Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy



Australia must invest in sustainable agriculture.
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Jacqueline Williams, University of New England

Australia has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to ending world poverty, halting biodiversity loss, and combating climate change. A recent report from the UN found land use – including food production – is responsible for around one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Australia has something of a sustainable agriculture policy vacuum, after years of a fragmented, stop-start approach.




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To honour our international obligations and respond to growing sustainability markets, Australia urgently needs a contemporary definition of sustainable agriculture, including agreed on-farm metrics.

Good policy abandoned

Australia spent more than a decade developing promising policies that defined sustainable agriculture with broad indicators for measuring progress.

In 1997 Australia passed federal legislation defining “sustainable agriculture” as:

agricultural practices and systems that maintain or improve […] the economic viability of agricultural production; the social viability and well-being of rural communities; […] biodiversity; the natural resource base [and] ecosystems that are influenced by agricultural activities.

The following year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management published a broad set indicators.

During the early 2000s a national framework of Environmental Management Systems was developed, and national pilots were conducted across Australia up until 2006.

Between 2004 and 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded farmers’ investment in natural resource management. However these surveys have not been replicated in more than a decade.

In 2005, the states and territories formed a joint working group to create a national approach to property management systems. This group met with industry representatives and regional land managers throughout 2006, and in 2007 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry planned a pathway for a national policy. There was much hope and enthusiasm it would soon become a reality.

However, since 2008 there has been no progress and little, if any, explanation for why this important sustainable agriculture policy initiative was shelved.

Current policy vacuum

It is concerning that Australia’s first progress report on implementing the sustainable development goals contains the words “sustainable agriculture” only once in 130 pages, as part of the heading for the goal of ending hunger.

The definition arrived at in 1997 is far too broad and simplistic, and can’t be used at the farm level.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture reiterated their commitment to improving sustainable food production, and said:

Australia is involved in global discussions about how best to measure sustainable agriculture performance […] However a globally agreed methodology has not been set for [agricultural sustainability].

Australia’s only substantial sustainable agriculture policy mechanism at the moment appears to be grants available through the National Landcare Program. This is reiterated by searching through key Coalition policy documents and the recent budget.

The budget allocation to the overall National Landcare Program is around A$1 billion from 2017 to 2023. New programs announced in the 2019 budget that build on this commitment include:

  • A$100 million over four years for the environment restoration fund,
  • A$34 million over four years for a new biodiversity stewardship program,
  • A$28.3 million for a new communities environment program for 2019-20, and
  • A$2 billion over 15 years for the climate solutions fund.

These programs combined equate to some A$354 million per year. But a coherent sustainable agriculture policy cannot be delivered through grants alone.

And even though these grants are substantial, past ABS surveys found that farmers invest at least A$3 billion a year in natural resource management. The Indigenous on-country contribution is currently unknown, but likely to be substantial.

Caring for country fund

Around 10% of Australia’s population lives in rural or remote areas. These comparatively small communities – largely farmers and Indigenous land managers – currently steward most of the country.

A review released in late July on how conservation laws affect the agriculture sector has recommended the federal government create a A$1 billion fund for farmers who deliver environment benefits from their land.

This mirrors calls from farmers for an ecosystem services fund.

If our 13.9 million taxpayers contributed some A$60 each per year in a “caring for country” levy, urban and rural Australians could more fairly share the costs – as well as the advantages – of sustainable land management.

We could start with revisiting the good work undertaken more than a decade ago in developing a national framework for property management systems.

Underpinning such a system, we need an independent and trusted source of metrics for farmers, land managers and agricultural industries. To this end, the University of New England is establishing a research hub to help develop just such a harmonised approach.




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There are many good news stories of sustainable agriculture around Australia, however our ongoing biodiversity crisis requires transformative policy change and federal leadership.

One bold first step would be addressing the current paradox of sustainable agriculture in Australia.The Conversation

Jacqueline Williams, Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Adani beware: coal is on the road to becoming completely uninsurable



Insurers have to protect themselves against foreseeable risks. For insurers of fossil fuel projects, those risks are growing.
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John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by Suncorp that it will no longer insure new thermal coal projects, along with a similar announcement by QBE Insurance a few months earlier, brings Australia into line with Europe where most major insurers have broken with coal.

US firms have been a little slower to move, but Chubb announced a divestment policy in July, and Liberty has confirmed it will not insure Australia’s Adani project.

Other big firms such as America’s AIG are coming under increasing pressure.

