressively drive land-use change (such as through bringing Agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme) or significantly ramp up investment in methane reduction technologies – something that is not currently looking likely. Couple this with a bit of luck and New Zealand might just come close to contributing a decent level of methane reduction to the overall global 30 per cent goal.

If that’s the best case scenario, the worst case scenario is that nothing or very little changes at all. According to the government’s own data, cattle and sheep digestion emissions have barely changed at all in the last four years. The government has already publicly committed to reduce biogenic methane emissions by 10 per cent from 2017 levels. Yet today cattle and sheep methane emissions are actually a tad up (0.6 and 0.4 per cent respectively) on their 2017 levels. As modelling goes, this doesn’t set a good precedent for the rest of the decade.

For the farming lobby, putting your head in the sand and trying to reframe the argument is an understandable reaction in the absence of any Government direction. And our farmers are already the most efficient producers of dairy and meat in the world on a carbon footprint basis, but the reality is that much more needs to be done. The global community, and global markets, aren’t going to give us a free pass. Dairy and cattle farmers are looking at an evolving market that wants healthier, cleaner, and more sustainable meat and dairy. History is not on the industry’s side.

As the world’s highest per capita biogenic methane producer, we should be leading the world in addressing this issue. But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. There are ways innovation can be leveraged to massively reduce biogenic methane emissions while maintaining a large, commercially viable livestock industry. Addressing dairy alone would be a step-change in reducing the problem. For instance, a specific red seaweed native to New Zealand, (Asparagopsis amarta), when fed in very small quantities as a feed supplement reduces ruminant methane emissions by up to 90%. This is not speculative. Its proven and is being accelerated into commercialisation in other markets including Australia. By March next year, CH4 Aotearoa will have asparagopsis seaweed pilot farms in place in four coastal locations around New Zealand. These pilot sites will build on the company’s established seaweed trial farm in Big Glory Bay, Rakiura Stewart Island, the biggest of its kind in New Zealand. Scaling the farming and processing of this seaweed is achievable well within the decade.

Technology and innovations like this are rapidly emerging but we need to go faster and approach biogenic methane technologies in the same way that the world approached the Covid-19 vaccine challenge. Instead of competing for limited funding within existing grant schemes and backing a few potential winners, the Government needs to increase its investment in this space by a factor of ten, backing multiple options and working with innovators to look at how their technologies can be accelerated to success – or rapid failure.

But at present, the New Zealand government position on fostering these solutions is similar to its approach to delivering on its climate promises - strategic ambivalence. Sometimes government needs to bite the bullet and push rather than nudge industry into action.

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