Greenpeace is asking for more substance and less stardust from the government on climate change. David Williams Reporting
New Zealand agriculture’s reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers now causes more than double the greenhouse gas emissions of domestic flights.
It’s another twist in the country’s tussle between the economy and the environment, an issue that has seen its reputation take a hit internationally over what has been described as the ‘dirty truth’.
The country’s latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory, released last October, shows that direct emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in 2019 were 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (Mt CO2-e). That’s a 636% increase since 1990.
Meanwhile, domestic aviation emissions in 2019 – pre-Covid – including kerosene and aviation gasoline were just over 1 Mt CO2-e.
“It’s shocking,” says Christine Rose, agricultural campaign manager for Greenpeace Aotearoa.
“We need to wean ourselves off the dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. It is unrealistic to think that we can continue to pollute our climate and our waterways, as we have done.
The environmental group made the comparison after the Department of Primary Industries provided graphs showing a significant increase in synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use and total emissions.
Greenpeace has campaigned for the phasing out of these fertilizers, which Rose says cause “many environmental ills”. It focuses on the “industrial” dairy industry, which Greenpeace describes as the country’s biggest climate polluter.
Urea fertilizer is used on dairy land to promote pasture growth, leading to more cows (and therefore higher methane emissions), more water pollution and health problems potential for some people due to drinking water.
“If we turn off the tap with nitrogen fertilizers, it opens up opportunities for premiums for biological, regenerative and organic products, but also for the use of organic waste – materials that are otherwise considered waste and simply diverted to the dump.”
(However, an MPI report estimated that only 4,271 tons of organic matter would be available for use in food production.)
Research on nitrous oxide emissions, published in the journal Nature in 2020, suggested attempts to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels could be threatened by the continued use of nitrogen fertilizers for food production. Land clearance for agriculture also contributes to the biodiversity crisis.
Emissions occur when soil microbes convert fertilizer into nitrous oxide (N2O). Urea, a fertilizer compound made into white granules, also releases carbon dioxide, or CO2. Three quarters of the direct emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are nitrous oxide, the rest being carbon dioxide.
Nitrous oxide may be lesser known than the two big greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, but it’s a long-lived gas that’s almost 300 times more potent than CO2 over 100 years. About 10% of gross greenhouse gas emissions in this country come from nitrous oxide.
Shameful to New Zealand’s international reputation on climate change, its gross emissions have increased by 26% since 1990. Two of the main reasons are increased fertilizer use and an increase in dairy herds. The national herd stood at 4.9 million last year.
Farmers say synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is a key building block for protein and essential for promoting grass and crop growth. The industry believes a ban would be economically catastrophic – and, it says, would fail to achieve environmental goals. (This appears to be because fertilizer emissions are dwarfed by emissions from livestock pee and poop, and although the alternatives are more expensive and less effective, they could be affordable enough to maintain head counts. livestock at a high level. This can also disrupt plant-based agriculture.)
The country’s fertilizer industry is dominated by farmer-owned cooperatives Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients.
These are big companies. Ravensdown earned $52 million, before tax and rebate, from continuing operations in 2021 on revenue of $712 million. Ballance’s 2021 revenue before reimbursement was $897 million and it made a profit of $63.1 million, before taxes and reimbursement.
However, they have not commented on this story. Ravensdown said the Fertilizer Association was “best placed” to respond, while Ballance could not be reached.
Similarly, Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company and the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, declined to comment. A senior communications manager said “it’s an industry issue”.
Fertilizer Association chief executive Vera Power responds “on behalf of Ravensdown and Ballance”, saying by email that the co-ops are working hard to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.
(This kind of ignores that between 1990 and 2019, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers increased by 663%. Over the same period, as a proportion of agricultural emissions, nitrogen fertilizers increased from 0, 9% to 5.8%).
“The use of smart products and precision application means farmers are able to minimize nitrogen use while maintaining the huge economic benefit it brings to New Zealand agriculture,” says Power.
“Last year, nitrogen use actually went down as more farmers used coated products that allow them to use less nitrogen due to the increased efficiency of these new products.”
Another incentive to consume less is soaring prices.
Power points out that when it comes to nitrous oxide losses and nitrate leaching into waterways, the vast majority comes from animal urine.
Dr David Burger, head of strategy and investments at DairyNZ, says nitrogen use is decreasing thanks to better science and improved farming practices, and that there is extensive research to find alternatives.
Under environmental farm plans, farmers reduce nitrogen fertilizers by using alternative foods, such as plantain, to reduce nitrogen losses. Other strategies include more modern irrigation systems.
However, warnings are being thrown about farm plans, and there is evidence, called the “efficiency paradox”, suggesting that lower groundwater levels due to more efficient irrigation and milk production increase lead to increased nitrate and nitrogen concentrations.
Burger says agricultural businesses must remain profitable while doing environmental work, “because it not only benefits our national economy, but also local economies.”
The scrutiny of the environmental impacts of agriculture has piled pressure on the government. The Climate Change Commission will review progress on reducing agricultural emissions later this year.
Service Minister Poto Williams said the government remained committed to working with farmers to reduce emissions from agriculture, alongside other sectors such as energy and transport.
“It’s a big challenge, but many farmers are already taking action.”
Freshwater reforms are “ongoing and comprehensive,” she says. “They include the introduction of a limit of 190 kilograms per hectare per year of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers on pasture.”
not far enough
Greenpeace disagrees with Williams.
“Our argument is the [fertiliser] the ceiling is not high enough,” says Rose, crop campaign manager. “It does not target the bulk of the pollution generated by the dairy industry… water quality or climate issues, or fresh water contamination.”
Most farmers use less than 190 kg/ha, she says. This is supported by figures from the Fertilizer Association for the main regions, over five years to 2018, showing that only one province, Canterbury, has an average use above 200 kg/ha. Only two other provinces, Southland and West Coast, exceed 150 kg/ha.
“It’s unlikely to make a significant difference,” Rose says.
None of the signals are strong enough, says Greenpeace: the fertilizer cap is too conservative, elements of the freshwater reform program have been cut or delayed, and concessions have been made on tough new grazing rules intense winter.
Taxpayers are also spending $700 million to help clean up freshwater, including planting riparian areas and wetlands, she says — although there are strings attached, with stricter rules.
Last November, there was another blow, when the government-primary sector partnership, He Waka Eke Noa, proposed options projects for agricultural emissions pricing that were not expected to reduce emissions even 1% by 2030.
The draft discussion paper stated: “The majority of emission reductions are expected to be achieved through recycling revenue into research and development, incentives to adopt the technology, or on-farm actions that help reduce emissions. “
(Creating price proposals that won’t change the rudder is a head-scratching position for an organization formed “to equip farmers and growers with the knowledge and tools they need to reduce emissions.”)
Even if the Commission on Climate Change recommended that agriculture enter the emissions trading system – which, for the first time, would put a price on agricultural emissions, representing almost half of the gross emissions of greenhouse gases from New Zealand – Rose is worried about the level of subsidies the industry would get from the government.
“It would take us 100 years to fully integrate agriculture into the ETS in a way that would be fair to other producers and all other New Zealanders.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it the nuclear-free moment of its generation and the government declared a climate emergency in 2020. Yet last year it was criticized for a lukewarm emissions reduction plan and a disappointing performance at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, known as COP26.
What the government needs is “more substance and less stardust” on climate, Rose says – and that includes tackling the elephant in the room, agriculture.