Jeanette Fitzsimmons’ and Jim Salinger’s recent submissions to the Zero Carbon Bill hearings have attracted wide publicity. As Simon Wilson reported in the NZ Herald:
“Better profits, fewer cows – dairy farmers can do it now, Jeanette Fitzsimons tells MPs
Dairy farmers could increase their profits and reduce their methane emissions by 20 per cent at the same time, right now, according to Green Party activist and former leader Jeanette Fitzsimons. All it would take, she told the Parliamentary Select Committee hearing submissions in Auckland into the Zero Carbon Bill, is to reduce the dairy herd and improve existing feed practices.
In a hard-hitting submission, Fitzsimons also warned that urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are “much more important” than setting long-term targets. Significant progress is possible right now, she said. And recent research has suggested that two types of emissions are much more dangerous than previously thought.
One is the danger from methane, the main greenhouse gas emitted by farm animals. The other is from pine trees, which make up the bulk of the Government’s One Billion Trees programme.
“I want to start,” she said, “by stressing the urgency of action. This is now an emergency. Governments have known about it for a long time but have done nothing.”
She listed the key climate change conferences she had attended: Kyoto, in 1997, “when it really looked like progress would be made, but it wasn’t”; then the Hague, then Copenhagen, “where the outcome was so terrible things went backwards”.
She criticised the bill for focusing on targets. People pin their hopes on miracle solutions, she suggested, “a year saved now is worth many more later. Reductions are much more important than how fast we get to zero.”
Fitzsimons said it was now known that methane is “enormously more powerful” than previously thought. The standard thinking used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was that methane trapped 13 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2, when its life is considered over 100 years.
But methane deteriorates rapidly, so a better timespan is 20 years. “When that’s applied, we can see methane is not 13 times more powerful, but 84 times.”
And, she said, “20 years is the right timeline. If we haven’t solved this in 20 years, it’ll be too late.”
But the good news for farmers was that they don’t need to hope for some amazing new technology no one has thought of yet. She quoted research done by agricultural economist Peter Fraser, formerly of Treasury, into the “marginal cow”.
“Fraser’s work shows that more cows don’t inevitably mean more profit,” she said.
“It’s the concept of diminished returns,” said (committee chair) Scott Simpson.
“Yes that’s right. If you feed cows better, and reduc e the stock, you should be able to increase your profit and make a difference for the environment.”
She said veterinarian and ecologist Alison Dewes has studied Waikato dairy farms and found a 20 per cent reduction in stock numbers will lead to better profit. Another researcher, Barry Ridler, has found the same. His work suggests “seriously overstocked farms would be more profitable if they reduced the number of cows by 30 per cent”.
She said Dewes’ figure, 20 per cent, was twice the 10 per cent target proposed by the Zero Carbon Bill for 2030. “The bill undersells the good sense of farmers now,” she said, “and that means it limits its ability to promote transformation.”
She said the “big opponent” of this analysis is Fonterra. “They’re committed to their ‘velocity’ mantra. They think more is always better. But it isn’t true.”
Simpson also asked Jeanette Fitzsimons about the trend to replace livestock farming with exotic forestry, especially pine.
She explained there is a problem with pine plantations, which had been highlighted by climatologist Jim Salinger, who is also due to submit to the select committee.
Salinger’s concern is pinus radiata absorbs more heat from the sun than most types of vegetation. In doing so, the trees release compounds into the atmosphere that mop up methane-destroying chemicals.
Fitzsimons told the select committee she thought there was still a lot of marginal farmland currently devoted to sheep and beef that was “not particularly profitable” and would be better in forestry. But she said there should be a much greater focus on native species.
“Land on rolling country, however, should be used to produce food.” On flat land she said she’d like to see the focus on market gardens and other horticulture.
She agreed with Simpson that some big changes to land use were coming, just as had happened in the Coromandel when pasture was converted to kiwifruit and avocado, and in Marlborough, when vineyards had taken over.
“There was a time when anyone suggesting those things would have been carried out of the room,” he said. “But times change and we change with them.”
