New Zealand Tackles Methane Problem

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As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations must reduce their greenhouse-gas footprint to help slow global warming. For New Zealand, industrial emissions are not coming from factories, but from cow and sheep farms.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

And I'm Anthony Brooks.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: Back now to Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic that's exploring how climate changes people, and how people change the climate.

Most of the world's industrialized nations have agreed to fight global warming by clamping down on big factories and power plants, the ones that produce carbon dioxide, the primary gas that's warming the atmosphere.

BRAND: But there's one industrialized country that doesn't produce much CO2, and that's New Zealand. Its most troublesome greenhouse gas is methane, and that comes from a decidedly non-industrial source, cows and sheep.

BROOKS: As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports from New Zealand, this creates unique problems for a country trying to reduce its climate footprint.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: You can go just about anywhere in New Zealand - like a high-rise building in the city of Wellington - and run into someone from a farm.

Mr. MARK ASPIN (Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium): I was born and bred on a dairy farm that's 60 miles from central business district, I suppose, in Oakland.

JOYCE: That's Mark Aspin, now a bureaucrat who runs the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium. Pastoral greenhouse gas is the polite way to describe what cows and sheep belch after digesting grass or feed. He works with the Gerald Rys at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dr. GERALD RYS (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, New Zealand): I was brought up in dairy farm as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RYS: My sisters still got up to 200-hectare dairy farm.

JOYCE: Aspin and Rys are now hoping a New Zealand government abide by the Kyoto Protocol, which requires countries to lower their greenhouse gas footprint, though in New Zealand's case, it's more like a hoof print. Half of the country's greenhouse gases are methane from belching sheep and cows. Government scientists want to breed ruminant livestock that don't do that. Rys admits it's going to be a challenge.

Dr. RYS: Ruminants have taken a couple of million years to evolve, and so we're not going to change that overnight with some simple technology or process.

JOYCE: And whatever scientists come up with can't kill the goose, says Mark Aspin. Lamb and dairy products are some of New Zealand's biggest moneymaking exports.

Mr. ASPIN: If we come up with a technology that can reduce methane, but in actual fact, it makes our animals less productive. They're going to say, well, why would you want to do that?

JOYCE: Even trying to get farmers to pay for the research has proven politically dicey. The government tried to raise a tax on farm animals for that. It didn't go well. Charles Pedersen is head of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

Mr. CHARLES PEDERSEN (President, Federated Farmers of New Zealand): There was an outcry from New Zealand farmers that a natural animal and a natural process was going to be highlighted as being something evil. Now the idea that you were going to tax an animal was seen, I think by the farming community, as a bit of an insult.

JOYCE: The proposal - known as the Fart Tax - died. So the government is raising the research money elsewhere, and it's looking for other answers -maybe growing more forests, for example, which suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

New Zealand has even appointed a climate ambassador to help figure all this out. Adrian Macey points out that next to agriculture, the country earned a lot of money from tourists willing to come a long way to visit. And a lot of them, he says, care about what kind of country they're visiting.

Mr. ADRIAN MACEY (Climate Change Ambassador, New Zealand): If New Zealand is seen as the country that's doing something about the environment, about global warming, it's more likely to have a favorable resonance. And when we're competing for tourists with other countries, it'll be lot closer than us.

JOYCE: There's one more reason New Zealand is eager to solve a climate change problem. Rising seas and bigger storms in the Pacific could push millions of islanders off their low-lying lands. If they become climate refugees, New Zealand will likely be their refuge - humanitarian crisis that could swamp this small nation.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

BROOKS: To check out more of NPR series Climate Connections, go to npr.org/climate.

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