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Owen Jennings

Taxing Methane

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New Zealand owes a debt to ryegrass – plain, old, cow tucker.  Day after day it produces food for our cows and sheep.  Farmers turn this unsung hero into income, sustainable jobs and growing exports.  When everything else went into lockdown and stopped our finely bred, highly productive grasses kept on churning out milk and meat to feed the nation and create sustainable wealth.

And ryegrass did it by sucking up CO2.  Every day with help from sunlight and soil moisture our pastures gulp up CO2 to manufacture new leaf that feeds the herds of sheep and cattle.

What gets overlooked too often is that the CO2 that these plants need actually originates with that very same grass.  When the grass gets eaten the fermentation process in the ruminant’s stomach produces Methane which burps out into the atmosphere.  This Methane oxidises into CO2 and water vapour ready to be sucked back into the leaves of the grass to sustain that all important cycle that underpins the all-important industries we are relying on right now to save our economy.

It is a part of natural cycle.  It has been forever.  CO2 in, Methane out, Methane oxides into CO2 and water, CO2 back in again. On and on.  No new Methane, no new CO2.  Same old, same old.

The more Methane, the more CO2, the more grass, the more New Zealand can help feed the world and our planet gets measurably greener.

What is new is that the Coalition Government has decided to tax the Methane on its way around this natural, been-there-forever, cycle.  The same Methane on its forever cycle is going to be taxed over and over again.  It sounds more like a blatant tax grab than an honest attempt to deal with climate change.  It also sounds like very poor quality science.  Its not just pennies in the dollar tax. If the full extent of the measures are imposed an average farm will be required to find over $300,000 a year – an impossibility given the profitability of farming.

There are three very well proven reasons why taxing Methane is unjustified and immoral.

The first is the natural cycle of Methane to CO2 to grass to sheep and cattle to Methane. With ruminant numbers stable ruminant Methane levels are static.  But the Coalition Government wants to tax each parcel of Methane on the way around the cycle.  If Methane could have any effect it has already done it.  The same circulating Methane can’t keep producing more warmth.

The second reason is that taxing farmers for their methane production is back to front.   When a  nation wants to modify behaviour using taxes it does so by taxing the end consumer – not the primary producer.  We deem alcohol a potential problem so we tax the drinker, the end consumer.   We have evidence that smoking is harmful to health so we add a tax to cigarettes paid at retail.  If we have proof that Methane from ruminants is causing harm we should apply the tax at consumption to modify consumers’ choices.  Farmers are just an easy target.  They don’t typically vote for the parties of the Coalition.

Thirdly, Methane is just too minuscule to do any substantial warming.  NASA has the planet’s Methane content of the atmosphere at 0.00019%.  That is a hard number to grasp.  It is half a small plastic bucket of water in an Olympic swimming pool of 2.5 million litres.  It is 9 persons in our “team of 5 million”.  Methane is trivial.

Only 15% of the planet’s methane emissions come from ruminants.  New Zealand has 1% of the world’s ruminants.   Try figuring what 1% of 15% of 0.00019% looks like.  It’s one and a bit teaspoonfuls in the Olympic pool.  Its someone’s finger in the “team of 5 million”.  You have to be very audacious or very well paid to think our ruminant Methane can, in such minute quantities, shift the world’s temperatures in any measurable manner.

Farmers are concerned that there are scientific papers that show that Methane in the atmosphere has extremely limited ability to warm the atmosphere because it is overcome and out-absorbed by water vapour that is some 5,000 times more prevalent and that there is little refutation of these claims.  This science raises serious questions about Methane and is supported by many of New Zealand’s leading scientists with appropriate credentials.  Professor Dr Geoff Duffy, PhD at Auckland University, for example, is very clear that the warming attributed to Methane is so minuscule it is irrelevant.  He says the few Methane molecules are vastly outnumbered by water vapour molecules and there simply is no space on the absorbing spectrum where Methane can create warming.  Farmers are concerned to know why this well documented and argued position is disregarded.

The point is that there is too much politics and not enough science involved in the discussion to tax Methane.

The formula used to compare and relate Methane with CO2 (called the GWP) is unfairly overstated that even its originators are uncomfortable defending.  Leading IPCC author and international Greenhouse Gas expert, Myles Allen called it, ‘not fit for purpose”.  Several New Zealand scientists who publicly support the formula state privately it is unjust.  When you can talk about a “fact” having a +/– 50% uncertainty yet claim the science is “settled” you invite ridicule and rejection.

The mistake made in calculating this GWP formula is that short-lived ruminant Methane is treated mistakenly, ignoring the natural cycle where no new Methane is entering the atmosphere.  Too many facts get ignored when it suits.

Dr Clark and Dr Reisinger, directors of the influential NZ Greenhouse Gas Research Unit, state that the current system of using Carbon dioxide equivalents (the GWP) “does not measure the actual warming caused by emissions and ignores the fact that methane does not accumulate in the atmosphere in the same way as CO2”.  This is a damning admission of an epic failure in policy.  It is saying that the policy underpinning the push to tax farmers ignores the fundamental properties of Methane.

New Zealanders are being deliberately misled by a few biased and compromised scientists, supported by a sensation seeking media.   

It is time to call them out.

A new group called FARM, Facts About Ruminant Methane, has been established to outline these issues – details can be found HERE