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Owen Jennings

The Farcical and Bizarre

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Imagine arguing over the difference between 4 millionths of one degree of warmth and 5 millionths.  Something that can’t be measured even with sophisticated technical equipment.  Pretty stupid?

But now imagine if the outcome of that argument adversely affected 25% of all our dairy production and a big chunk of our meat and wool sector.  Get the argument wrong and it cripples farming and devastates the economy.

Farcical?  Absurd? 

Get used to it.  Seemingly, otherwise intelligent, sane individuals with science degrees, powerful positions in the Government are head down, seriously trying to figure out whether the heavy hand of the State should force farmers to reduce their warming of the planet by a millionth or two of a degree.

Of course, these same great intellectuals don’t talk about millionths of a degree.  They talk about millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas.   That sounds much more foreboding.  That focus is more likely to worry the population especially young people.  Folk might scoff at debates over millionths of a degree.

Farmers are alarmed that the state appointed Climate Change Commission is conducting a review that sounds harmless – about targets and emissions budgets – but is, in fact, about moving the needle a millionth or two of a degree.

Professor Dave Frame, our leading climate scientist, IPCC contributor and adviser to successive governments has stated that New Zealand farmers are responsible for, at the most, warming from their livestock from 1850 to 2000 of 0.0014°C with projected future warming of 0.0004°C between 2000 and 2100. That amounts to 4 millionths of a degree/year – an inconsequential, immeasurable and utterly irrelevant contribution.

Dr van Wijngaarden a leading Canadian climate scientist recently estimated New Zealand farmers are contributing 0.00000119 degrees C of warmth per year – confirmation of its triviality.

You may want to claim that lots of “millionths of a degree” can add up to a problem.  That New Zealand may be a bit player in the warming stakes but “everyone has to pull their weight”.  Why should farmers be let off the hook?

There are good reasons why.

All this worrying warming apparently comes from burping cows and sheep – methane.  Too few of us get to ask, “where does methane come from?”  Livestock eat grass that releases methane gas into the atmosphere.  The grass grows by photosynthesis which requires CO2 out of the atmosphere.  It’s a simple cycle most of us learned in college.

Livestock are unique in that they use a current greenhouse gas to produce another.  Quite different to emissions from fossil fuels.

Dr Kevin Trenberth, a leading IPCC scientist said, “This is NOT scientifically sound. It appears to assume that the methane emissions from dairy and meat count, but they do not because they come from carbon dioxide that was already in the atmosphere and was taken up by grass in photosynthesis. Any methane decays on a decade timescale back to carbon dioxide. It is circular. Methane is so short-lived it equilibrates and no extra warming results provided numbers of stock don’t change.”  Our stock numbers are stable and our methane emissions are declining.

There is another sound reason why New Zealand farmers do not have to bow to the extremists.  They feed 40 million people around the world – even more on a protein basis.  The New Zealand Government signed the 2015 Paris Agreement that was abundantly clear – no state should take any steps reducing greenhouse gases that “threaten food production”.

New Zealand farmers produce food with the planet’s lowest carbon footprint – 40% better than anyone else.  If we cut our production someone else with a worse record will produce it making a farce of the effort.  It’s called ‘leakage’.

Here is another sound reason to drop this bizarre attack of food producers.   Humans produce CO2 with every breath – about a kg per day.  Multiple that up by 8.5 billion people and you get 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 blown into the atmosphere.  That’s three times more than all the world’s ruminants produce.  But the UN’s IPCC says it is not a problem because humans are part of a natural cycle – we eat plants and animals that eat plants and we know that plants use CO2 in photosynthesis.  No need for any taxing of humans.

Hang on!!  So do ruminants.  They eat plants and are part of the same natural cycle. Why are humans off the hook but farmers facing the gun?

The Coalition Government has made a number of critically important, needed changes. They are showing courage in the face of harsh and often nasty criticism, much of it by a totally unprofessional and juvenile media.  The Coalition have taken two tentative steps in putting the badly wounded He Wake Eke Noa to the sword and announcing it will remove agriculture from the ETS. 

Helpful?  Yes, of course, but the underlying problem remains.  There is still a belief that ruminant methane is a problem that has to be fixed.  Another $400 million is to be thrown at mitigation.  That is on top of what is now nearly a billion with no results, no cure, no answer.  Most suggestions involve additional cost and intervention much of which would horrify our customers.

New Zealand with its unusual ratio of methane to CO2 gas should be taking a case to the world, leading the charge, joining forces with other countries with ruminant methane emissions to have them removed from any further calculations, measuring, taxing or curtailment. 

We seek boldness from the Coalition and industry to tackle the huge injustice of condemning farmers for being polluters when the latest science is clear – ruminants are not a problem. 

Saving millionths of a degree by decimating our most successful industry is as ludicrous as cutting off your hand to spite your elbow.  Could we have a return to sanity, please?