What to do about Agricultural Emissions RIGHT NOW

The Government is currently considering its approach to reducing agricultural emissions. While its long-term plan seems pretty clear, it looks like it will take a few years to get all its ducks in a row. So the question is: what can we do now to reduce emissions in a way that won’t hurt the country in the long term? 

Context is very important here. Often the problem with government policy is that it fails to see the big picture. Before we can work out what to do to improve our environment, we have to define what we’re trying to achieve. Politicians often dodge such questions as they know it makes it easier for us to hold them to account.  

The Big Picture

We have previously talked about what we want the future of farming to look like in Aotearoa New Zealand. This article got pretty positive responses, so we will use it as a starting point here. 

Peter Fraser and Mike Joy recently pointed out that, throughout much of New Zealand, our environmental problems could be solved by farmers dialling down the intensity of their farming, without hurting their profit. In some specific areas, particularly Canterbury, much bigger changes will be needed

As National’s Todd Muller points out, farming is under pressure from a lot of different directions at the moment: agricultural emissions, fresh-water quality, and biodiversity just to name a few. A lot of what Todd is saying is scaremongering and playing to his party’s base, but there is a kernel of truth underneath it. The risk is that these various government processes will trip over each other and lose sight of the ultimate goal. 

Agricultural Emissions

Unlike water quality issues, which are very specific to each area, it doesn’t matter where in the country (or even the globe) agricultural emissions come from. So we want to encourage the lowest emission ways farming of meat and milk possible everywhere. Generally speaking, New Zealand-style farming produces very low emissions. 

Remember that emissions from farming come from two main sources: nitrous oxide (from fertiliser) and methane (mostly from burps not farts). Most of the immediate steps farmers can take relate to nitrous oxide. In the short term, they don’t have many options for reducing methane emissions. There are also still pretty big questions about what sort of reduction in methane we need to achieve. It’s a short-lived gas, which makes it less damaging long term but more damaging if you are worried about the next 20 years. 

What is Practical RIGHT NOW? 

The big issue is that we currently lack the ability to accurately estimate on-farm emissions. So in the short term, we would have to charge for emissions at the processor level – essentially charging the big agricultural companies. They would then pass those costs on to farmers. 

The big downside of this approach is that farmers can’t do much to change their behaviour to avoid the costs. And therefore they rightly term this approach a tax. 

However, there is one area where this approach could work: with fertiliser. Fertiliser produces nitrous oxide emissions, which must be reduced to zero by 2050. Farmers can reduce their emissions by using less fertiliser. It isn’t quite as simple as that, but including fertiliser in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) would increase the cost of fertiliser, which would encourage farmers to use less of it and so reduce emissions. This would also have benefits for water quality too. 

Thanks to New Zealand First, farmers are only liable for 5% of their emissions. And incredibly, emissions from fertiliser comprise about 6% of their emissions! So there you have it, the simple short-term answer here is to include fertiliser into the ETS. 


The other change needed is to limit forestry in the ETS or remove it altogether. No other country in the world allows unlimited forestry offsets for fossil fuel emissions. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has suggested using forestry as an offset for agriculture only. This would encourage farmers to plant their marginal land to offset their emissions and enable the price for fossil fuel emissions to rise.