#WhatTheFAQ: Why will cow and sheep burps invite taxes in New Zealand from now on?

Controlling climate change is tough for every country. Cows and sheep are known to contribute to global warming and climate change by burping. It is true! Here's something more about it
FAQ June 10 | (Pic: Edexlive)
FAQ June 10 | (Pic: Edexlive)

Embarrassment alert! Have you ever burped in public? Awkward, right? So, teach your pets some manners and ask them not to burp in the open too, especially your cows and sheep. Because, if they do, you have to be embarrassed and cough up — no burp up — some money. 

Honestly though, if you don’t want to spend unnecessarily then ask your cattle to guard your wallet and control themselves when they feel gassy. 

What, sounds nonsensical? No, no, it’s a very serious issue. If you haven’t heard already, New Zealand has brought out a draft law to tax farmers if their cows and sheep burp. Why? Read on to find out all the answers.

What is the draft law about?
According to the draft law brought out on Wednesday, June 8, farmers in New Zealand would have to pay a tax on the burps of their cows and sheep. As strange as it sounds, this has been done in a bid to reduce the methane emissions caused by cattle burps. The law has been put together by the government and farm community representatives of the country.

This is the world’s first-of-its-kind law and according to the country’s Ministry for Environment, once the law takes shape, New Zealand would be the first country to make farmers pay for livestock emissions, reports Reuters, an international news agency.

“There is no question that we need to cut the amount of methane we are putting into the atmosphere, and an effective emissions pricing system for agriculture will play a key part in how we achieve that,” said James Shaw, Climate Change Minister, as mentioned in a report by The Telegraph.

How will the law be regulated?
The law will come into effect from 2025. The prices for short-lived and long-lived farm gas will be separate, although a single measure to calculate their volume will be used. However, the mechanism for calculating the emissions is still not clear.

The draft also proposes incentives for farmers who manage to reduce their emissions. The revenue obtained from the taxes will be invested in research, development and advisory services for farmers, the Telegraph report added.

“Our recommendations enable sustainable food and fibre production for future generations while playing a fair part in meeting our country’s climate commitments,” said Michael Ahie, Chairman of the primary sector partnership, He Waka Eke Noa in New Zealand.

How much emissions do cattle produce?
Cows, sheep, and other ruminants have microbes in their digestive systems, which break down the grass, hay and other stuff that cattle eat. These microbes produce methane in the process, an odourless greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in depleting the ozone layer. There are 1.5 billion cows worldwide. And it has been found that cattle emit 95% methane through their burps. A single dairy cow can produce up to 130 gallons of methane per day, amounting to 14% of global methane emissions.

New Zealand has about 10 million cattle and 26 million sheep. Half of the country’s greenhouse emissions come from agriculture and farming. The country has committed to help control global warming, so it was criticised earlier for exempting agriculture from the country’s emissions trading scheme.

So, is the law all beneficial?
Not really. Though it is aimed at sustainability, the plan is likely to hit consumers as prices of meat would be increased because of the taxes. Additionally, Susan Kilsby, an agricultural economist at ANZ Bank, said that the proposal would potentially be the biggest regulatory disruption to farming since the removal of agricultural subsidies in the 1980s.

However, the initiative is potent in reducing climate change and is a significant step. The United Kingdom has also discussed including agricultural emissions in its own emissions trading scheme as part of the first step to imposing carbon border taxes that could protect British producers from cheaper imports.

What are farmers saying about it?

"We've been working with the government and other organisations on this for years to get an approach that won't shut down farming in New Zealand, so we've signed off on a lot of stuff we're happy with," Andrew Hoggard, a dairy farmer and the National President of Federated Farmers of New Zealand said, as per a BBC report.

"There are still the nuts and bolts to be hammered out, like who actually implements the scheme, so there's still stuff to work through with the government," he added.  The farmer's group did not propose a specific price for agricultural emissions, they said that it should be “as low as possible”. In the model they proposed, an initial price of 11 cents per kilogram of methane and 0.4 cents per kilogram of carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide.

But is tax the solution?
A month ago, a burp-catching mask for cows, designed by a UK-based design group, Zelp, to reduce methane emissions and slow down climate change, won the prestigious Prince Charles prize. Zelp was one of the four winners of the inaugural Terra Cart Design Lab competition, launched by Prince Charles, as part of his Sustainable Markets Initiative. He hailed the ground-breaking mask design as "fascinating" at the award ceremony in London.

The mask, which is a smart wearable harness for cows, converts methane into carbon dioxide and water vapour. It has been tested to reduce the methane emissions in cows by up to 60%. Francisco Norris, the Co-founder of Zelp, which is short for Zero Emissions Livestock Project, said,  “We need to do everything we can to reduce the problem. We understand that the best position for us to help address this issue is here, producing this kind of technology… The problem will not be solved without radical solutions”.

There are some other viable solutions too. The gas production in the cattle’s stomach can be controlled by dietary supplements. Scientists proposed the mass production of puffy, pink seaweed to combat this issue. The seaweed is known to stop cows from burping methane. Other available diet regulations like feed additives can also be used. Farmers can also take the help of on-farm forestry to offset the emissions.

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