NZ must play a leading role in the agricultural revolution, a prominent earth scientist urges

Johan Rockström warns of humankind's overshoots of the planetary boundaries, but offers hope for remedial action.

“As a scientist I’ve never had so much reason to be nervous; and as a scientist I’ve never had so much reason to be hopeful.”

This was the essential message Johan Rockström, one of the world’s leading earth scientists, delivered this past week about climate change and our responses to it during his visit to New Zealand.

He entrusted a particular task to us: agriculture and food production globally present the greatest climate change challenge of all. Their big adverse effects on the ecosystem are compounded by associated impacts through deforestation, agricultural monocultures, biodiversity loss and the declining health of soils and water.

All up agriculture broadly defined is the largest single source of greenhouse gases globally, says Rockström, who founded and leads the Stockholm Resilience Centre. But their technological and economic pathways to sustainability are far less clear than those for energy, transport and the built environment. There are agricultural examples but we need much more innovation and ways to scale them up.

He believes New Zealand has a leading role to play globally in this agricultural transformation. On one hand, agriculture emissions are 49 percent of our total emissions, by far the highest proportion for a developed economy. On the other, our farmers and the scientists and businesses that support them, are among the most innovative in the world.

As an aside on that latter point, agricultural innovation is remarkably slow compared with all other industrial sectors. The average time from innovation to peak deployment of a new piece of agri-tech is 19.2 years here versus 52 years in the US. This insight was delivered recently to a symposium of Our Land and Water, one of our government’s 11 long-term National Science Challenges. Clearly, we have to innovate far faster.

But, Rockström stresses, the window of opportunity to address the totality of climate change is very small. Humankind is still generating a rising volume of emissions. If we are to stand any chance of keeping the rise in global temperatures to under 2 degrees C we have to start bending the curve down by 2020 then accelerate our emission reductions to a rate of about 6-7 percent a year.

While that might seem like a manageable rate, it will actually require transformational shifts in technology across all sectors of the economy. Pathways that are technologically practical and economically viable are increasingly clear in electricity and other sources of power, in transport and industrial processes.

For example, renewable electricity and other forms of energy, after growing by 5.5 per cent a year for the past 15 years, are starting to demonstrate exponential growth. A world free from fossil fuels is possible by 2045, Rockström says.

If, though, humankind can reduce its emissions by 6 to 7 per cent a year, we would halve emissions every decade and achieve near-zero emissions by 2050.

This is the Global Carbon Law Rockström and colleagues are proposing, equivalent to Moore’s Law in computing. It is the latest development of the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

But maintaining that rate of reduction in carbon emissions over the next 30 years will take far more than just a complete switch to clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

We will also need to engineer carbon sinks, such as burning wood and other biofuels then capturing and storing the carbon emissions from them; and we will have to improve and monitor carefully the ecosystem health of land sinks such as forests and soil, and the ocean which currently absorbs a large proportion of the carbon emissions, and subsequent heat, generated by human activity.

If we do all that, “we have a 66 percent chance of staying under 2 degrees C,” Rockström says. But even that will cause ecosystem changes, moving us away from the Holocene, the geological epoch over the past 11,000 years which never saw temperature variations greater than plus or minus 1 degree C. This climate sweet spot was a “Garden of Eden”, Rockström says, in which humans have flourished.

“We are already at 1.1 degree C. Even 1.5 degree C will be a challenge to adjust to.” Moreover, there are substantial risks that climate tipping points will trigger greater rises in temperature. Such feedback loops include forest dieback that would create savannahs that absorb far less carbon, and the loss of ice sheets, which not only raise sea levels but also reduce the white reflective surface of the planet, thereby increasing warming.

Responding to climate change will also take much more than science, technology change, targets and policies, he adds. All societies will need to progress a great deal so they have the capability to rise to the challenge of planetary stewardship. For the first time we have a guide to that in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are applicable to all countries, developing and developed.

Usually, the 17 goals are presented in a matrix that doesn’t differentiate their priorities. Rockström’s Stockholm Resilience Centre, however, has arranged them with the four goals on the biosphere as the essential and critical base, with eight societal goals sitting above to help build healthy societies capable of rapid change, with four economic goals above, topped with the goal on partnerships for achieving the goals.

The Centre is renowned for its work identifying the nine biological-chemical-physical boundaries of the planet and measuring the extent human activity is overshooting them. So far, only climate change has a clearly defined target, which is based on zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a 1.5-2 degrees C temperature goal. That was extremely hard for scientists to establish and for the United Nations to get some commitments to steps towards it by nations in the Paris climate agreement of 2015.

The next big phase of the Centre’s research is to work with other scientists to devise numerical measures of a "safe place" for humankind within some of the other planetary boundaries. Like the crystal clear signals temperature sends on climate change, these will focus people, politicians, policy makers, and all other participants in society on the urgent need to bring human activity back within the boundaries.

Their top priority is biodiversity. Their extremely difficult scientific task is to develop a measure that not just expresses the rapid loss of species but also the impairment these losses have on ecosystem health and resilience, and thus the ability of those systems to provide for human needs. Some major multinationals, highly conscious of their impact on natural resources, are among the leaders of the push for a biodiversity measure, Rockström says.

While Rockström didn’t mention a particular role for New Zealand in that work, we have a lot to offer. Among developed countries, we are the most dependent on the natural environment for earning our living, most of our National Science Challenges are focused on ecosystems in whole or part and the relevant sciences are the ones we are best at commercialising.

Above all we are ambitious and innovative about ecosystems, witness our goal of being predator free by 2050 and the wave of science, research, development and creativity this is unleashing. The Cacophony Project is an impressive example but just one of a rapidly growing number.

Likewise, we have a burgeoning ecosystem of organisations in business and civil society focused on these enormous opportunities. Two examples are the Next Foundation, which invests heavily in environmental programmes, and the Hillary Institute of International Leadership, based in Christchurch, which chooses each year a global leader in environmental issues.

Rockström is its 8th laureate and this award has brought him here to share his knowledge widely, including with the government, and to learn more about New Zealand. His biggest engagement was with the twice-a-year New Frontiers gathering of local and international experts on these intensely integrated issues of deep sustainability, which is run by the Edmund Hillary Fellowship.

“We are rolling in the right direction. We will decarbonize the world eventually – but are we moving fast enough?” He made it very clear to the New Frontiers audience, as he does indefatigably with other audiences around the world, that we are not.

But above all, he makes it abundantly clear that climate change is just one manifestation of humankind’s need for deep sustainability. Such is the impact of our activities we are the greatest driver of planetary change, greater than any natural force. Thus, this geological epoch is truly the Anthropocene.

Disclosure: I’m an Edmund Hillary Fellow, participated in New Frontiers, and I MC’d the Our Land and Water symposium.