Business as usual won't achieve Zero Carbon

09 May 2019


The Zero Carbon Bill was introduced into Parliament on Wednesday, May 8, and as the Prime Minister has said, it provides certainty to business (particularly the primary sector), and acts as a plan for the next 30 years.

Its targets are understandably ambitious, with the aim being to keep New Zealand within the 1.5°C degree limit for global warming. The Government has listened to primary sector submissions asking for the targets on various gases to be split up, recognising that New Zealand’s economy relies heavily on agriculture. The actual targets can now be addressed through Parliament’s Select Committee process, allowing for further refinement as necessary.

Certainty and targets are key features of this Bill, but the real challenge lies in how to meet these targets, building on the work that has already been undertaken in the primary sector. This is evident from a recent Ministry for Primary Industries study, which showed that 92% of farmers surveyed had made environmentally stable changes or improvements over the past 5 years.  However, the main issue facing horticulture is emissions from the use of fertiliser. 

Currently, the only effective control mechanism is to use less fertiliser. This means less production, so is not especially desirable, and so guidance on how to efficiently use fertiliser is key to meeting our targets.  A certain amount can be achieved by good management, and that is already being worked on, but the real key to lowering emissions is a focused increase in research, to develop solutions such as the development of lower emissions fertiliser. 

We also believe that it is important to manage nitrous oxide (one of the more long-lived gases) in two ways: one programme managing biological emissions, and the other programme managing emission from fertiliser use. For fertiliser emissions, this will allow for a research-based, targeted programme, readily adoptable by growers, as well as a comprehensive technical transfer programme to help implement these changes. 

Land use is also a vital component to meeting these targets. If high-quality soils are used for growing our fruit and vegetables, there is a reduced need for fertiliser. So regional and central government planning needs to enable growing on these soils, not just for produce, but also to meet climate targets. 

In addition, the programme will need to recognise carbon sequestration from vegetation on the farm. Sequestration is the process involved in carbon capture and the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to mitigate or defer global warming. As plants photosynthesise, they capture atmospheric carbon dioxide, and reduce the levels in the air. Often, we only think of trees in terms of reducing carbon dioxide, but all plants do it. There needs to be recognition that all forms of vegetation are effective, not just trees over a certain arbitrary height; there are many hectares of vines and smaller fruit trees already working on this, and their efforts need to be recognised.

And it’s not just on farm that changes need to be made; the transport infrastructure also has a major negative impact on the Bill’s targets. We need to re-organise the way we move food and goods around the country, which this means that we should be planning to grow our fruit and vegetables in as many locations as possible, reducing the distance between seed and plate. In many areas, this will require water storage to enable growing; also, glasshouse operations will need to be implemented and positively accounted for nationwide.

These targets are a first step, and reaching those targets will be a real challenge. I don’t believe they can be achieved without a very active government and industry partnership, founded on extensive research, and backed up by a technical transfer programme to enable growers to adopt the outcomes of the research. I do not support the imposition of punitive taxes and penalties as the way to achieve these targets, as they will only engender resentment, and threaten the country’s ability to meet the targets. This has to be a proactive and joint approach to reaching solutions. 

This is not only a challenge to New Zealand industries and people, but to the Government; business as usual will not let us collectively meet the targets.

- Mike Chapman, CEO