New Zealand proposes cow-burp tax to fight climate change

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New Zealand’s government on Tuesday proposed taxing farm animals’ greenhouse gas emissions as part of its efforts to reduce the pollution that is causing climate change.

The tax would be the world’s first on animal emissions, including those from burps and urination, which contribute to rising global temperatures. The plan, according to the government, would be economically beneficial because global consumers are becoming more eco-conscious, and the revenues generated by the tax would go to research and technology for capturing animal emissions, and to incentive payments for farmers.

“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.

Jacinda Ardern and Damien O'Connor.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor. (Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

As a byproduct of their digestion, livestock such as cows and sheep release methane — a greenhouse gas that causes 80 times as much warming as carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. That includes methane in flatulence and manure, but the single biggest source of methane from animals is burps. Globally, methane accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Livestock accounts for 14.5% of total global emissions, according to the United Nations.

A largely rural, agricultural country, New Zealand has 5 million people and roughly 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 88.4% of its methane emissions came from livestock. About three-quarters comes from cows, with the rest coming from sheep.

The New Zealand government has committed to reaching zero net emissions by 2050, including a reduction of farm animals’ methane emissions by 10% by 2030 and 47% by 2050.

Those emissions could potentially be reduced by capturing methane in burp-catching cow masks or other new technologies.

Two brown cows behind a metal fence.
Cows wait to be milked on a dairy farm in New Zealand's Waikato region. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

When the government first floated the idea of a burp tax in June, New Zealand’s agricultural lobby was supportive. "We've been working with the government and other organizations 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, the national president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, told the BBC at the time.

But the proposal put forth on Tuesday was greeted with skepticism from industry groups, which said the tax would cripple the business of farmers and ranchers, even though the price has not yet been set. Hoggard said his group has found the government unresponsive to its concerns, and he warned that the measure would “rip the guts out of small-town New Zealand.”

New Zealand Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor countered that reducing climate change is also important to protecting farmers’ future livelihood.

“Farmers are already experiencing the impact of climate change with more regular drought and flooding,” O’Connor said. “Taking the lead on agricultural emissions is both good for the environment and our economy.”