She also told the committee the bill was inconsistent with the Resource Management Act. “I won’t have been the first submitter to point this out,” she said, explaining that while the Zero Carbon Bill says councils “may” consider climate change in granting resource consents, section 104e of the RMA itself explicitly prohibits that.
“This will lead to massive litigation from both sides. Developers will invoke the RMA when a council tries to block a consent, and environmentalists will call on the newe law when it doesn’t.”
“There are many ways to fix this,” she added. “I think the best solution is to use this bill to repeal the relevant section of the RMA.”
Fitzsimons was also critical of the mild language of the bill. “Saying ‘may’ isn’t good enough. I think you can do better than that. Every decision of a public body should incorporate climate change. I’m not saying climate change should always trump everything, but it should be considered.”
And, she said, if councils make decisions that for some reason increase emisssions, “citizens should be able to take them to judicial review”.
Net zero targets – which allow a greenhouse gas emitter to continue emitting but buy carbon credits to offset the damage – came in for special attention. “Net zero seems to be the escape clause. It doesn’t really reduce emissions, it just allows for different ways to offset.”
Fitzsimons said no more than 30 per cent of emissions should be subject to offsetting, “and that’s generous: that ceiling should reduce over time”. She also wanted a ban on the purchase of carbon credits offshore.
The committee has now finished its sittings in Auckland. Over three days, most submitters urged the MPs to strengthen the bill.”
As previously mentioned, Jim Salinger’s submission focussed on new research that shows how pine plantations increase the global heating effect of methane.
Radio NZ reported:
The following article from Carbon News goes into more detail:
Get tougher on methane, say Penn State profs
A TRIO of top international climate scientists wants the New Zealand Government to be tougher on methane than it plans to be. Three professors from Pennsylvania State University – including the man famed for the hockey-stick graph showing temperature changes – say an alarming rise in atmospheric methane means tougher action is going to be needed.
The bill, now before Parliament’s Environment Select Committee, proposes cuts in New Zealand’s emissions of biogenic methane (from livestock and waste) by 10 per cent by 2030 and between 24 per cent and 47 per cent by 2050. All other greenhouses gases would be a net-zero by 2050.
But in a submission on the bill, the Penn State group, describing members as “climate scientists with extensive experience, including major contributions to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments”, says the proposed Climate Change Commission should be asked to recommend methane targets.
“This allows more rapid revision of methane reduction targets as knowledge improves, rather than the target being enshrined in legislation,” the submission says.
The group is led by Dr Jim Salinger, a New Zealand climate scientist who is a visiting scholar at the university. The others are Distinguished Professor Michael Mann, whose “hockey-stick” graph illustrated the stark change in global temperatures as a result of human activities, and Professor Jose D. Fuentes.
The scientists are particularly alarmed about an unexpected rise in the amount of methane in the atmosphere, from 1800 parts per million in 2014 to 1850 ppm by 2018.
“Methane levels have been climbing more steeply than climate scientists anticipated, to a degree so unexpected that it could derail the Paris Agreement,” the submissions says.
“Given the recent rise in atmospheric methane and the incomplete understanding of its biogeochemistry, we recommend that the new Climate Change Commission role, drawing on the appropriate technical expertise, recommends the methane targets.
“This allows more rapid revision of methane reduction targets as knowledge improves, rather than the target being enshrined in legislation.”
While the exact cause of the rise in atmospheric methane is unclear, the scientists fear that large plantations of radiata pine are damaging the process by which methane is broken down in the atmosphere.
“Likely sources of the increase are from biological emissions mainly from wetlands and ruminant livestock, and/or removal of methane molecules by hydroxyl radical is likely to limited by the presence of volatile organic carbon from conifers,” the submission says.
“The radiata pine plantations are significant emitters of volatile organic compounds. Monoterpenes are abundantly emitted into the atmosphere, and can, via chemical reactions, consume hydroxyl radicals, which prolong(s) the life of methane in the atmosphere.”