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Dozens of young people, sprawled in loose circles on the floor of Auckland University’s Business School, are trying to figure out how to make climate change action go viral.
“We need 100,000 people on this Climate Voter thing,” Jimmy Green, a co-organiser of lobby group Generation Zero’s ClimateVote Summit, tells the crowd. “Or as many as we can get!”
Agriculture has long been a sticking point for efforts to reduce emissions in New Zealand.
In 2003, the government tried to levy farmers to pay for emissions research. Dubbed the “fart tax” (burps are actually more of a problem), it was met by protests organised by Federated Farmers. In what became an enduring image of the protest, National MP Shane Ardern – who also farms in Taranaki – drove a tractor up the steps of Parliament.
Today, a good part of the country’s leading work on agriculture emissions reduction takes place at the government-funded New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC). The centre collaborates on certain work with the industry-funded Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (set up after the failure of the fart tax **).
The NZAGRC’s main focus has been on methane – produced by sheep and cattle during digestion – though research is also taking place into nitrous oxide and soil carbon. It’s looking at breeding low-emitting animals and developing a vaccine and feed compounds.
“The animal breeding is probably the most advanced,” NZAGRC director Harry Clark says. “We’ve got further evidence now that some animals do produce less methane.”
The way it works is simple enough. Sheep and cattle with smaller stomachs process pasture faster, leaving less time for fermentation. “We could have breeding values in the sheep population for selection for methane within the next three years,” Dr Clark says.
“What we’re doing at the moment is dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s to make sure there are no downsides.”
Dr Clark – also a lead author for the IPCC on a chapter dealing with land sector emission reduction – says New Zealand has come a long way since the fart tax protests.
“As the climate changes, it influences the amount of food that can be produced. Yes, it is desirable to reduce one of the drivers of climate change, which is greenhouse gas emissions, but you can’t do that at the expense of not producing food,” he says. “I think we’re a lot more sophisticated than we were 10 years ago about thinking about that balance.”
He acknowledges that it will be difficult to reduce overall emissions without tackling the agricultural sector but argues that there is some room for optimism. “What we can do is move on a trajectory towards lower emissions intensity in the sector. The sector’s already doing some of that through improvements in productivity.”
Asked about engineering a shift to high-value products, he points out it will be difficult while commodity prices remain high. “When you get milk powder, the price is gold, what’s the point of adding value? You might as well sell milk powder.”
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** PGgRc was set up in 2002 to fund research into mitigation of methane emissions from livestock. In 2004, an MOU was signed between the Crown and industry after consultation/opposition to the agricultural emissions levy (the "fart" tax). See more on PGgRc history
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