The Climate Commission’s take on farm emissions pricing – Expert Reaction

The Climate Change Commission says farmers are on track to start paying for their greenhouse gas emissions through a farm-level pricing system by 2025.

The Commission has released its advice on the He Waka Eke Noa plan put forward by farmers on how agricultural emissions should be priced instead of using the Emissions Trading Scheme.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Bill Kaye-Blake, Principal Economist, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, comments:

“The advice shows the difficulty of rolling out interventions and regulations for agriculture, which has such a wide range of participants. The best farmers can make three times per hectare what other farmers are making, or more. Some farmers are well prepared for making changes and have the resources to do it, while others are not. Getting 25% of the sector on board is relatively easy. Getting to 100% participation or compliance will be difficult.

“The CCC advice also shows the trade-off between certainty and equity. He Waka Eke Noa has suggested a farm-level approach, and CCC has agreed with it. They agree that a farm-level approach is fairer: farmers get credit for improvements they make. However, the CCC is uncertain that the farm-level approach will be ready in time to meet 2025 and 2030 goals.

“The advice seems to be affected by common biases in decision-making. One is ‘identifiable victim effect’ and the other is ‘precision bias’. CCC recognises that there are wide equity issues that are intergenerational and international. In terms of size, the impacts on billions of other people now and in the future is a bigger question than whether a few thousand farmers are given exactly enough credit for mitigation activities. However, those farmers are ‘identifiable victims’ and so received the bulk of the attention in the advice. In addition, the CCC recognises the importance of equity ‘internationally, intergenerationally, socially, environmentally, and economically’. We know very little about the value of impacts on other countries and future generations, or social and environmental impacts. There is large uncertainty or wide error bands around those values. We don’t know whether being a good ancestor means getting rid of 5% of livestock or 50% of livestock. The focus on a farm-level approach and creating reporting and IT systems is about precision, but that could be misplaced effort.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Honorary Professor Troy Baisden, Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator, Motu Affiliate, and University of Auckland School of Environment, comments:

“The greatest urgency around agricultural emissions is the requirement to implement something by 2025 that sends sensible signals to farmers and the agricultural industry that point toward 2030 goals. Farm systems take at least three to five years to get significant changes underway so this goal is less about immediate reductions and more about building understanding and systems that will meet 2030 commitments. Over time, the systems used will be best if they evolve to allow realistic projections for future reductions to be developed in forms that work and are politically stable.

“The Climate Change Commission (CCC) sensibly suggests that implementing simple systems for accounting at the farm scale looks like the most useful option available, and this can roughly match the He Waka Eke Noa proposal. The CCC advice reflects that getting farm-level accounting in place will allow the vast majority of farmers to begin to understand their emissions. In contrast to what some have said, this isn’t just about farmers knowing their number – it’s also about beginning to understand how they can reduce their emissions while maintaining or increasing the value of what they produce.

“The danger is that the tools set in place by 2025 may lock in simple tools that represent today’s farming industry well but fail to capture innovative opportunities. Many questions remain about how tools can be developed that are equitable in their pricing, availability and applicability to farms – which have different historic choices to develop or intensify, a diversity of land-ownership structures, as well as varied access to ideas and support to develop new value opportunities. A big challenge is posed by Māori farming enterprises that tend to be bigger, more visionary and more diverse than the average.

“Today’s CCC report seems to embrace the phrase: “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” We’ll need a range of good tools that work and can be applied soon where they’re needed and will continue to innovate. The CCC offers the useful suggestion that while making farms responsible for their own emissions is good, having a direct levy on industrial fertiliser may be simplest. Similarly, having a separate system to consider carbon sequestration in vegetation (or wetlands) on farms looks may be more desirable than requiring it to be part of a tool that certifies the entire farm’s emissions.

“The greatest value in today’s report is a careful evaluation of the likelihood that historic and future goals have been or will be achieved. The bottom line is that historic performance toward involving the agricultural sector in their own emissions reductions has been good but not perfect. Getting emissions tracking in place on farms by 2025 is possible, but represents a big challenge where delivery is far from assured. One possibility appears to be worth ruling out: putting farms directly in the Emissions Trading Scheme.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Robyn Dynes, Senior Scientist, AgResearch, comments:

“This report from the Climate Change Commission gives plenty for the Government to chew on, particularly in the area of measuring and accounting for carbon sequestration through on-farm vegetation.

“I’ve said previously that an industry-wide commitment to a farm-level, split-gas pricing system is an important step on the journey to help farmers manage their emissions, and the commission has stated that a farm-level pricing system supported by well-designed, well-thought-through policy, will be key to achieving emissions reductions in line with the budgets and targets for Aotearoa.

“I agree with the commission that a lot of work has gone in from all parties through He Waka Eke Noa, and that good progress has been made towards getting farmers ready for farm-level pricing. If the Government does pursue a pricing system that sits outside of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), there is clearly still a lot of work to be done to have a workable and equitable pricing system in place by 2025. All parties have a part to play here, whether it be around IT systems, measurement, compliance or regulation.

“The commission has recommended that carbon sequestration through on-farm vegetation should sit outside any emissions pricing system, and instead could reside in a separate system due to the complexities, risk of inequity, a lack of impact on emissions, and the fact that some sequestration is already recognised through the ETS. I expect this recommendation will be met with some disappointment from farmers who had expected recognition from sequestration through on-farm vegetation in the He Waka Eke Noa pricing model.

“As scientists, we have an important role in helping to grow the science in this area, and developing robust and reliable methods of estimating carbon sequestration on-farm, so that it can be effectively incorporated into an emissions pricing system or a separate system from 2025.”

Conflict of interest statement: “My colleagues and I at AgResearch have provided science advice to He Waka Eke Noa as part of its considerations and development of its recommendations to the Government.”