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Living With Climate Change: New Zealand floats first-of-its-kind climate tax on livestock flatulence

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New Zealand’s government this week proposed taxing the greenhouse gas emissions from farm animals. It’s the first time that an actual tax has been suggested, though scientists have been working on improved diets and other measures to cut down on the methane emitted with the flatulence and waste from livestock.

Farm animals emit methane, a more-potent-but-shorter-lasting greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide. Methane is also sent into the atmosphere when fossil fuels
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are burned, and it, along with CO2, is a primary driver of rising global temperatures that are bringing rising sea levels, heat, drought and more frequent extreme weather.

New Zealand’s plan, according to the government, would be economically feasible because consumers, especially younger demographics, are becoming more eco-conscious. They’re demanding more care and disclosure around the beef, lamb and other farm-generated food they eat. The revenues from the tax would go to research and technology for capturing animal emissions, and would be returned in part to farmers as an incentive for green practices.

Read: Popular culinary site Epicurious cuts new beef recipes in a ‘pro-planet’ move — its users didn’t complain

The largely agricultural country’s leadership also sees this step as key to boosting exports.

“New Zealand’s farmers are set to be the first in the world to reduce agricultural emissions, positioning our biggest export market for the competitive advantage that brings in a world increasingly discerning about the provenance of their food,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

But farmers aren’t entirely convinced. Andrew Morrison, chairman of farm lobby group Beef + Lamb New Zealand told Reuters that while farmers know they have a responsibility to address climate change, many already have been via conversion of grazing land to forests. The methane plan, the group said, could cost farmers more and encourage them simply to turn more land into trees rather than follow the livestock initiative.

As a byproduct of their digestion, livestock such as cows and sheep release methane — a GHG that causes 80 times as much warming as carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. CO2, meanwhile, lasts longer in the atmosphere but is less potent than methane in those early years. Animals emit methane in a handful of ways but the biggest source is their burps.

Taxing emissions in order to turn revenue back into action to curb climate change is a new approach, but efforts to reduce farm-produced methane, particularly as a rising global population will demand more food, is not new.

For instance, Burger King, part of Restaurant Brands International Inc.,
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 in recent years added lemongrass to rebalance the diet of some of the beef herd used for its Whoppers. The mixed food source was found in studies to limit methane emissions. Other scientists have explored feeding livestock seaweed to cut down on the methane-loaded flatulence.

In New Zealand, the roughly 5 million people are greatly outnumbered by an estimated 10 million cattle and 26 million sheep. According to government data from 2019, 37% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions were from methane, and just over 88% of the country’s methane emissions came from livestock.

The New Zealand government has committed to reaching net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, a pledge similar to the U.S. and other major economies.

Globally, methane accounts for 20% of GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Livestock accounts for 14.5% of total global emissions, according to the United Nations.

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