Before the Select Committee /
Oral submission on the Zero Carbon Bill: Methane targets rely on technologies that 'have limited realistic potential'

We’re here as health professionals because we are keenly aware of the frightening impacts that the climate crisis, if not addressed as it should be, is likely to have on human health and well-being, in part because of its capacity to seriously damage the structure of our society. We also believe in the power of decisive action, and hope that the government strengthens this bill to provide us with targets that reflect the best available scientific evidence at this time.

- PBLI Oral Submission on the Zero Carbon Bill

Topic / Climate policy

Written submission /
The Zero Carbon Bill must be stronger on biogenic methane: Our Submission

EAT-Lancet /
Eating in the Anthropocence

Related reading

The below post is a transcript of our oral submission on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill, which we delivered to members of the select committee in Dunedin on September 9th, 2019.

Our written submission can be viewed here.

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Good morning and thank you for providing us with the opportunity to speak. Our names are Anna DeMello and Jono Drew and we live here in Dunedin. I’m originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, while Jono grew up in Nelson. He’s currently a 5th year medical student and I am a Canadian dietitian currently working as a researcher in the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago.

We entered a submission on the ZC Bill not as individuals but on behalf of a not-for-profit group that we co-founded, which is called PBLI and that is based here in Dunedin. Our work mostly centers around communicating about the environmental, climate, and health impacts of food systems and eating patterns, both here in NZ and abroad.

Our written submission on the ZC Bill was fairly specific, and centred around biogenic methane targets. Virtually all (96%) biogenic methane in NZ arises from digestive processes among ruminant livestock (cows and sheep); it contributed more than a third (35%) of NZ’s gross national emissions in 2016.

We recommended that the government commit to more ambitious reductions in biogenic methane emissions for both 2030 and 2050. We did so along with a number of other prominent organisations in this country, including OraTaiao- NZ Climate and Health Council, The NZ College of Public Health Medicine, The Health Promotion Forum of NZ, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and Generation Zero. We included this recommendation because the Bill’s proposed methane reduction targets for 2030 and 2050 are simply too risky.

For its 2050 reduction target in particular (24-47%), the Bill draws from a recent IPCC report that modelled a range of global scenarios aimed at limiting warming to 1.5 deg, each requiring differing degrees of methane reduction. Importantly, the chosen target range within the Bill is based on a calculation from the IPCC report that incorporates scenarios whose success depends heavily on negative emissions technologies (NETs)- those that capture carbon from the atmosphere. The main technology included within these scenarios is called bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (or BECCS). In its most simple sense, this is a geo-engineering technique that involves growing trees for harvest, then burning that biomass within a controlled environment, capturing the released CO2, and then burying it within depleted oil and gas reservoirs, or aquifers, underground. BECCS is only in the development phase, though, and hasn’t yet been deployed at scale. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding its overall effectiveness.

A 2018 report by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), made up of senior scientists from across Europe, found that such technologies have “limited realistic potential”  in terms of stopping increases in GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at the scale envisioned within IPCC scenarios. The report goes on to state that:

“attempts to deploy NETs at larger scales would involve significant uncertainties in the extent of CO2 removal that could be achieved, and would involve high economic costs and likely major impacts on terrestrial or marine ecosystems. Scenarios and projections of NET’s future contribution that allow Paris targets to be met appear optimistic on the basis of current knowledge, and should not form the basis of developing, analysing and comparing scenarios of longer-term energy pathways…”

According to EASAC: The limited potential of these types of technologies at present “underlines the need to strive as hard as possible to mitigate emissions by other means...”

We find it unacceptable that, despite considerable and well-recognised uncertainties, the NZ government would select its targets for methane emissions reductions based in part on IPCC scenarios that are heavily reliant on this unproven technology.

Coming back to the Zero Carbon Bill targets themselves, we also wanted to quickly talk about the proposed 2030 methane reduction target, which is 10%. This target appears to have been influenced by what NZ’s livestock industry has said it is able to acheive at this time. In a 2018 report, NZ's Biological Emissions Reference Group (composed of government agencies and representatives from Beef & Lamb, Federated Farmers, Fonterra, and DairyNZ, among others) concluded that biologic methane emissions in NZ could be reduced by up to 10% in the nearer-term through widespread adoption of farm management practices (i.e. improving on-farm efficiencies), but that, at present, reductions beyond 10% would likely require land-use change (i.e. reducing livestock numbers).

In terms of our actual recommendations, we would instead like to see the Bill include stronger and far less risky methane reduction targets for 2030 and 2050, namely 24-48% for 2030 and 33-69% for 2050: these ranges are based on best evidence IPCC scenarios that focus strongly on reducing the production of methane in the first place (e.g. via energy efficiencies, land-use change, increased uptake of climate-friendly eating patterns, and so on), instead of on negative emissions technologies.

This approach is certainly the most sensible in terms of lowering our risk of surpassing 1.5 deg of warming, but it is also likely to offer a significant co-benefit opportunity in the form of improved population-level health. The 2019 EAT-Lancet report, published in one of the world’s leading medical journals, found that a global transition toward sustainable dietary patterns that are mainly plant-based, and that minimise intake of methane-intensive animal products (most notably red and processed meats) could prevent between 19-24% of total deaths annually among adults.

Finally, we would like to say that New Zealand is both a wealthy and high-emitting country, and for that reason, among others, we must demonstrate leadership in the global effort to mitigate the climate crisis. Importantly, potent but short-lived climate pollutants like methane may provide a crucial buffer in stabilizing temperatures while decarbonization of the global community is taking place.

According to the ZCB’s Explanatory Note, showing “leadership at home and abroad” is one of three guiding principles that underpin the Bill’s overarching purpose. We argue that, in reference to target-setting, the Bill in its current form is not ambitious enough, and does not demonstrate our intent as a developed country to truly lead the way on climate action.

In closing, I'd like to reiterate that we’re here as health professionals because we are keenly aware of the frightening impacts that the climate crisis, if not addressed as it should be, is likely to have on human health and well-being, in part because of its capacity to seriously damage the structure of our society. We also believe in the power of decisive action, and hope that the government strengthens this Bill to provide us with targets that reflect the best available scientific evidence at this time.

Thank you very much.

ENDS

Authors:
Anna de Mello & Jono Drew

Founders, Plant-Based Living Initiative

September 9, 2019