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A curious anomaly in the Mackenzie

Pat Baskett |  29 June 2018

The conversion of part of the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin to industrial scale dairying and beef farming is contentious for more than its location and scale. It raises issues that lie at the heart of the Government’s discussion paper Our Climate Your Say: consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill, writes Pat Baskett for Newsroom.

There’s a curious anomaly in the set up at Simons Pass station. When it begins operation this spring it will be one of the most modern farms in the country – energy efficient, hi-tech. The tractors will be driverless electric ones, the cows will come in to the robotic milkers whenever they feel like it. The fences will be virtual - GPS-controlled collars the animals wear will ensure they stay within allocated boundaries.
“It’s a large property if you have to drive someone 10km to the end of the farm,” owner Murray Valentine is reported as saying in Dairy News. “Better to send a drone down, have a look, then come back.”
But efficiency can do nothing about the methane issuing from 5000 dairy cows, up to 8000 beef cattle and more than 3000 sheep. Efficiency can manage but not avoid nitrous oxide. Yet these two are among the worst greenhouse gases on the planet. They are also the ones which will cause the worst headaches for the Government as it plots the details of the Zero Carbon Bill because, as we’ve heard many times, agriculture accounts for 49 percent of our global warming emissions.
Not only does the agricultural sector provide the majority of our export earnings, it produces much of what most of us eat. But, if this Bill is to mean anything and if New Zealand as the world’s largest milk exporter is to have any credibility, now is the time to begin to put things right.
We need to understand the urgency of this.
Nitrous oxide is the most dangerous gas. Called familiarly nox, it is released naturally from soils and water. It’s also the stuff that comes from cows' pee and nitrogenous fertilisers (generically known as urea). It’s not as big a problem as methane in terms of volume – it accounts for 11 percent of our gross emissions whereas methane is a huge 43 percent but as a GHG it is 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Worse, it hangs around for 114 years and as it breaks down it destroys the ozone layer that protects us from sun damage.
Methane is also a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The initial warming from a pulse of methane is 120 times stronger than for the equivalent CO2. World-wide, cattle are the major source of methane with each beast producing more than six times the methane of a sheep. The gas’s only redeeming factor is its shorter lifespan of about 12 years.

(Pat Baskett is an Auckland writer and climate activist.)

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