Climate policy is off target

Last week the New Zealand Government announced its response to He Eke Waka Noa, the Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership. The government has proposed introducing a split-gas farm-level emissions pricing by 2025. The key points are:

  • If the industry doesn’t deliver an effective farm-level solution a processor-level levy will be imposed.
  • There is a very limited allowance for sequestration and soil carbon sequestration appears not to be favoured.
  • The government will seek feedback on a levy on the use of nitrogen.

My major concern is that our focus on emissions reductions as the main strategy to reverse global warming is failing and will continue to fail. We absolutely have to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but there are other solutions that our policy settings here mostly ignore. Work on restoring and regenerating ecosystems is gathering pace worldwide. People are drawing on traditional knowledge and recent science to revegetate landscapes and the water cycle. This work reverses temperature increases in some places. Read more about it in my book How Plants Cool and Heal the Climate: Finding Solutions Close to Home.

I have got lots of problems with the current policy approach, but I will focus on three here, the carbon balance sheet, the continued over-reliance on emissions reductions, and the impact on rural communities.

The carbon equivalent balance sheet

Imagine your carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide status is represented as a balance sheet. There are emissions (sources) and drawdowns (sinks). The government wants to use calculate emissions based on animal type, size, and population, and perhaps fertiliser applications. This is the debit side. What of the credit side? You will get credits for carbon sequestered in trees on the farm in the short-term, but not for soil carbon, nor hydroxyl production (the hydroxyl radicle oxidises methane). Nor is there recognition of the role of vegetation in reducing temperature through transpirational cooling.

Last year, Lake Hawea farm was certified as carbon-zero. Here is what its balance sheet looks like.

Lake Hawea Station’s carbon balance sheet

Notice on the debit side there are 1800 tonnes of CO2 equivalent methane, but no allowance for hydroxyl. There are 735 tonnes of CO2 emissions but nothing for soil carbon. And of course, there is nothing for direct temperature reduction because very few are talking about that. The feedback I have recieved from policymakers is that it is too hard to accurately measure soil carbon or hydroxyl – so we will just ignore them. This is very unjust. Imagine if you were running a business and were taxed on your income, but there was minimal allowance for expenses. If the full balance sheet was accounted for, most drystock farmers and a good number of dairy farms would already be carbon positive.

The continued over-reliance on emissions reductions

Back in 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change drew stronger attention to the importance of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Reinforced by the Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Accord, this has become our major strategy to heal the climate. Sequestration gets a look in, but plants seem only to be valued for their ability to drawdown carbon. It is failing.

The global greenhouse gas paradigm

We have destroyed roughly half of the planet’s vegetation. They cool their localities and also are an important part of the hydrological cycle. They support biodiversity and feed us. Regenerating the planet’s vegetation is the most potent tool we have to heal the climate.

Regenerating the planet’s vegetation is the most potent tool we have to heal the climate. Next time you drive past a farm note that it has got a lot of vegetation. And good farms have lots of vegetation.

Regenerating the planet’s
vegetation is the most potent tool we have to heal the climate.

The impact on rural communities

Sheep and beef farmers are now concerned that additional levies will make some farms no longer viable. They could end up as forestry blocks leading to a further depopulation of rural communities. Remember, if hydroxyl and carbon soil sinks were included, many sheep and beef farms would already be carbon zero.

Until there is a better understanding of the science urban dwellers will continue to throw rocks at farmers from their urban heat islands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s