Ecomodernism in action in Aotearoa: agricultural greenhouse gas slashed up to 90%
Since Copenhagen, Aotearoa has had one, solitary, meaningful climate action policy.
Amid the recriminations that followed the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen, scant attention, much less credit, was given to the New Zealand delegates’ coup.
Five years ago this month, the Global Research Alliance for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, forged at Copenhagen four months earlier, met for the first time in Palmerston North. In what should now be front page news, not only in Aotearoa but in the mainstream media worldwide, is that scientists at AgResearch have succeeded in demonstrating a compound that reduces methane emissions from livestock by up to 90%, in initial short-term trials.
The announcement was made on Tuesday, at this year’s gathering of the global research alliance. It would have made a perfect example for inclusion in the Ecomodernist Manifesto released exactly two weeks earlier by 18 ‘leading environmental scholars’, including ecologist Barry Brook, professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania—his Brave New Climate is much-referenced by the Mahurangi Magazine. Agriculture gets 16 mentions in the manifesto, including:
Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature.
Professor Brook emphasises the manifesto should be considered a working document that is open to refinement, so the heroic work of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium deserves to be included as an ecomodernist climate action exemplar, or published on the manifesto’s website as a case study.
The beauty of the ecomodernist approach is that it has the potential to attract a far-wider following than, for example, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, flat-lined as it is on 11% support. It is presumably entirely unconvincing, for most, to be warned of dangerous global warming only to be offered as ephemeral measures such as emissions trading schemes and photovoltaic panels. Four decades after the first oil shock, solar and wind contribute only about 3%. If the global greenhouse gas emergency is serious, and April’s record atmospheric methane levels suggest serious may be serious understatement, then today’s Liberty ships and Spitfires should be sliding down the slipways and rolling onto the airfields.
Aotearoa today is not in a position to lead the world with zero-carbon next-generation nuclear power development, much less with the long game of fusion power, the towering contribution of Ernest Rutherford’s nuclear transmutation experiments 96 years ago notwithstanding. Instead, it is strategically playing to its strengths by boldly leading the 45-member-country Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. It is a story that deserves to have city and rural communities, Left- and Right-leaning, and young and old, and even the odd demented climate denialist, dancing in the streets. Agriculture is the source of half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that the country can respond by doing less of it, say with more forestry and less pastoral farming, but the world is already working with often precariously small food reserves. Meantime, ruminant animals, by expending less energy in methane production are made more productive. Given that methane has a short-term (20-year) impact 80 times greater than an equal weight of carbon dioxide, every effort must be made to limit that which is burped to waste. Limiting the release of methane from the increasingly wild Arctic Ocean is likely to hideously costly, or logistically impracticable. It is a cruel irony that mankind’s hunger for energy has led to the wholesale waste of a potentially perfectly useable form of energy, methane, into in the atmosphere, to further-accelerate global warming.
To now do justice to the pastoral greenhouse gas researchers’ stellar success, New Zealanders should devise a suite of similarly pragmatic actions that could reinvent Aotearoa as the world leader it once was. The signal most dramatic action would be to embrace the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and boldly go from 75% to 100% zero-carbon electricity—just throw a couple of carbon-intensive last-millennium motorway projects under the trolleybus to pay for it.
Aotearoa’s success in Copenhagen didn’t come about by accident. It followed the appointment of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman as inaugural chief science advisor to the prime minister. Leaving aside quite how bizarre it is that this position wasn’t created until a century after Sir Ernest Rutherford was doing his most famous work, Sir Peter ensured that the New Zealand delegation went to the climate conference with a surgically strategic agenda.
In Paris as in Copenhagen, Aotearoa could again make the most meaningful, ecomodernist contribution of the more than 190 participating countries.