Tackling agricultural emissions: the NZ story

By Gareth Renowden 29/01/2013

In this guest post, Josh Pemberton, an intern at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, describes the Ag Dialogue exercise Motu ran last year. This interesting and thought-provoking short film exploring what reducing emissions really means for New Zealand’s farming communities was one result.

New Zealand is, in many ways, an unusual country. We pride ourselves on punching above our weight in international relations and sport; but we cherish the fact that we are a small and uncrowded nation, happily occupying our own little corner of the earth. We admire our rugby and Olympic heroes yet our national symbols are relatively innocuous: an upside down fern frond (the upper side of a silver fern is, of course, green) and a flightless, nocturnal bird. It must say something about our mentality that in recent years we treated an unshorn sheep like a national celebrity, and that a shortage of our favourite spread triggered panic-buying and created ongoing headlines.

Something else which is unusual about New Zealand — considering that we’re a developed nation — is that agriculture is responsible for almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is, of course, vitally important to our economy – providing jobs and crucial export dollars. These two factors together give rise to a tension which can inhibit conversation about the effect of agriculture on the environment. It’s easy to end up with “naïve greenies” and “conservative farmers” (as they may perceive each other to be) talking past one another, and missing an opportunity to make real progress.

In the past two years, Motu Research has sought to increase the quality of the conversations that people are having on this topic. Motu set up and ran the Ag Dialogue group, bringing together farmers, scientists, iwi, government representatives and other experts to talk through issues around greenhouse gas emissions. There was no specific output in mind, although the Dialogue did catalyse a significant amount of research by Motu economists. The Dialogue also led Motu to release The New Zealand Farming Story: Tackling Agricultural Emissions, the short film embedded above.

Motu have also launched a blog focusing on agricultural emission issues, and released a set of teaching resources to accompany the film. One idea which came through in the Dialogue was that regulation of environmental problems is most effective when it is preceded by awareness building and capacity-raising (see this blog post for an explanation). The film, teaching materials and blog are a recognition of this, and an attempt to build the profile of the issue of agricultural emissions.

What do you think? Are agricultural emissions something that we should focus on tackling? And if so, how can we get broad buy-in? Some argue that New Zealand’s contribution to global warming is too small in global terms to make a difference. Those people forget the traditional role played by silver ferns, that unusual national symbol. The colour of the fern meant that it reflected moon and star light, making it perfect for marking walking tracks in dark night-time forests. If New Zealand can make meaningful progress on the issue of agricultural emissions, we can serve a silver fern-like purpose in setting a path for the world to follow.

In worldwide terms, agriculture is responsible for around 10-12% of all human-caused emissions – which isn’t so insignificant. If we develop new ways of thinking and doing things that the rest of the world can adopt, we can lead the way in making a real difference. I think that something about that is quite fitting, for a far-flung and small country that likes to punch above its weight.