Even more than divestment of coal shares by banks and managed funds, the withdrawal of insurance has the potential to make coal mining and coal-fired power generation businesses unsustainable.

As the chairman and founder of Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has shown in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a sufficiently rich developer can use its own resources to finance a coal mine that banks won’t touch.




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But without insurance, mines can’t operate.

(Adani claims to have insurers for the Carmichael project, but has declined to reveal their names.)

Why are insurers abandoning coal?

By the nature of their business, insurers cannot afford to indulge the denialist fantasies still popular in some sectors of industry. Damage caused by climate disasters is one of their biggest expenses, and insurers are fully aware that that damage is set to rise over time.

Even so, a sufficiently hard-headed company might choose to work both sides of the street – continuing to do business with fossil fuel companies, while also writing more expensive insurance against climate damage.

The bigger problem insurers face is the risk of litigation holding fossil fuel companies responsible for climate-related damage. For the moment, this is a potential rather than an immediate risk.

As US insurer AIG, yet to announce a divestment policy, has observed:

Based on our monitoring, while the overall volume of litigation activity has increased, past litigation seems to have largely been unsuccessful on numerous grounds including difficulties in determining and attributing fault and liability to a particular company, and the judiciary’s deference to the political branches of government on questions relating to climate change.

Recent development suggest these difficulties will be overcome.

It’s becoming easier to finger climate culprits…

Until recently, the most immediate problem facing potential litigants has been demonstrating that an event was the result of climate change as opposed to something else, such as random fluctuations in climatic conditions.

Scientific progress on this “extreme event attribution problem” has been rapid.

It is now possible to say with confidence that climate change is causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and weather-related events such as extreme heatwaves, drought, heavy rains, tropical storms and bushfires.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has highlighted three extremes in 2016 that would not have occurred if not for the added influence of climate change:

  • a persistent area of unusually warm water that lingered off the Alaskan coast, causing reduced marine productivity and other ecological disruptions

  • the extreme heatwave that happened in Asia, killing hundreds and destroying crops

  • the overall global atmospheric heat record set that year.

…and to allocate liability

The second line of defence against climate litigation that has held so far is the difficulty of imputing damage to the companies that burn fossil fuels.

While it is true that all weather events have multiple causes, in many circumstances climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been a necessary condition for those events to take place.

Courts routinely use arguments about necessary conditions to determine liability.

For example, a spark from a power line might cause a bushfire on a hot, dry, windy day, but would be harmless on a wet cold day. That can be enough to establish liability on the part of the company that operates the power line.

These issues are playing out in California, where devastating fires in 2017 caused damage estimated at US$30 billion and drove the biggest of the power companies, PG&E, into bankruptcy.

As a result there has been pressure to loosen liability laws, leaving the cost of future disasters to be borne by Californians in general, and their insurers.

Lawyers will be looking for someone to sue.

Adani is a convenient target

The question facing potential litigants is whether any single company contributes enough to climate change to make it meaningfully liable for particular disaster.

Adani’s Carmichael mine provides a convenient example.

Adani says the 10 million tonnes of coal it plans to mine will produce only 240,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but this is semantic trickery. The firm is referring only to so-called “scope 2” emissions associated with the mining process itself.

When the coal is burned it might produce an extra 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, amounting to about 0.05% of global emissions.

A 0.1% share of the damage associated with the California fires is US$15 million, enough to be worth suing for. Other similarly sized mines will face similar potential liabilities.

Once a precedent is established, any company in the business of producing or burning fossil fuels on a large scale can expect to be named in a regular stream of suits seeking substantial damages.

When governments are successfully sued…

The remaining line of defence for companies responsible for emissions is the history of courts in attributing climate change to decisions by governments rather than corporations.

In the Netherlands, a citizen action group called Urgenda has won a case against the Dutch government arguing it has breached its legal duty of care by not taking appropriate steps to significantly restrain greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

The government is appealing, but it has lost every legal round so far. Sooner or later, this kind of litigation will be successful. Then, governments will look for another party that can be sued instead of them.

…they’ll look for someone else to blame

Insurance companies are an easy target with deep pockets. Despite its hopeful talk quoted above, AIG would find it very difficult to avoid paying up if Californian courts found the firms it insured liable for their contributions to a climate-related wildfires or floods.

This is not a message coal-friendly governments in the US or Australia want to hear.

But the decision of Suncorp to dump coal, just a couple of months after the re-election of the Morrison government, makes it clear that businesses with a time horizon measured in decades cannot afford wishful thinking. They need to protect themselves against what they can see coming.




Read more:
Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?


The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.