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PoliticsOctober 24, 2019

Cheat sheet: Agriculture continues to sidestep the Emissions Trading Scheme

farting cow (methane)
farting cow (methane)

The prime minister has hailed a ‘historic’ agreement between the government and farming groups. What does it amount to, and is it a substantial step forward in the climate fight, or a ‘sellout’?

What’s all this then?

For as long as the Emissions Trading Scheme has existed, it has been dogged by the fact that agriculture hasn’t been part of it. And given that the emissions profile of New Zealand is dominated by agriculture, that’s a real hindrance to it being a serious strategy to reduce nationwide emissions. However, as of today, a long term plan has been announced for agricultural emissions at a farm level to be priced by 2025.

Why so long into the future?

Partly it’s for political reasons, and partly for economic reasons. Right now, (some) farmers are furious. They’re furious about potential costs from new policies aimed at cleaning up freshwater. They’re furious about the Zero Carbon bill. They’re furious about farms being bought up, and planted with pines, which tends to economically damage rural communities. They’re furious about Spark Sport’s rugby stream buffering on their bad rural internet connection. The long lead in time is an attempt to give farmers enough certainty and security so that they can actually make the transition to lower emissions farming.

How are farming groups feeling about it?

Pretty pleased. The crucial aspect of this plan that farming organisations like is that is allows them to self-regulate for a few years, so that they can make the changes that are necessary themselves. That’s the carrot. However, there’s a stick to it all as well: Included in the release from the three leaders of government parties was this detail: “Cabinet has also agreed that in 2022 the independent Climate Change Commission will check in on the progress made and if commitments aren’t being met, the Government can bring the sector into the ETS at processor level before 2025.”

What does that mean in practice? 

It’s basically the government saying to farmers that they need to sort themselves out, or else the government will force them to do it.

Is this a government backdown?

Greenpeace certainly thinks it is, calling the government “sellouts”. An ETS without agriculture is, says the group, “a joke”.

The Interim Climate Change Committee recommended bringing agriculture into the ETS itself by 2025. And the Greens have long advocated that, so this is absolutely a backdown on that point. However, the government would argue that it is fact more like a compromise, which is a much nicer sounding and politically palatable word.

The Great Cow of Morrinsville – what does she think of the deal?

How will the politics of this play out?

It’s an interesting example of the three parties of government basically all getting something they can work with. The Greens get to tell their supporters that they’ve finally found a way to reduce agricultural emissions (assuming they actually start going down.)

NZ First gets to tell their more rural base that they’ve provided a sensible brake on reforms. And Labour gets to stand in the middle, and say that they’ve found a way forward on an issue that previously looked totally unmanageable.

As for National, they’re in a bit of a bind – either they back the 11 agricultural organisations who are part of the partnership, and lose leverage on the issue. Or they go against the agreement, and implicitly say those organisations aren’t representing farmers properly.

What do the experts say?

Professor Dave Frame, director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, welcomed the announcement. “For too long we have circled the drain on agricultural climate change issues so it is great to see a sensible, practical, scientifically-defensible deal being worked out. The government deserves credit for listening to good scientific and policy advice, and for being prepared to reject outdated approaches. Farming leaders deserve credit for listening to the science and developing practical plans that put their sector on a path to a healthier planetary future”

The announcements needed to be assessed in tandem with the freshwater policy overhaul currently under way, said Professor Troy Baisden, BOPRC Chair in Lake and Freshwater Science, University of Waikato.

“Action in both climate change and freshwater will enable New Zealand to remain a leader internationally, as pressure mounts to limit agriculture’s impacts on the global environment – recently estimated to cause US $12 trillion in damage,” he said.

“However, there is a big challenge. The details of the freshwater package under consultation raise questions about ensuring science, information and decision-making across these two areas is compatible, and able to be used at the scale of farm management. I’m one of relatively few researchers who has worked extensively across both climate change and freshwater, but ensuring compatibility across both these areas will matter on every farm.”

Will this stop the cows burping?

Alas, our bovine mates will continue to burp and fart out methane with abandon, so while having a plan in place is one thing, actually getting emissions down will still be quite another.

Keep going!