In big news affecting Hawke’s Bay farmers and growers, leaders of most of NZ’s primary sector (chickens and pork excluded) this week have announced the GHG mitigation plan they are recommending to Government.

It would be fair to say many farmers still believe they should bear no cost for helping NZ reach its emissions goals. Nevertheless, both major parties – accepting the reality that NZ’s agriculture emissions are the ‘elephant in the room’ – have already agreed to GHG budgets which require biogenic methane emissions from agriculture (and waste) to be 10% lower by 2030 and 24-47% lower by 2050 (compared to 2017 levels). 

And now more enlightened leadership in the industry – collaborating under the banner He Waka Eke Noa – has taken the bull by the horns and presented a framework that has been much-discussed in recent months through the farming community.

Basically, individual farmers will be required to calculate their own emissions, using approved methodologies, and pay a levy accordingly. Given the differing impacts of various farming related GHGs, one rate would be paid for methane (NZ’s principal but shorter lasting GHG, produced mainly by livestock), with higher rates for very potent nitrous oxide (from livestock and synthetic fertiliser) and carbon dioxide (from urea).

Farmers would start paying the levies in 2025. Under present rules, farmers are required to have measured their on-farm GHG emissions by the end of this year, and have written management plans in place to mitigate emissions by January 2025.

The huge unanswered question at this point is the pricing of levies. For example, the plan recommends a maximum 11c per kilo starting price for methane. Pricing will be a Government decision, to be made by year’s end assuming, as is virtually certain, that the Government embraces the framework. The Government will also consider advice from the Climate Change Commission on the proposals.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Conner welcomed the report and commented: “We are all committed to pricing agricultural emissions to ensure their reduction from 2025, and reiterate that commitment today … Customers around the world are demanding higher levels of sustainability in the products they buy, so there is the potential for real competitive advantage here if we can get this right and continue moving to sustainable farming systems that are ready to respond to a warming world.”

Naturally, farming industry groups will lobby for low levies, while those charged with meeting NZ’s overall emissions reduction requirements will want the levies high enough to actually incentivize farmers to implement mitigation measures. This includes rewarding farmers for reducing their emissions.

As the He Waka Eke Noa report puts it: “Levy rates need to be as low as possible while still achieving the objectives of reducing emissions, increasing integrated sequestration, and minimizing impacts on primary sector production and profitability.”

The levies would accrue in a dedicated fund to be invested in R&D and providing technical advice to farmers and growers.

Another key issue is what sorts of on-farm mitigation measures will be ‘eligible technologies and practices’ that deliver measurable emission reductions or ‘increased sequestration’ in future GHG farm plans.

Here in Hawke’s Bay, the HB Future Farming Trust would argue, for example, that leading edge farming practices on pastoral farms can actually build and sequester carbon in the soil … a result farmers might find more rewarding than planting trees to offset their emissions. Stay tuned on that one.

Through the He Waka Eke Noa process, primary sector leadership – commendably – has stuck its neck out, mounting a contentious educational and consultation process which has faced significant dissent amongst ‘rank and file’ farmers.

The end result seems to be a sensible framework, but, as noted, ultimately the politics of farmer participation in GHG reductions will revolve around money – the pricing of levies.

And meantime, more ardent environmentalists will argue that simply pricing farm emissions will not go far enough to force the required changes at needed pace, preferring more direct regulatory interventions such as limiting cow numbers and banning synthetic fertilisers altogether.

In election year 2023, I can’t see Labour going there!

Here is the full report. And here is an executive summary.

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