Agricultural greenhouse gases & the New Zealand policy environment

New Zealand is a Party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, its Kyoto Protocol, and the new Paris Agreement. Read more

New Zealand is a member of the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions Read more

New Zealand is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Read more


History was made on 12 December 2015, when the gavel went down on a new global climate change agreement at the 21st UN climate change conference (COP 21) in Paris. For the first time in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) two-decade history, all governments have agreed to act on climate change, and all will transition to a low carbon economy over the course of this century.

The UNFCCC's biggest stumbling block has been its approach that placed legal obligations only on developed countries (OECD members in 1990) to reduce emissions, while the rest of the world took voluntary action. Under the Paris Agreement, the playing field is now level for developed and developing countries, though the former will continue to provide financial and capacity-building support to help the developing world reduce emissions and build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The new agreement represents a shift from imposed burden-sharing to a vision combining global rules with action to be determined by each country, in line with its national circumstances. This combination sets up a kind of bounded flexibility. Everyone is to take action on emissions, plan for adaptation, apply agreed methodologies and accounting approaches, report and be reviewed on their progress, and will commit to increasingly ambitious targets. . But each country decides for itself how much it can do.

By the time we got to Paris, 189 governments had tabled their intended post-2020 contributions. You can count the number of non-submitters on the fingers of one hand, so this is a real game-changer. The majority of countries' intended contributions (and all those from developed countries) are economy-wide, though many developing countries submitted targets to reduce the emissions-intensity of their economies (i.e. bending the growth curve) and/or made their contributions at least partly conditional on finance.

Unsurprisingly, given the political sensitivity of discussions in the UNFCCC, agriculture is neither treated differently from other sectors, nor excluded from the Paris Agreement. There are two key aspects to the deal. First, an expectation that governments will move over time to economy-wide absolute emissions reduction targets (and not slip back to sector-specific targets). Second, there are explicit references to the importance of food security and the need to ensure food production isn't compromised, appearing in both the preamble and Article 2 of the Agreement.

The accounting approaches to apply for second and subsequent national contributions will be elaborated before the agreement enters into effect in 2020. But COP 21 clarified that countries will be able to draw on existing accounting guidelines - meaning either those spelled out under the UNFCCC or (as New Zealand uses) its Kyoto Protocol.

This outcome opens the door for a multilateral conversation on agriculture - one we started in the lead-up to and at COP 21. We'll take the lead in looking for opportunities to discuss how these twin objectives - of not limiting food production and at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions - can sensibly be met. The next opportunity is a series of UNFCCC technical workshops, beginning in May.

A work programme, laid out in Paris, will put flesh on the bones of the 11-page Paris Agreement by elaborating a plethora of rules, guidelines and procedures before 2020. For New Zealand, Paris was the best outcome we could have hoped for - especially with a substantial provision and work programme on carbon markets. The agreement creates a new frontier, but there's plenty of negotiation to keep us busy so we're all well-prepared for its implementation.

Back to News