Monday, July 26, 2021

Climate Change: The solution farmers don't want us to talk about

RNZ this morning has a piece asking Can NZ really meet its methane emissions targets?. Posing it as a question like this frames it as difficult, more of the "but its too hard!" whine from farmers. But its not hard at all. Pretty obviously, we can meet methane reduction targets simply by reducing the number of cows.

This is the solution farmers don't want us to talk about. So, they spend a lot of time holding out the prospect of a methane vaccine to reduce emissions technologically. Obviously, this would be great if it actually existed, but we've had nearly twenty years of research on this and we still don't have one. Meanwhile, the focus on a non-existent future solution has distracted us from the very real things we can do to cut emissions here and now, allowing emissions to rise and rise. Its honestly beginning to look like a dairy version of the coal industry's constant talk about "carbon capture and storage": using the promise of non-existent technology as a tool of predatory delay. Governments have stopped believing the CCS bullshit, adopting a "you can have policy when you deploy it" approach, and we should treat methane vaccines and other promised technological solutions to agricultural emissions the same way. Yes, that would be nice, but for the time being its a fantasy, and we no longer have time for fantasies. We need to focus on what we can do now. And what we can do now is cut cow numbers.

This isn't as radical as it sounds. New Zealand has had fewer cows in the past [PDF, p9]. A 10% cut would simply mean cutting the herd back to the size it was a decade ago. A 49% cut by 2050 would mean cutting it back to what it was in 1990, the baseline year for our emissions (interestingly, both cuts would occur over a similar length of time to the original growth, so the industry should easily be able to handle that change). It would mean fewer farms, and fewer farmers. It would also mean cleaner water and a better overall environment. (It would mean less food, but we export 90% of that, so even significant cuts will leave more than enough for all of us).

(I am focusing on cows here because they're the really big emitters, and because current carbon prices mean trees will cut the numbers of sheep and beef cattle quite happily by normal market mechanisms. Those industries are now uncompetitive compared to sitting back and watching trees grow. And the quicker they admit it and move on, the better off we'll all be).

We need policy to start driving these cuts now. Bringing farming fully into the ETS with no subsidies will help, but we will probably need explicit herd-size and stocking limits as well to drive the reduction. The good news is that this policy is completely reversible: if in the future farmers get their magic vaccine, we can let cow numbers rise again (subject to water quality and other environmental limits). But in the meantime, we need to start cutting them down to size. And the sooner we start on it, the better.