What would a net zero emissions policy mean for agriculture?

As the warring parties in the Coalition debate the idea of a net zero carbon emissions policy, a number of questions remain unanswered.

What would such a policy mean for agriculture? Would it push up the price for food and fibre?

Professor Brent Kaiser from Sydney University thinks agriculture must be included if Australia is going to properly address global warming. 

The sector generates about 15 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 76.5 million tonnes in 2019. 

“Agriculture will have to play its part [and] there will have to be gains made across the sector, but I don’t think they will get down to zero.”

He is backing the federal government’s technology roadmap rather than a price on carbon as the way to reduce emissions.

“The livestock sector has made big strides to reduce methane production through changes in feed stocks as well as managing nitrogen and fertiliser use.”

He thinks the sector can thrive even if it is included in a net-zero scheme but sees fertiliser use as a sleeper issue.

Fertilisers require a lot of energy to produce; nitrous oxide emissions as a result of their application are 300 times more warming than carbon dioxide.

Think tank calls for a price on carbon

Left-wing think tank the Grattan Institute is calling for governments to act now to curb emissions by including agriculture in the zero emissions target. It wants to see a price on carbon.

With the price of carbon credits up 20 per cent in the past year and sitting at $20 per tonne, it would cost the sector $1.5 billion if the government did put a price on carbon. 

Tony Wood, the institute’s energy and climate change program director, concedes that agriculture will need more support. 

That includes making it easier to apply for grants from the emissions reduction fund and helping farmers reduce emissions on farms with better on-farm advice.

“Not only should the government make it easier for farmers to get this funding, it should put money into extension services.”

Mr Wood is also concerned about the integrity of carbon storage schemes on farm and whether things like planting trees, locking up vegetation or storing extra carbon in the soil really are reducing emissions.

“There’s some really challenging issues around measurement and verification.”

He is not concerned about the threat to jobs in the bush that a zero emissions target might pose, something that is troubling some National Party members. 

“I don’t see it as a reduction in jobs, I see it as an opportunity to increase the industry and offset the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.”

Cut methane from calculations

Some farmers are calling on the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) to lobby for the removal of methane emissions from greenhouse gas calculations.

The group WAFarmers wants the Commonwealth to recognise that livestock emissions are “biogenic” and “short life” compared to “geologic” emissions generated by industries such as mining.

“We’re calling on the NFF to differentiate between green and black methane,” president John Hassell said.

“We think as farmers that we’re being unfairly penalised because some are attributing some kind of longevity to green methane that’s just not there.” 

It is a line the meat industry is pushing in a campaign they released recently, arguing that methane emissions from cattle are just part of the natural cycle. 

‘Farmers unfairly demonised’

The president of the NSW Farmers Association, James Jackson, said the sector has been unfairly demonised by the climate debate going back to the Kyoto protocol.

He said methane from cattle emissions are just part of the normal cycle and they break down quickly, while CO2 is taken up in crops, pastures and native vegetation on farms. 

“We in agriculture use billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, we add it to water and the [Grattan] report acknowledges that we use more carbon dioxide than we emit.”

With more than a touch of sarcasm he told NSW Country Hour he wondered if he should be sorry for the work he and other farmers do.

“I suppose I should apologise for emitting all that oxygen and storing all that CO2”.

Mr Jackson said farmers were being criticised for something that happens naturally in the environment.

“Kyoto demonised emissions from ruminants, which is just one form of biogenetic emissions — it comes from breaking down organic matter in the absence of oxygen — and it happens in rice paddies, RAMSAR wetlands and rainforests.”

He complained about the effective nationalisation of landholders’ land rights through the introduction of native vegetation laws in the 2007 that locked up the land in order to meet the Kyoto protocols. 

“Agriculture has been robbed, our carbon has been robbed by the native vegetation laws after Kyoto.”

Farmers want a seat at the table

Peak Queensland rural lobby group AgForce is also angry about the way things were handled at the Kyoto climate talks.

“Last time when John Howard signed Kyoto, agriculture wasn’t aware of the part agriculture would play in meeting those targets,” chief executive Michael Guerin said.

Mr Guerin does not object to agriculture being included in any zero emission targets, as long as the industry is an equal partner at the negotiating table.

That line has been backed by Fiona Simson, the president of the NFF. 

She said the sector was “burned” in the Kyoto negotiations.

“We put our heads in the sand. We said ‘no, we don’t want to be part of this discussion’.”

Now the sector has its own target to reach zero emissions by 2050 and she wants to be consulted ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

“We need to be at the table, we need to be talking about the opportunities and the challenges for ag[riculture].”

Mr Guerin said the the politics surrounding the upcoming meeting in Glasgow was getting in the way, especially as Australian farming systems are not well understood overseas.

“We have a very different production system, a very different and unique landscape, and therefore a very different and powerful way we can approach this that hasn’t been considered to date.

“What we’re asking for from the federal government is to work collectively and together in the four weeks before COP26, make sure that’s understood fully.

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