Net zero without agriculture is simply not net zero - Grattan Institute

Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s herd of grazing cattle and sheep will be hard to deliver. That’s partly why political leaders often exclude agricultural emissions from their climate change policies. Yet net zero without agriculture is simply not net zero.

If Australia is serious about a net zero objective, there are practical actions governments can take now to ensure that reducing emissions from agriculture is an effective and efficient part of the solution. Grattan Institute’s latest reportTowards net zero: Practical policies to reduce agricultural emissions, identifies such actions.

Agricultural activities contribute about 75 million tonnes a year to Australia’s emissions, or about 15 per cent of the total. The latest government projections indicate that, with steady herd recovery from extended drought conditions, these emissions will increase until 2030 unless new actions are taken.

As with all sectors, the actions that can be taken to reduce agricultural emissions range from low cost and relatively easy to high cost and very tough. And then there are the areas where no viable solutions have yet been identified.

The biggest challenge for this sector lies in the fact that nearly 50 million tonnes of emissions are methane belched by grazing cattle and sheep. There are no simple zero-emission substitutes like electric vehicles in transport or renewables in electricity.

And there are some even harder issues. Coal mining is an activity we may be able to stop. But it is much more unlikely that we can simply cease meat and dairy production.

Agriculture produces our food, it remains ingrained in parts of our Australian identity, and is tightly interwoven with the internal challenges the Coalition government faces over addressing climate change.

Yet the industry itself is committed to being part of the solution, with sectors such as meat and livestock making their own commitment to net zero, even earlier than 2050. There are three very pragmatic reasons for them to be so engaged.

First, the agriculture sector is the one most directly affected by our changing climate. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences estimates that changes in seasonal conditions over 2001 to 2020 have reduced average farm profits by 23 per cent compared with pre-2000 conditions.

Second, there is the risk that our agricultural exports could be adversely affected by international actions on climate change, including the imposition of carbon border adjustment mechanisms. About 75 per cent of Australia’s beef production is exported, and the risk posed by international actions was recently recognised by the previous leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack.

The third reason for farmers to be actively engaged is that planting trees and rebuilding the carbon in soils delivers productivity benefits to agriculture beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These actions also remove CO2 from the atmosphere, something that will be necessary across all sectors as we move towards, but fall short of, zero emissions.

As with other sectors, governments have a critical role in supporting the reduction of agricultural emissions. Changes in manure management, fertiliser application, and on-farm energy use will not eliminate the sector’s emissions but could make a material difference in the short term.

The federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, with a current budget of $2.55 billion, provides a financial incentive. That budget will have to get bigger if we are serious about achieving net zero and other policies do not emerge.

Outreach program for farmers

Extra funding will not be enough. There are tens of thousands of farmers in Australia, and governments should re-establish a well-funded outreach program to deliver the relevant knowledge into the hands of those farmers.

Technological solutions to reduce animal emissions, such as vaccines and feed supplements, are at very early stages of development, and it is very unclear how they can be delivered. Funding of the necessary research and development of these technologies, particularly the logistics of how they can be delivered to animals scattered across vast areas, becomes a third action for government.

Based on what we know today, reducing agricultural emissions to anywhere near zero looks very challenging.

Yet, maximising what we can do will give us the best opportunity to create momentum, and to minimise cost and future uncertainty.

Across all sectors, there are common issues and specific challenges.

Ultimately, whatever form our climate change policies take, national or sector-specific, they all must come together if net zero is to be a real objective and not just a marketing slogan.

Tony Wood

Energy and Climate Change Program Director
Tony has been Director of the Energy Program since 2011 after 14 years working at Origin Energy in senior executive roles. From 2009 to 2014 he was also Program Director of Clean Energy Projects at the Clinton Foundation, advising governments in the Asia-Pacific region on effective deployment of large-scale, low-emission energy technologies.

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