Thursday, May 02, 2019

Climate Change: Ban palm kernel

Whenever we discuss climate change policy, we come up against the cow in the room: agriculture. And specifically dairy. Farmers, who have doubled cow numbers over the past two decades through intensification, claim that it is "too hard" for them to reduce emissions - or, rather, "too hard" while continuing to do exactly what they are doing now. But if we want to avoid the earth becoming uninhabitable, that is exactly what we need to do. So how do we force farmers to adopt less polluting practices and push them towards lower cow numbers? One simple move in New Zealand would be to ban the import of palm kernel.

Palm kernel (PKE) is used as a supplementary feed by New Zealand farmers, allowing them to feed more cows on the same land, and thus produce and pollute for longer. Its production is inherently linked to deforestation and human rights abuse, and threatens to drive Orangutans (one of our fellow hominid species) to extinction. But in addition to causing significant emissions and environmental destruction, palm kernal is a major source of emissions in its own right, being converted directly into methane by the animal.

How much methane? New Zealand imported 2.2 million tons of PKE in 2018. It is converted directly into methane at a rate of 23.4 g / kg of feed, so it produces 51.48 kT of methane. Which works out to 1.29 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent using the (lowball) ETS GWP, or 4.43 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent using the 20-year GWP (which matches our timescale for change more closely). Which is 1.6% of our annual emissions from this one source. Banning it would have a significant and immediate effect on our emissions, and a disproportionate one on warming because of the power of methane as a greenhouse gas. It would also help reverse the trend of dairy intensification (you can't overstock if you can't use supplementary feed), helping to push things in the right direction.

As for how to do it, that's the easy bit: simply declare PKE animal feed to be a prohibited import under the Customs and Excise Act 2018. This requires that the Minister "considers that the proposed prohibition is necessary in the public interest", but there is a clear public interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Alternatively, amend schedule 1 of the Act to include it. 1.6% can be shaved off our emissions in a year with one simple regulation. So why doesn't the government do it?