Thursday, 24 November 2011

Why do we care about agricultural emissions?

In 2007, agricultural emissions accounted for more than 48% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions (Ministry for the Environment, 2009) and 13.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2007c). The question of what response will effectively address these emissions is of critical importance to New Zealand and the world. However, ensuring that our response is effective requires us to first ask a different question: why do individuals, communities, companies and government in New Zealand care about agricultural emissions? A recent Motu note by Hugh McDonald and Suzi Kerr responds to this fundamental inquiry; it can be found online here. Its major conclusions are summarised below.

There are three non-mutually exclusive reasons New Zealanders may want to control agricultural emissions. We may be concerned about the impacts of climate change on New Zealand and the world. We might be motivated to control greenhouse gas emissions due to international pressure and opportunities from others based on their concern about climate change. This international pressure could be felt from two distinct sources: from international organisations and countries, or alternatively, in the form of commercial pressures and opportunities for domestic producers. A third motivation may be that we are interested in complementary goals that can be achieved by targeting agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, such as improving water quality or improving farm efficiency.

The motivations New Zealanders have for addressing agricultural emissions should determine the way that the emissions are addressed; that is, the why should determine the how. Depending on our motivation, we will require our responses to achieve different levels of verifiability or visibility, will have different priorities for technological change, and will focus more or less on communicating internationally. These dimensions are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Choosing appropriate responses given our motivations


Technology change:
External outreach:
Motivation One:
Avoid climate change
Needs to be visible and/or verifiable to the farmer.
Needs to be verifiable and visible to New Zealand regulators (if national policy).
Effort needs to be visible internationally to encourage others.
Mitigation technologies.
Some measurement and monitoring technologies.
Cooperate on mitigation development.
Share technologies and knowledge we develop.
Actively disseminate knowledge.

Motivation Two:
Meet international pressure
·    From countries or international organisations
Must be verifiable by international organisations.

Verifiable mitigation methods.

Demonstrate to international parties that we are meeting commitments.
·    From international consumers/markets
Must be visible to consumers.
Visible mitigation methods.
Marketing technologies.
Show effort that is convincing to international consumers.
Motivation Three:
Achieve complementary goals
Effect on complementary goals needs to be visible to communities of interest.
Technologies that positively affect our complementary goals.
None unless community of interest is international, e.g. Biodiversity.
When responding to agricultural emissions we also need to ensure that our response is robust to the many different possible futures. While we can control and influence some factors around this issue of agricultural emissions, we have little or no control over other factors , such as the seriousness of the climate problem in the future, the existence and stringency of any binding global agreement, the development of technologies for cheap and effective mitigation, and the global economy and agricultural prices. These will have a large influence on the actual outcome of any agricultural emissions response we make. We need to ensure that whatever responses we choose to make are robust to these many uncertainties; that is, our response will need to be flexible, scalable, effective and low cost.

Our discussion also suggests a few stronger conclusions. If we believe that New Zealand is likely to face a price on carbon emissions in the future, explicit or otherwise, then when making decisions with long-term consequences New Zealanders should focus on responses that will decrease long term global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions while improving global food security. These responses will be characterised by significant international engagement and co-operation, and a focus on mitigation technology development. We will want to develop effective, efficient, socially acceptable ways to control agricultural greenhouse gas emissions so that other countries will emulate us.  The key characteristic of these responses will be integrity; successful responses will focus on long-term global goals, rather than attempting to appeal to international consumers or regulators in the short term.

A second conclusion is also clear: there is an opportunity to broaden the consensus for addressing agricultural emissions by focussing on outcomes other than climate change. New Zealanders are motivated to take actions that will affect agricultural emissions for a wide range of reasons, and not only because they personally care about helping New Zealand meet international emissions commitments or reducing the risk of climate change. For example, many New Zealanders will be more motivated to act to improve local water quality or agricultural profitability. Given that issues such as these can be addressed in a way that will have complementary effects on greenhouse gas emissions, focussing on these issues may be a more effective way to build consensus for action than focussing exclusively on climate change.

The full paper can be found on the Motu website - click here

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