Stuff - Changing agricultural practices key to cutting greenhouse emissions - James Shaw

Written by Dominic Harris

Tackling climate change is of "critical if not existential significance", said Government minister James Shaw while setting out measures to deal with New Zealand's high levels of agriculture emissions.

The Minister for Climate Change on Monday announced a temporary committee would get a head-start on addressing the agriculture problem before a climate change commission was established under the forthcoming Zero Carbon Act.

He said experts and the public would be consulted on it in June and July before it was introduced to Parliament in October.

He also said the Government would examine whether agriculture should be included in an emissions trading scheme.

The 120 scientists from 59 countries are spending the week drafting a report to inform and influence how governments deal with the problem in the decades ahead.

Opening the conference, Shaw reiterated the country's promise to meet net zero emissions by 2050, ahead of that obliged by the Paris Agreement.

Electricity would be entirely from renewable resources by 2035 at the latest, he said.

But he warned the country's huge reliance on agriculture – which accounts for almost half of its greenhouse gases – presented a major challenge.

The emissions trading scheme, introduced a decade ago to encourage businesses to reduce pollution, had failed, Shaw said, leading to increased emissions and more forests being cut down than planted.

Now being revised, it will give the chance to develop and export expertise in net zero emissions agriculture to other countries that will face similar issues in years to come.

"Given New Zealand has such significant agricultural emissions, and given we have a long history of agricultural innovation and adaptability, we need to look at the issue and look at it as quickly as possible if we want to catch the crest of that particular wave.

"So we will establish an interim climate change committee to begin work on the agricultural emissions question until we've established the full commission under the Zero Carbon Act around the latter half of next year."

The committee would likely examine the possibility of levies on agricultural emissions and who should pay for them, passing its recommendations to the Climate Change Commission to follow through when it is set up next year.

Recent reports that suggested $19 billion of infrastructure was at risk of falling victim to rising sea levels, that the cost of weather events to the country's land transport network rocketed from $20 million annually to $90m over the last decade and that the drought of five years ago cost $1.5b meant we could not "afford to ignore climate change and do nothing about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions".

"New Zealand is embarking on the kind of reform and transformation we haven't seen for more than 30 years …" the minister said.

"If we want to help lead the world towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, we must create a moral mandate underpinned by decisive action at home to reduce our own emissions."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, he said the country was in a tricky position of the land causing climate change and also bearing the brunt of its impact.

"New Zealand has been investing heavily in agriculture, science and technological research.

"There's also some really promising signs in terms of on-farm business practice and managing the economics of the farm differently, so I'm pretty confident that over the course of the coming decades we will be able to get to a position where we can grow and develop food produce in a way that's environmentally friendly and high value."

Among the IPCC scientists was Professor Tim Benton, from the University of Leeds in England, a world authority on climate and food security.

"Part of the issues being explored is the interplay between land, our food system, its impact on greenhouse gases and the greenhouse gases' impact upon our food system," he said.

"From New Zealand's perspective it is a hugely important issue because the economy is so dependent on agricultural production, not just for production here but from an export basis.

"The future of food systems and their relationship to climate … is really key for the future of the world economy."