Environmental impacts of farming need fresh thinking

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment6 Comments

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s latest report is as enlightening and robust as ever, as we discussed yesterday. However, in some respects the report is a missed opportunity, mainly because of the Commissioner’s approach of producing stand-alone reports on the science. Sometimes the separation between science and policy is not quite so clear cut.

How we account for methane as a greenhouse gas (GHG) is a perfect example of this; the number we use is a blend of science and value judgements. In fact, even the decision to separate out environmental impacts into different areas – water quality, climate change, soil – is a judgement call that spans policy and science. From the land owner’s perspective there is just one issue at stake; how land use impacts on the environment.

Sometimes splitting science from policy is not so easy. Instead it might be useful to think holistically about how different land uses impact on the environment.


Commissioner Wright’s report does an excellent job of covering the science of methane emissions, and she is right to point out that these need to be acted upon. As she points out, methane is a short-lived gas, and has very different implications for the planet than long-lived gases.

Remember that the key here is to cap the total concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. For all long-lived gases that means we need to get net emissions to zero, because emissions of them just adds to the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere. But methane breaks down relatively quickly, so just achieving a constant flow of those emissions into the atmosphere will mean a stable stock of methane is present. We need to get methane emissions under control for sure (and ideally down), but we don’t need to eliminate them entirely in order to stabilize temperature. However, whether there is any room left for ongoing methane emissions without busting the 2 degree threshold will depend on how quickly the world brings CO2 emissions down to zero – or in time even below zero if sequestering activities and technologies emerge.

That is why some, including former Environment Minister and current OECD head of Environment Simon Upton, have been arguing for dealing with methane separately. This is an interesting argument, not least because it makes the politics of methane emissions easier.

The tricky part is that international agreements currently lump methane in with other gases. The method used for comparing methane with other greenhouse gases is essentially a value judgement. One metric (the one used) rates methane as 25 times more potent than CO2 while another equally valid one comes up with 4 times. To call such reductionism simplistic is to flatter it, it actually sends the wrong message to GHG emitters, implying there is any kind of “equivalence’ between short- and long-lived GHGs.

There is no right answer in the science here, which ultimately prevents Commissioner Wright from making a call. However, no other developed country has methane emissions making up as much of their total emissions as New Zealand. If any country is going to innovate on this point, it will be us.

Of course, the risk of such innovation is that we are seen as acting in our self-interest. That wouldn’t be the first time we have done that on climate issues, and at least in this case there would be some science on our side.

Land use

The other risk to a science led approach is that we forget about the farmer. On top of trying to survive with low payouts and the direct impacts of climate change (droughts and floods) on their business, we are asking the sector to think about their emissions, their impact on water quality and loss of soil. It is enough to give any farmer a migraine.

We need to think about these issues holistically. The way we choose to use land impacts on all these things, so we need to give land owners clear policy signals about the best way to use their land across all these issues. Thinking of these issues in silos such as emissions, or water, or soil etc. will only turn farmers off.

This is particularly the case when there are synergies between farming practices and the different environmental issues. A good example from Commissioner Wright’s report is her insight into reduced stocking rates as a way to reduce environmental damage while maintaining profits. This is an environmental no brainer – as we have added inputs such as fertilizer and palm kernel we have stocked past the sustainable profitability ‘sweet spot’; the rate that we would stock at if environmental costs are included. Reducing stocking rates should also reduce emissions and improve water quality.

Meanwhile, the Land and Water Forum are talking about good management practices to improve water quality. Yet the sacred cow of reducing stocking rates has not yet been raised for fear of telling farmers how to farm. We need to join up our thinking on stocking rates across these various silos of environmental consequences if progress is to be made. Another good example to be included within an integrated approach is planting trees on erosion prone land; this would be beneficial for soil retention, soaking up carbon and improving water quality.

In short, while Commissioner Wright’s report is an excellent summary of the science on agricultural emissions, there are dangers in separating science from policy. For the sake of our largest industry we need to start thinking holistically about land use and its impacts on the environment. One such approach would be to find simple ways to internalize the cost of environmental damage to the land user – rather than privatize the profits and socialize that damage. But admittedly that is a huge challenge that can’t be resolved in one report.

Environmental impacts of farming need fresh thinking was last modified: October 20th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author
Geoff Simmons

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.