This blog post is by Motu Research Analyst Zack Dorner.
A couple of weeks ago, the New Zealand government announced changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) based on a review last year of how it was operating, and recent consultation on proposed changes. This blog post summarises and comments on some of the key points in relation to agriculture.
In terms of agriculture, while processors (such as Fonterra) must report on their emissions as of this year, they do not have to face any costs of their biological emissions until after at least 2015.
In 2015 there will be a review of whether or not they should have to face any of these costs. The next election is scheduled for 2014, and this decision could be highly dependent on who leads the next government. Labour’s policy at the last election was for agriculture to start facing the cost for some of their biological emissions in 2013.
It is worth noting that the government is keeping its price cap on CO2 emissions at $25 per tonne, which means a reduction in this cap over time as it is not being adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, the government is keeping our ETS strongly linked with international markets, which are currently highly dependent on the EU carbon price. The EU carbon price is highly dependent on their regulatory decisions, meaning the price, when below $25, is highly uncertain. A tonne of carbon is worth less than $7 in New Zealand at the time of writing. The agricultural sector is due to get 90% of their credits for free from the Government once they enter the ETS, with this amount being slowly phased out.
The true cost to farmers and processors also depends on the price they receive for their output, which is set in the international market. Other countries, including those in the EU, are moving towards regulation to deal with their agricultural GHGs (greenhouse gases). Policies like regulation, and also to reduce deforestation can raise agricultural commodity prices. Biofuels are an example of a climate policy which has been argued to have raised agricultural commodity prices in recent years due to increased competition for agricultural land.
Our farmers cannot pass on the exact costs of the ETS on to consumers as they face international prices for their produce. However, even if farmers overseas are not facing similar carbon charges, they may be facing other policies which cause international commodity prices to rise, which can help compensate New Zealand farmers for costs under the ETS. The food security issue from higher prices for goods like meat and milk is something for another post.
Uncertainties around commodity prices, carbon prices and entry date into the ETS mean the New Zealand agricultural sector faces large uncertainties as to the future costs they will face under the ETS.
As recommended by the ETS Review Panel last year, the Government would like to move to a farm level for reporting on emissions, which would ultimately mean farmers would have to pay directly for their emissions.
The ETS deliberately sets the point of obligation for participants as high up the supply chain as possible. This is so that, for example, petrol and energy companies do the trading of emission permits, and pass price signal on to consumers, rather than having over 4 million New Zealanders all accounting for their own emissions.
Agricultural emissions are a bit different. Under the current processor-level system, processors are charged on the basis of the national average emissions for every unit of output they produce. This means there are not tens of thousands of farmers in the ETS. Emissions are lowered through processors and farmers (who ultimately may bear the costs) convincing other farmers to mitigate, to lower the national average level of agricultural emissions per unit of output.
Using a farm level ETS, farmers could be directly rewarded for action they take themselves on their own unique farm. By measuring each farm’s emissions, mitigation actions don’t get lost in the surveys done to create national average emission data and the incentives are much stronger for individual farmers to take action to lower GHGs on their farm.
A farm level ETS would require farmers to run a computer programme like OVERSEER, which takes a detailed snapshot of their farm, and models their GHG emissions. OVERSEER is not perfectly accurate, but it is impossible to measure each animal’s emissions directly so it’s a good second best option and is constantly being updated and improved.
There are a number of administrative issues to be worked out before a farm level scheme is viable. It looks to be worthwhile though given it allows farmers much more scope for reducing their emissions and directly rewards them for good behaviour.
Finally, the government notes that it is currently investing over $18 million per annum into research to reduce New Zealand’s agricultural GHGs.
It is true that we are relatively one of the most efficient producers of meat and milk products in the world. New Zealand’s emissions per unit of agricultural output have been reducing at a rate of about 1.3% per year over the last couple of decades. This means a reduction in the amount of emissions per litre of milk, not necessarily an overall reduction, as our overall production has also increased. These reductions in emissions per unit of output have been due to productivity gains – getting more milk per cow for example – and not due to specifically trying to reduce our GHGs (see 2011 ETS review).
So would putting a price on agricultural emissions encourage and facilitate New Zealand farmers to continue to be the best in the world? Is this important for our clean, green brand and to help other countries lower their agricultural emissions? Will putting farmers into the ETS drive their production down, forcing production overseas to places where they are less efficient and do not have to pay for their emissions (so called “leakage”. This issue is briefly addressed in this blog post and this Motu article)? Are there other ways of encouraging our farmers to be greener?
These questions are at the heart of the debate on if/when New Zealand should bring its farmers into the ETS, and no doubt the debate will continue in the years ahead.
Watch this blog for future posts on some solid suggestions from Motu’s Agricultural Emissions Dialogue group as to how we can start dealing with our agricultural emissions. They look outside the ETS as to how we can bring about behaviour change amongst farmers. It is important to remember that reducing our emissions is what we really want, and a lot needs to happen alongside an ETS to achieve this. We don’t want to get bogged down in a heated debate about the current ETS, and lose sight of the big picture.
Click this link for a good debate between Cath Wallace and William Rolleston on National Radio
There is a good discussion here of mitigation options for agriculture, by Harry Clark
Here is Tim Groser, Climate Change Minister, on The Nation