COP26: James Shaw confirms no new methane cuts involved in joining global pledge

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World leaders have gathered to negotiate the final details of a global bid to keep the planet under 1.5-2C. Olivia Wannan reports from Glasgow.

New Zealand has joined more than 100 countries pledging to reduce methane over the next decade.

Collectively, signatories to the pledge – officially launched Tuesday (Wednesday NZ time) – are aiming to reduce the greenhouse gas by 30 per cent by the end of the decade.

Yet the Government is only aiming to achieve less than half of the target.

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The European instigators of the pledge previously clarified that not all countries would need to meet the 30 per cent target individually, with plugging oil and gas methane leaks expected to contribute much more than agriculture.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw​ confirmed that the Government would not introduce any new methane policies or targets as a result of the new initiative.

The Zero Carbon Act requires the Government to reduce methane from biological sources 10 per cent by 2030 and between 24 and 47 per cent by 2050. To stay on track for the longer-term goal, the Climate Change Commission recommended the country up this to about 12 per cent by 2030.

Methane contributes 42 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse footprint, with agriculture responsible for the vast bulk (89 per cent). Rotting waste produces about 9 per cent of the country’s methane.

In the consultation for its Emissions Reduction Plan, the Government proposed a range of policies to address the fraction of methane coming from waste: including a ban on paper, card and food waste going to landfill.

Agriculture contributes 48 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions. The industry is also threatened by climate change effects.

Dominico Zapata/Stuff

Agriculture contributes 48 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions. The industry is also threatened by climate change effects.

However, the Government’s primary tool to reduce agricultural methane is a pricing scheme, slated to take effect in 2025. In a partnership with the farming industry called He Waka Eke Noa, it’s creating a system to measure and price on-farm emissions.

But Shaw acknowledged that a pricing scheme alone was not enough to curb carbon. The Government recently addressed a number of flaws in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which puts a price on non-agricultural greenhouse gases. For example, the Government put a sinking lid on emissions.

“We need to learn the lessons from the ETS as we think about agricultural emissions. We certainly don’t want to replicate that, because otherwise you’re setting up a colossally complicated and expensive system that has no impact,” he said.

“One of the intentions is that revenue that gets raised through the pricing system gets recycled in to supporting the transition… If the price signal’s too long to provide any incentive to change, if there’s no real revenue to be recycled, and there’s no absolute cap that drops over time, you can almost guarantee it will be as ineffective as the ETS was for most of the last 10 years.”

The minister didn’t rule out supplementary policies to address agricultural emissions, noting new environmental regulations, such as freshwater rules, would also address these gases.

Shaw said the pledge could foster global momentum and solidarity on reducing methane. “Part of the difficulty in New Zealand is some people feel like we’re moving ahead of the pack,” he said. “It commits over 100 other countries to the kind of work programme that we already have in New Zealand. In some ways, that actually makes things easier.”

The fossil form of methane, natural gas, contributes a small amount to the country’s carbon footprint: the equivalent of 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is lost from natural gas escaping from wells and pipes.

Asked whether this would be targeted, Shaw noted the Government’s 2018 ban on oil and gas exploration (though this doesn’t apply onshore). This “signalled the phase-out date for oil and gas completely,” Shaw said. Removing natural gas from the system would address natural gas leaks, he added.

The global methane pledge could be a major development. According to US special presidential climate envoy John Kerry​, it could reduce planetary warming by 0.2 degrees Celsius.

“That is not insignificant,” Kerry said. “It is the fastest get you can get.”

The European Union and the US made a joint pledge in September committing to the 30 per cent goal, and asked others to come on board. Since then, countries such as the Canada, Japan and the UK signed up.

At the official launch, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said he wanted to see methane emissions from Canada’s oil and gas industry fall by 75 per cent.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau set a goal for national fossil methane emissions to fall by 75 per cent. (File photo)

Domenico Stinellis/AP

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau set a goal for national fossil methane emissions to fall by 75 per cent. (File photo)

US president Joe Biden said his government will target both natural sources of methane, and the fossil form: natural gas. Gas wells and pipelines would be subject to new rules to prevent leaks.

Initiatives would also be launched to help ranchers and farmers to reduce methane, Biden said, “which is a significant source as well”.

European Union president Ursula von der Leyen​ said reducing methane emissions offered other benefits, alongside limiting temperature rise: the goal could prevent 200,000 premature deaths, reduce asthma and improve food supplies.

Although countries continue to join the pledge, China, India, Russia and Australia have not signed the pledge, at time of writing. All are major methane emitters.

Prior to the methane pact, New Zealand also signed up to a commitment to end deforestation and boost sustainable land use by the end of the decade.

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