COP28 reflections: Cutting methane is our big opportunity to fight climate change

16 January 2024

This article was written by Wayne McNee, Chief Executive AgriZeroNZ. It was first published on NZ Herald The Country.

The atmosphere at Dubai’s sprawling COP28 headquarters was a chaotic mix of hope and frustration. I was one of 100-thousand or so people from almost 200 countries, who had gathered at the UN climate summit to discuss the future of our planet.

In a historic agreement, the final deal called on all countries to transition away from fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. There was also a push for ‘deep, rapid reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,’ and more focus on methane than ever before.

Why methane matters

Climate scientists have long called methane ‘carbon dioxide on steroids,’ because of its role in heating the planet. It spends less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but is much more potent. Methane is emitted in leaks from fossil fuel drilling and also when ruminant animals – cows, sheep, goats and deer – burp as they digest their food.

That’s why coming up with climate-smart tools to cut methane is seen as a crucial way forward for the global agriculture industry – an opportunity the sector is right behind.

In Dubai, I attended panel discussions and meetings around transforming our food systems to address climate change, including a session led by the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C), a joint initiative between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. AgriZeroNZ is among 600 Knowledge Partners of AIM4C, which is focused on increasing investment in agricultural innovation.

This is a worldwide problem, but a very important challenge for New Zealand.

I was impressed by people’s passion, and enjoyed sharing the work we’re doing in New Zealand to future-proof our rural economy.

We’re listening to our global customers

For New Zealand farmers, lowering emissions is not a choice, it’s ultimately a requirement from our global customers and trading partners.

Our farming exports are renowned around the world because of our unique pastoral and grass-fed systems. Food products from our pasture-raised animals not only taste better, but they’re healthier too, with higher levels of good fats, antioxidants and protein.

But international customers that pay a premium for these products, such as Nestlé, McDonald’s, supermarket giant Sainsbury’s and many others, continue to set ambitious targets for emissions reductions through their supply chain.

They have to – and show how they’re doing it. Banks are changing their approach to lending, and their providers of capital are also requiring them to show emissions reductions.

We need to act now – or risk losing high-end customers and breaching trade agreements.

Farmers are at the heart of our transition

With almost half of New Zealand’s GHG emissions coming from agriculture, it represents the greatest opportunity to reduce our contribution to climate change.

Our farmers are already doing great work – research shows they’re some of the most emissions-efficient in the world. But global competitors are never far behind.

Kiwi farmers need more practical tools in their hands to control emissions, and quickly. Farmers’ work is the backbone of our economy, and farmers must be able to stay profitable and productive.

Finding solutions for farmers

AgriZeroNZ is a world first public-private partnership between our leading primary sector businesses, on behalf of their farmer shareholders and clients, to help farmers cut emissions – while keeping their competitive edge. The joint venture was established in February 2023 with an ambition to ensure all Kiwi farmers have equitable access to solutions supporting a 30 per cent reduction in methane and nitrous oxide by 2030, and ‘near zero’ by 2040.

The reality is there won't be one quick fix, so we’re taking calculated risks and scanning the world for new ideas and technologies.

We’ve already invested in multiple exciting projects, which could work in our pasture-based farming methods. They include a vaccine and a bolus that sits in the stomach of an animal to reduce methane emissions. A methane vaccine is recognised as potentially the best option to shift the dial because it can easily fit into our current farming systems, without compromising on profitability and productivity.

New Zealand’s pioneering vaccine research has the potential to slash the methane produced in a ruminant animal’s stomach by 30 per cent.

These technological advances could have a global impact.

Wayne McNee, Chief Executive AgriZeroNZ

The clock is ticking on our planet

2023 is the warmest on record. The world is being battered by more extreme storms and droughts.

In New Zealand, we’ve seen that for ourselves. We’re still paying higher prices at the supermarket because of fruit, vegetables and stock lost in the devasting floods following Cyclone Gabrielle. Federated Farmers estimated total on-farm costs from that storm could top a billion dollars.

Everything AgriZeroNZ is doing now is part of an effort to make all our futures more secure.

Climate action needs financial support

The buy-in from our agri-partners is vital, and unique.

Our founding industry shareholders represent some of the biggest names in New Zealand agri-business: ANZCO Foods, Fonterra, Rabobank, Ravensdown, Silver Fern Farms and Synlait. Their investment into the fund is matched dollar-for-dollar by the other 50 per cent shareholder, the Government - through the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Together, our shareholders are accountable to the majority of New Zealand farmers, providing a pathway to support the tools’ uptake on-farm.

AgriZeroNZ’s goal is ambitious and important – and we are running out of time to act.

My conversations at COP28 in Dubai showed international interest and support for our work. It’s important we keep the momentum going.

Only continued co-operation and a sharp focus on methane reduction will help us cultivate a future of our agriculture sector that is more efficient, sustainable and profitable than ever before.