The recent EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) report has again proven that New Zealand, while not the largest carbon emitter, continues to be problematic regarding methane production. The new findings reflect those released by Stats NZ last year for 2007-2019, which showed that dairy emissions had risen by 3.18% and an incredible 57% between 1990 and 2018. This early report received attention on social media when reposted by climate activist Greta Thunberg, who quoted directly from The Guardian article.
While the new report shows some reduction in CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2021 and a steady decline in waste emissions since 2012, there is still a way to go before New Zealand’s emission reductions can decrease across the board. However, NZ's recent Prime Minister Jacinda Arden insists that the new EPA findings have made it possible for change to begin now, as the findings form the crucial part of the puzzle needed to solve New Zealand’s emissions crisis.
But who exactly is the offender in all of this?
Food production in New Zealand.
As a significant exporter of meat and dairy products, New Zealand’s primary emissions are caused by farm animals, mainly sheep and cows. Their total emissions have the potential to be worse than CO2 — which is a point we covered in June last year (read that article here).
What’s changed since then is tiny — the taxation campaign, which would take three years to pass, depends on reports such as those produced by the EPA. So it’s just now that the independent investigation has been received that these new (and historic) findings can be acted upon.
Meanwhile, Fonterra tops the charts for a second year as the highest emission emitter, almost twice as high as Z Energy, in second place. All of the top ten emitters produce much more elevated emissions than desired. Following Fonterra and Z Energy, the next three emitters down are petroleum companies, followed by Silver Fern Farms in fifth place.
Fonterra — a reluctant Kiwi giant.
To give the company some credit, it is by far the largest on the market, producing at one point around 96% of New Zealand’s milk (although that figure is closer to 80% now). They make up a lot of Kiwi favourites, such as Anchor and Mainland cheese, which come under the Fonterra umbrella. They own the most cows in a co-op of around 10,000 farmers, responsible for raising and eventually selling dairy and beef cows. So the vast amount of emissions from Fonterra can be traced back to the enormous shares in farming they own.
However, they’ve also been responsible for completely ‘greenwashing’ their environmental promises. Whilst stating that the company was “Adapting to the effects of climate change while mitigating our impacts”, Fonterra actively ran a cost-cutting program between 2015-2017, completely ignoring the new SBTi (Science Based Targets initiative) regulations. The international body is responsible for maintaining industry standards in line with recent scientific findings to prevent a rise in global temperatures.
The cutbacks have meant that while Fonterra claims to be reaching a net zero goal on emissions by 2050 (the latest date it can), the company has done little to pursue those goals, even increasing its total yearly emissions for the last two years.
Why net zero is a problem.
The problem with Fonterra’s (and other net zero goals) promise is that there’s little accountability to act on any promise. Requirements to set environmental targets don’t necessarily hold companies accountable for their changes, mainly when they are hard to measure. The time required for the official EPA-reported findings has also slowed the need for Fonterra’s response, allowing for a growing record high in methane production.
Even more challenging is that the EPA largely relies on self-reporting, requiring companies like Fonterra to be completely honest. This means that the dairy giant can decide to limit emissions to those on its premise and completely ignore any emissions created outside the country. So in all likelihood, the figures are much higher.
So what’s being done?
The report is part of the framework for the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon Amendment Act of 2019), which was formed in response to the Paris Agreement. While many countries have since failed to uphold those promises, debating their obligations further in the most recent COP summit, New Zealand is acting to honour its agreement. The act covers;
- Reduction of greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050
- Reduction of biogenic methane to 24-47% below 2017 levels by 2050
- Reduce this same methane to at least 10% below 2017 levels by 2030
- The creation of a system to cut down emissions
- The requirement for implementation policies
- An independent Climate Change Commission to advise the government.
While this act is certainly a step in the right direction, the downside is, of course, in the time it takes to implement, with the tipping point for emissions being in the next few years. The proposed emission fee is also far from water-tight, taxing waste emissions, which isn’t the main issue. Waste emissions are still a viable commodity, which is why, with increases in technical capabilities, the number of waste emissions has decreased yearly. Creating an actual system of penalties that works for methane production will therefore take time, but it is possible under a new Climate Change Commission.
What will the future hold?
The act is only as helpful as far as it’s upheld. Recently resigned Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been one of the biggest supporters of environmental rights New Zealand has seen. With her recent resignation, we might wonder whether the next elected party will honour the act. The changes discussed in the EPA have been a long time coming, which has sadly meant that much of the last decade has been spent in the debate around environmental issues, with little change or culpability from the highest emitters.
We at Eartha would love to see this act continue to develop in response to the climate crisis. Whether it can come in time or not remains the question. If it does arrive, however, it is time for companies like Fonterra to stop pretending they care and seriously commit to reducing their environmental footprints.
- “Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019” on Ministry for the Environment. Last Updated: 5th April, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3ktehrY.
- Environmental Protection Authority. “ETS participant emissions: October 2022”. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3klf5ir.
- Gibson, Eloise. “New Zealand’s biggest climate polluters, ranked” on Stuff. Date Published: 19th January, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3XQm6Xf.
- “Greenhouse gas emissions (industry and household): Year ended 2019” on Stats NZ. Date Published: 8th July, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3XNTrBS.
- “Greta Thunberg turns attention to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions” on NZ Herald. Date Published: 9th August, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3HkIdPQ.
- Jones, Katy. “Farmers must act now to cut methane, environmentalist warns” on environment. Date Published: 7th January, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3iNfvxX.
- McClure, Tess. “Emissions from cows on New Zealand dairy farms reach record levels” on The Guardian. Date Published: 5th August, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3QUBLCo.
- “Organic Farming” on Fonterra. Date Accessed: 21st January, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3D31rar.
- “Why Fonterra lacks credibility on climate” on newsroom. Date Published: 10th December, 2021. Sire Link: https://bit.ly/3XyznnC.
- Zycher, Benjamin. “The Proposed Methane Fee: An All-downside Proposal” on AEI. Date Published: 24th September, 24th. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3iRjOIv.
About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch
James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.