Insight: Think across the system

Every action counts – and no action is too small.  

But we need to remember the interconnectedness of our people and environment – we’re in one big system in Aotearoa, and our approach to climate change needs to reflect that.  

Determining what climate action looks like for Aotearoa throughout our regions and within our communities means we need to think across the system.  

If we act in silos and don’t coordinate our efforts, our action could be less effective than if we approached it with the whole system in mind.  


Developing new ways to reduce emissions 

Agriculture is a core part of our economy and culture. It also accounts for 91% of biogenic methane emissions in Aotearoa, and 19% of other ‘long-lived’ gases like CO2 and nitrous oxide.  

Finding ways to maintain our reputation and leadership in this sector while working hard to reduce emissions is crucial for the transition to a low emissions Aotearoa.  

At AgResearch’s Grasslands Research Centre in Palmerston North scientists are looking at how to speed up emissions reductions from animals like sheep and cattle.  

One of the biggest successes they’ve had is in breeding for low emissions sheep. Animals produce different amounts of methane – and the amount they produce can be linked back to genetics.  

Scientists at the research centre are testing different types of feed to determine if and how that affects how much methane an animal produces.  

Some feeds that have been tested so far show promise but can create other challenges. Some instances showed a decrease in methane but an increase in nitrous oxide, whereas others only decreased methane when the type of feed used made up a high proportion of the animal’s diet.  

AgResearch Principal Scientist David Pacheco, who showed a team from the Commission around the facility on a recent visit, shared a particular example about a trial they carried out with brassica: 

“The early work with forage rape (a brassica) found that the reduction in methane emissions per unit of feed eaten was ~25%. Further studies confirmed that reduction with sheep and cattle.  

“We followed this with some work on nitrous oxide emissions using the urine of animals who had been fed either forage rape or grass; the results from those studies were variable.  

“Some of my colleagues then did some work on the field, under the conditions that forage rape is normally used. In those conditions – high animal densities, the pugging of soil, and grazing in wet winters – they observed an increase in nitrous oxide in some cases.” 

The way that the plant was managed as a feed for ruminants originally led the scientists to observe significant reductions in methane – before they discovered a negative implication of this, in the form of an increase in nitrous oxide.  

This shows just how complex biological systems are.   

For me, it also reinforced the importance of looking across an entire system when addressing climate change, looking at how action in one area can impact another.  

One tool or method can’t be relied on to do the job. 


Looking at the bigger picture 

This need for a systems-wide approach applies well beyond agriculture. 

On that same trip to Manawatū, during a meeting with Horizons Regional Council we discussed whether the actions the council and others were taking to address climate change might also create problems elsewhere. 

“Councils need to be right in the thick of it in terms of developing plans – and everyone should be working together,” Rachel Keedwell, the Chair of the council, told us. 

The council was clear on the need for a coordinated approach and funding across central and local government, agencies and institutions – something which we also made a recommendation on in Ināia tonu nei. 

Working together across the system will help identify and overcome those problems. Achieving our goal of a thriving, climate-resilient and low emissions future will require a diverse range of policies and actions across many sectors.  

An equitable transition must be co-designed if it is to be enduring. If business, industry, local government, and community design the transformation of Aotearoa alongside government, it will better reflect the experiences and needs of all New Zealanders.  

All of us have a part to play and a contribution to make, and everyone’s contribution matters.  


Jo Hendy is the chief executive of He Pou a Rangi, the Climate Change Commission