One announcement made by NZ Prime Minister John Key at COP21 that has been welcomed is more funds for research into the nation’s emissions Achilles heel – the 48 per cent of NZ greenhouse gas emissions from methane generated by the beef, dairy and sheep herds.

Despite this massive climate footprint, they are being excluded from the nation’s emissions trading scheme, which is currently under review.

Mr Key said in his address to COP21 that the country faces “unique domestic challenges in reducing greenhouse gas emissions”.

“Almost 80 per cent of our electricity already comes from renewable energy and around half of our emissions are from agriculture, where there are not yet cost effective technologies to reduce emissions. But we are working hard to change that.”

He announced that a further $20 million over four years would be invested in the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. NZ has already contributed $45 million to the project.

The alliance was formed in 2009 and has 46 member countries. It is focused on the research and development of technologies and practices that will reduce methane, nitrogen dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, cropping and rice production.

University of Waikato Professor of Agribusiness Jacqueline Rowarth is one of the researchers involved in the alliance.

Professor Rowarth told The Fifth Estate that the major challenge for the country’s beef and dairy industries was finding a way of decreasing emissions without negative impacts on the animals. At this point, there is no established method of sequestering methane emissions, which are produced through the action of the gut bacteria that help ruminants digest cellulose. It is because of this that agriculture is being excluded from the nation’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which is currently under review.

“No country in the world has agriculture in its ETS,” she said.

She said the argument in NZ was that if emissions can’t be reduced, then they should be in the ETS or taxed somehow, and that the government position has been “we will do it if someone else does it first”.

The sector is a key part of the nation’s economy, representing 48.4 per cent of the export economy in the form of meat and milk products. Farmers are in the ETS in terms of power, fuel and other purchases, she said, but the emissions from the animals themselves – 48 per cent of the nation’s entire greenhouse gas emissions profile – are not included.

The research the alliance is carrying out is on several fronts, she said, including how to sequester methane in the soil, and how to reduce the amount of methane animals produce through either changes to diet or potentially methods such as a vaccine to alter the digestive biology. There is also research being undertaken into carbon and nitrogen nutrient cycling.

Professor Rowarth pointed out there were other ways NZ contributed substantially to global emissions, such as the 4500 extra return air travel trips taken by Kiwis to the World Rugby Cup this year, which she said equated to a full quarter of national emissions for the entire year.

There needs to be more “thinking about choices,” she said.

Aviation fuel is also exempt from ETS schemes, she said, because it is difficult to work out where a carbon tax should be applied – at the country of departure? The passenger? The nation the airline is based in? Or the country of passport held by the passenger?

It’s a similar situation with animal emissions, she said, with NZ’s per capita emissions profile looking quite high by global standards, even though 95 per cent of the milk and 90 per cent of the meat production that generates half of that annual GHG figure is exported.

The question then becomes where to apply an ETS – to the offshore nation importing the products? To the consumers in those nations?

“New Zealand provides protein for 45 million people,” she said, “but we are a country of only 4.6 million people, and the country is [the one] liable for those emissions.”

  • Read the discussion paper for NZ’s ETS review. Submissions on priority areas in the ETS review close 19 February 2016.