What cars and cattle can learn from each other
October 6, 2017

My experience of sustainability in New Zealand by Iona Neilson, Project Analyst, Simply Sustainable

New Zealand’s environment and scenery are the primary drawcards for international visitors (including myself!), and their environmental sustainability is increasingly being recognised as best practice. They are placed 11th in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index, and I believe this is in part due to their low population density and that they didn’t experience the Industrial Revolution on the same scale as most developed nations, and therefore didn’t have to deal with the high levels of pollution. However, the high environmental quality of life and access to pristine wilderness is starting to become more vulnerable. New Zealand’s emissions profile is unique in that a far larger proportion is methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture – although the Government has made commitments to reduce this – whilst carbon dioxide is lower than normal due to their extensive renewable generation.

Figure 1 Dairy cows in Waikato, North Island

New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products and is extremely reliant on dairy farming as a source of income. However, this is also the biggest contributor to emissions at 48%. It is also heavily criticised due to its effects on water quality, increased compaction in land and GHG emissions. The Government is investing millions of dollars into research on how these impacts can be reduced. In particular, I noticed a number of fences in place which were designed to prevent cattle from accessing waterways, so helping to improve water quality. This is one of the many steps taken in an attempt to reduce the impact of the dairy industry.

It’s important to note that we are starting to see a growing international trend towards more sustainable diets and with that, a move away from meat and dairy products as people (and business) try to significantly reduce the environmental impact of their food choices and food production – this is an urgent challenge for an industry which is already experiencing the impacts of climate change on global supply chains. This may not be on the cards any time soon for New Zealand, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if we were to see major changes in consumer behaviour at some point in the not too distant future.

Cars and Cattle  

The energy sector is the second biggest contributor to emissions at 39% and refers to both the generation of electricity and emissions from transport, but as around 80% of New Zealand’s electricity is already generated by renewable sources, transport emissions continue to dominate. The amount of old, emission-intensive cars on the roads caught my attention, plus the fact that New Zealand has the highest car ownership rate amongst developed countries. Current standards now in place are beginning to drive a shift towards cleaner, more efficient technologies last year, and by 2021, there will be 64,000 electric cars on the roads in New Zealand. The country is very well-placed to benefit from electric vehicles due to the already high proportion of renewables in its energy mix, but it’s still very early days – I saw very few electric cars or charging points, even in bigger cities such as Auckland.

Figure 2 Traffic in Auckland

Although the EPI claims to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and New Zealand is making good progress towards meeting these, its unsustainable consumption pattern is ‘hidden’. To put this into perspective, Singapore is positioned as 14th on the 2016 EPI Index. For me, this suggests that whilst New Zealand is nudging close to being in the Top 10, it still hasn’t had to face the decades of urbanisation and pollution experienced by metropolitan environments like Singapore. We don’t perhaps quite know the full extent or impact of other issues pertaining to the country’s environmental performance to make it move higher up the rankings.

My New Zealand experience was certainly eye opening on many different levels, but if its agricultural industry wants to thrive it should take a tip from a very different sector, which has been facing a similar challenge for years – the automotive industry. Car makers are tackling the twin realities of rising fuel costs and government emission reduction legislation to combat climate change. Now the agricultural and farming market in New Zealand (in fact everywhere!), needs to understand how best to tackle and manage its own emissions from animals, fertiliser production, fuel, electricity and deforestation, in order to meet its carbon footprint challenge. Cars and cattle have more in common than you might think. Both could learn a great deal from each other.