Achieving climate change targets will mean solving our cow problem

Unless people around the world change their diets towards less climate-intensive foods, efforts by New Zealand to move away from intensive dairying would be wasted. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

London-based climate and economic consultants Vivid Economics have laid out some options for New Zealand to reach carbon neutrality in the second half of the century, all of them requiring shifts away from farming cows.

The official launch is at Beehive Theatrette, Wellington, tonight (Tuesday 21 March).

The report is a result of that rare thing – a cross-party group of MPs. GLOBE-NZ is a chapter of GLOBE-International, a group of parliamentarians around the world who are working on climate and environmental issues. The New Zealand chapter was formed a year and a half ago and includes MPs from every party, led by Green MP Kennedy Graham.

A notable feature of the Vivid report is that the two scenarios for achieving carbon neutrality this century presume a radical move away from a dairy commodity-based economy. Both scenarios assume we have fewer cows and convert some land that is currently used for dairying to other uses, either by hugely ramping up forestry or a more diverse range of farming activities (including horticulture).

To achieve carbon neutrality while maintaining current dairy production, a number of promising new technologies would need to succeed impressively, including efforts by New Zealand scientists to cut greenhouse emissions from cow burps using an anti-methane vaccine. Because they couldn’t count on these technologies working, the report's authors also looked for an alternative way to become carbon neutral by 2100 – and came up with tree planting.

Vivid also sketches a third scenario where New Zealand gets to keep all of its livestock but does not achieve carbon neutrality until well into next century. Even that scenario is ambitious, in that it requires a shift to even greater use of renewable energy and other efficiency improvements to shrink New Zealand’s climate impact.

Farming of all animals, but mainly cows, currently makes up about half New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions. Unlike other developed countries, New Zealand doesn’t have the comparatively straightforward option of reforming its electricity generation to radically cut emissions, because most of our power is already renewable.

So far the major gains in farms’ greenhouse efficiency – here and globally -- have come from raising productivity, thus shrinking the CO2 hoof-print per kilo of food produced. But raising the productivity and intensity of farming has placed added pressure on the environment, as the Vivid report highlights. The authors say New Zealand is in a “distinctive” position among developed countries because of its high animal emissions, but note we are also lucky not to have to contend with an entrenched reliance on coal power.

Another important factor is what other countries do. As the report acknowledges, there is no point moving away from intensive dairying and meat production for climate reasons if people around the world do not change their diets towards less climate-intensive foods. If demand for milk and meat continues to soar, any drop-off in New Zealand’s production might be filled with products from more-polluting countries.