Setting priorities for agricultural greenhouse gas research

  • Pete Hodgson

Dr Peter O’Hara, our Australian co-hosts, distinguished overseas guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Today is a very important day for New Zealand in its response to the global threat of climate change.

Two major steps will be taken today. One will be in Wellington, where the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, will sign New Zealand’s instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

The other is right here in Christchurch, with this workshop and the research programme that will ultimately flow from it.

The people in this room represent many of the world’s foremost scientists in the area of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. The New Zealand Government, along with our co-hosts the Australian Government, extend a warm welcome to our guests from around the world. We have representatives from Canada, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Brazil and of course Australia.

Agricultural non-CO2 gases – methane and nitrous oxide – make up around 55 percent of all New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is the highest proportion of any developed country.

There is therefore probably no country in the world for whom finding practical and measurable ways to reduce these emissions is more important.

Clearly then policies to address agricultural emissions will be a key component of New Zealand’s response to climate change.

The vital importance of agriculture to New Zealand’s economy was a fundamental consideration for the Government as it considered the options. Fifty-six percent of all New Zealand’s export earnings come from agriculture. It is and will remain critical to New Zealand’s economic prosperity.

At one end of the range of policy options for New Zealand was to expose the agricultural sector to the full cost of emissions. In other words, to tax farmers for having sheep and cattle and deer.

That was never a goer, even if we taxed only the increase in emissions over 1990 levels rather than the whole lot. Putting a tax on the engine room of our economy for no gain would be silly. Besides which, measuring emissions at the individual farm level is so difficult and costly that we would never be able to verify anyone's attempt to reduce their farm's emissions per stock unit.

At the other end of the range of policy options was the possibility of doing nothing. But this Government takes the view that climate change is everyone’s issue and every sector must do something to address it.

How then to address agricultural greenhouse gas emissions positively, while maintaining an internationally competitive agricultural sector?

The Government’s answer is that the agricultural sector will be exempt from price measures for methane and nitrous oxide, provided that an adequate research effort aimed at mitigating these emissions is undertaken.

Helping to make this research as effective as possible is the principal reason for this workshop.

New Zealand already has some of the best understanding of the agricultural non-CO2 greenhouse gases under pastoral grazing systems.

If there is scope to reduce these emissions in a sustainable and economically efficient way, we must develop it and implement it. The Kyoto Protocol provides direct financial incentives for doing so.

We also know that reducing agricultural non-CO2 emissions can have significant co-benefits. Reducing methane can lead to increased food conversion efficiency from animals, and any such gains would go straight to the farmer's bottom line. Similarly, better management of nitrogen in the agricultural system can reduce leaching to waterways and the associated environmental issues are therefore directly addressed.

For these reasons New Zealand will commit significant resources over at least the next decade to identifying, researching, developing and disseminating technologies that reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

This is no simple task. It will take a substantial and sustained effort. And it is critical that this effort be well directed from the outset. We do not have time or resources to waste.

This workshop will be a crucial input into developing a research strategy for New Zealand. We hope it will also provide a solid basis for further co-operation and collaboration between researchers and policy-makers around the world. We need a hard-headed approach, weighing cost and time and the practicality of implementing the results.

We hope too that participants will take home information that will help inform the research efforts of their countries, so that the international effort to address this significant area of greenhouse gas emissions is strengthened.

The prospect of greater co-operation and collaboration is one reason why New Zealand was delighted to accept the Australian Government’s offer to co-host this workshop. We welcome this initiative as a tangible example of the close partnership between New Zealand and Australia over climate change issues. I am confident that this partnership will grow over time and add considerable value to both countries’ responses to climate change.

The terrible drought situation in Australia reminds us all of the possible negative consequences of climate change, and why it is so important that all countries do what they can to address it.

New Zealand is willing explore areas of co-operation with any country. We have already taken steps to co-operate with the United States under a framework agreement.

Of course co-operation and collaboration has always been something scientists are renowned for. Another important outcome of this workshop will be the ongoing relationships that will no doubt be formed from it.

I wish everyone here a most successful two days. I hope that you can also take some time to enjoy the beautiful city of Christchurch and as much of the rest of New Zealand as you are able.

It is my pleasure to formally open the proceedings of this very important workshop.