Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Climate Change: Just predatory delay again

Another day, another story arguing that climate change is Just Too Hard for farmers, and that they should be given more time to wait for a magic technological solution which will cut emissions while allowing them to continue doing exactly what they're doing at the moment. Today, the magic Technological Solution is low-emissions cows, and like a methane vaccine, its just another exercise in predatory delay by New Zealand's biggest polluters. How can we tell this? Because their magic low emissions cows already exist. But rather than using them to reduce emissions, farmers use them to crank out more and more milk and pollution.

You can work out the efficiency of the New Zealand dairy herd from the herd size and production numbers in the NZ Dairy Statistics [PDF, p8 and 9] and the implied emissions factors per cow in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory [PDF, p192-193]. They tell a tale of continuous improvement. In 1990 we had 2.4 million cows producing 599 kg of milk solids, which at 77.8 kg of methane per cow, means an efficiency of .312 kg of methane per kg of milk solids. In 2019 we had over twice as many cows - 4.9 million of them - producing over three times as much milk solids - 1896 million kg - which at 96.8 kg of methane per cow, means .251 kg of methane per kg of milk solids. Thirty years of ordinary, business as usual breeding for more efficient production has produced a cow which is 25% more emissions efficient. Which sounds a lot like the supercow farmers say they're looking for! So why do we need to wait again?

The answer of course is so farmers can keep polluting as usual and not do anything to take responsibility for the problem they are causing. Its pure predatory delay. But we've given them 20 years already to start lowering emissions, and now (according to the weather at least) we are out of time. The planet is simultaneously on fire and flooding, and its simply no longer credible for them to stand there and pretend they can't do anything about when they clearly already have (and then wasted those gains by using them to make our problems worse). Farmers need to do their part, and since they obviously won't do that voluntarily, they need to be regulated into doing it.

How do we do this? The bare minimum is to cap milk production, and force reductions in herd numbers. Or we just do it directly and cap and cut cow numbers. Either will ensure that efficiency gains help the planet, not farmers. And on current business-as-usual that would meet the bottom end of the statutory 2050 methane target range. If we want to better - and we have to, because the current target is laughably weak - then we reduce those caps faster. Think of it as an incentive for farmers to go beyond business-as-usual, and do more than just talk about breeding better cows.

(Again, I am ignoring sheep and beef cattle from this, on the basis that a) they are also getting more efficient by business as usual, and b) high carbon prices will see them displaced by trees anyway. The problem is dairy, and so that's where we should focus the solution: on slaughtering the sacred cows).