Understanding the Importance of Methane Emissions in Addressing Climate Change

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By Rowena Hume, GM of insights and communications at Beef + Lamb New Zealand

The recent government announcement of an independent review of methane targets has been welcomed by many farmers who recognize the role they must play in addressing climate change.

For years, farmers and organizations like Beef + Lamb New Zealand have highlighted the issue that New Zealand’s current methane targets are disproportionately high compared to carbon dioxide emissions. The government’s decision to review the methane targets with a focus on achieving “no additional warming” finally acknowledges the concerns raised by farmers about fairness.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years, methane is a short-lived gas. The science indicates that only modest reductions in methane emissions are needed each year to prevent further warming. The IPCC’s 2021 report suggests that a reduction of about 0.3% annually in methane emissions would be sufficient to halt additional warming.

However, New Zealand’s current methane reduction targets of 10% by 2030 and 24-47% by 2050 require more significant reductions than the recommended 0.3% per year. It is therefore crucial for the government to review these targets to ensure effectiveness and fairness.

Some climate scientists argue that because methane has contributed significantly to warming in New Zealand, efforts should not only focus on stopping additional warming but also on reversing previous warming. This concept, known as “grandfathering,” suggests that past emissions should impact future emission entitlements.

While methane has been responsible for a large portion of New Zealand’s warming contribution, other developed countries have primarily been affected by carbon dioxide emissions. It is essential to consider the fairness of setting ambitious targets for methane while allowing carbon dioxide emissions to continue contributing to warming until reaching “net zero” by 2050.

Research by UK climate scientists suggests that a 15% reduction in methane emissions could offset any additional warming from 2020 levels if other countries meet their emission reduction commitments. This highlights the importance of addressing methane emissions more ambitiously than carbon dioxide emissions.

Addressing climate change requires a collective effort, and farmers are committed to playing their part. By establishing fair and equitable targets and implementing effective policies, New Zealand can work towards achieving its climate goals while ensuring that agriculture is not unfairly targeted in the fight against climate change.