Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Climate change: Good news on agriculture

New Zealand's policy on climate change has been one of inaction, justified by excuses and special pleading. A key plank in this is our emissions profile. Roughly 50% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. We can't do anything about them, so we don't (and in practice we encourage farmers to convert land to dairy farms, increasing emissions even further, while turning our lakes and streams into toxic sewers).

But that excuse may not last for very long:

A team of AgResearch scientists has identified five compounds that reduce methane emissions from livestock by up to 90 percent in initial short-term trials, providing a technology that could significantly reduce New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.


AgResearch principal scientist Peter Janssen, who co-ordinates the methane research programme, said the findings were the culmination of five years work, during which the team screened more than 100,000 compounds through computer-based searches and in laboratory experiments.

The screening process identified five compounds that have now been tested successfully in sheep, showing a significant reduction in methane production over a two-day period.

"The programme has been looking for new types of inhibitors of methane production from the rumen. This can be regarded as a first step in the process towards developing something that can be used on the farm."

They expect to have a product within five years. Its great news, which promises to significantly reduce our agricultural emissions while improving farm productivity. To give an extent of the possible impact, last year enteric fermentation was responsible for 28.4 of the 81 million tons of emissions we produced. If they are as effective as suggested, then widespread use could knock 25 million tons off our national emissions, a cut of almost a third. In terms of targets, this is almost 40% of 1990 emissions, so when we're aiming for a target cut of 50% by 2050, its a huge hit.

The problem, as always, is adoption. Because we've got a lot of technologies which would make a difference to our greenhouse gas emissions: biofuels, more fuel efficient vehicles, wind power and other renewables. And yet we haven't adopted them on the scale that we need to. The market doesn't work for this; from looking at uptake of energy efficiency, we know that polluters don't adopt cleaner technology voluntarily even when its financially advantageous to do so. They need to be pushed (and pushed hard if we want rapid change). But our government and policy community are ideologically opposed to the sorts of policy tools which could do that. Hence why we're still driving inefficient cars running on dead dinosaurs rather than wood waste, and why energy companies are still looking at building gas-fired power stations.

Our government spends money on climate change research. Now that that research has been successful, it needs to follow through by pushing for rapid adoption of the solutions it has found (and this time, ticking the food safety boxes properly). Anything less, and it will be clear that they were never really after solutions, but were just doing it as another PR exercise, a substitute for real action.