Greenpeace calls for tighter regulations to push dairy sector on climate targets — 'Just too many cows'

Greenpeace says while individual dairy farmers are taking steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the issue is systemic, so sector-wide regulation is needed. 

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Executive director Russel Norman says Greenpeace wants tighter regulation, but DairyNZ says it’s already taking steps to reach its climate goals. Source: Breakfast

The organisation’s executive director, former Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, said today that New Zealand’s goal to cut its methane emissions by 10 per cent by 2030 falls well below a UN report recommending a 40 to 45 per cent reduction in the same timeframe. 

Even with a smaller target, New Zealand’s current trajectory would see it miss its 10 per cent methane reduction target, the Climate Change Commission said in its draft report in January. 

The draft report made a number of recommendations to try and reduce methane, including reducing herd sizes by 15 per cent while maintaining the same level of production. 

Norman and DairyNZ director Tracy Brown spoke with Breakfast today, as Climate Change Minister James Shaw says a final version of the Climate Change Commission report will be submitted to the Government next week.

“There’s just too many cows,” Norman said.

He said if the country wants real change, the Government should include the agriculture industry in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) like all other sectors. 

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The status quo, which sees the ETS exclude biological emissions from agriculture, is a price signal to people that they can keep polluting, Norman said. 

“You might have a good farmer who is doing good things, but we set regulations and pricing signals which enabled the dairy sector to get too big and so it has massive emissions, massive water pollution.”

He added: “The issue is systemic. So, it’s not about individual farmers.”

Norman said official numbers also don’t capture the impact of the dairy industry importing palm kernel extract, which is partly responsible for destroying animal habitats overseas. He called for its use to be phased out. 

Dairy NZ's Brown, who appeared alongside Norman, said her sector “absolutely” recognises it needs to cut its methane emissions. 

She said the country already produces some of the “most efficient milk” in the world, with emissions from its production having seen a 25 per cent reduction in the past 20 years. 

Brown said the sector’s emissions reduction framework He Waka Eke Noa, a “world-leading” partnership between the Government and the industry, would reward farmers who are efficient. It would also require farmers to know what their base emissions are so they can reduce it and begin to cap nitrogen fertiliser use.

“There’s no silver bullet for this. Farming systems are complicated. We’re dealing with living production systems and things that interconnect and are interrelated,” she said. 

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Ashburton dairy farmer Mark Saunders told Whena Owen that environmental concerns are critical for him but meeting future targets on reducing emissions will be a big challenge.

But Norman said it isn’t good enough because He Waka Eke Noa is voluntary, and the agriculture sector has “lobbied and lobbied” to keep itself out of the ETS. 

Brown replied that the sector is “owning” the “challenge” of climate change. She herself was the winner of a farming Sustainability Award three years ago. Twenty-five years ago, she and her husband had begun fencing off waterways and planting trees. Since then, they have also upgraded their effluent system. 

“We know that we’ve got to do something about this,” she said. 

“New Zealand is a proud, food-producing nation. That's why our emissions are so high. We're good at producing food. That's what we do.”

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Agriculture is working to meet methane targets but many more changes will need to be made, a sector leader told Q+A’s climate change special Milk, Meat and Motorcars. Source: Q+A

The agriculture sector accounts for about 48 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions – most of it methane. 

While methane only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years, compared to hundreds of years for carbon dioxide, it has a greater “global warming potential” relative to carbon dioxide.