The clock is ticking on net-zero, and Australia’s farmers must not get a free pass


Dan Peled/AAP

James Ha, Grattan InstitutePolitical momentum is growing in Australia to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. On Friday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was the latest member of the federal government to throw his weight behind the goal, and over the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged “the world is transitioning to a new energy economy”.

But for Australia to achieve net-zero across the economy, emissions from agriculture must fall dramatically. Agriculture contributed about 15% to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 – most of it from cattle and sheep. If herd numbers recover from the recent drought, the sector’s emissions are projected to rise.

Cutting agriculture emissions will not be easy. The difficulties have reportedly triggered concern in the Nationals’ about the cost of the transition for farmers, including calls for agriculture to be carved out of any net-zero target.

But as our new Grattan Institute report today makes clear, agriculture must not be granted this exemption. Instead, the federal government should do more to encourage farmers to adopt low-emissions technologies and practices – some of which can be deployed now.




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four people walk through dusty farm
The Morrison government must do more to help farmers get on the path to net-zero.
Alex Ellinghausen AAP/Fairfax Media pool

Three good reasons farmers must go net-zero

Many farmers want to be part of the climate solution – and must be – for three main reasons.

First, the agriculture sector is uniquely vulnerable to a changing climate. Already, changes in rainfall have cut profits across the sector by 23% compared to what could have been achieved in pre-2000 conditions. The effect is even worse for cropping farmers.

Livestock farmers face risks, too. If global warming reaches 3℃, livestock in northern Australia are expected to suffer heat stress almost daily.

Second, parts of the sector are highly exposed to international markets – for example, about three-quarters of Australia’s red meat is exported.

There are fears Australian producers may face a border tax in some markets if they don’t cut emissions.
The European Union, for instance, plans to introduce tariffs as early as 2023 on some products from countries without effective carbon pricing, though agriculture will not be included initially.

Third, the industry recognises action on climate change can often boost farm productivity, or help farmers secure resilient revenue streams. For example, trees provide shade for animals, while good soil management can preserve the land’s fertility. Both activities can store carbon and may generate carbon credits.

Carbon credits can be used to offset farm emissions, or sold to other emitters. In a net-zero future, farmers can maximise their carbon credit revenue by minimising their own emissions, leaving them more carbon credits to sell.

The agriculture sector itself is increasingly embracing the net-zero goal. The National Farmers Federation supports an economy-wide aspiration to be net-zero by 2050, with some conditions. The red meat and pork industries have gone further, committing to be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2025 respectively.




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hand presses soil
Good soil management aids a farm’s fertility.
Shutterstock

What can be done?

Australian agricultural activities emitted about 76 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions in 2019. Of this, about 48 million tonnes were methane belched by cattle and sheep, and a further 11 million came from their excrement.

The sector’s non-animal emissions largely came from burning diesel, the use of fertiliser, and the breakdown of leftover plant material from cropping.

Unlike in, say, the electricity sector, it’s not possible to completely eliminate agricultural emissions, and deep emissions cuts look difficult in the near term. That’s because methane produced in the stomachs of cattle and sheep represents more than 60% of agricultural emissions; these cannot be captured, or eliminated through renewable energy technology.

Supplements added to stock feed – which reduce the amount of methane the animal produces – are the most promising options to reduce agricultural emissions. These supplements include red algae and the chemical 3-nitrooxypropanol, both of which may cut methane by up to 90% if used consistently at the right dose.

But it’s difficult to distribute these feed supplements to Australian grazing cattle and sheep every day. At any given time, only about 4% of Australia’s cattle are in feedlots where their diet can be easily controlled.

Diesel use can be reduced by electrifying farm machinery, but electric models are not yet widely available or affordable for all purposes.

These challenges slow the realistic rate at which the sector can cut emissions. Yet there are things that can be done today.

Many manure emissions can be avoided through smarter management. For example, on intensive livestock farms, manure is often stored in ponds where it releases methane. This methane can be captured and burnt, emitting the weaker greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, instead.

And better targeted fertiliser use is a clear win-win – it would save farmers money and reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

sheep in lots
Supplements added to stock feed are a promising way to cut emissions.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Governments must walk and chew gum

An economy-wide carbon price would be the best way for Australia to reduce emissions in an economically efficient manner. But the political reality is that carbon pricing is out of reach, at least for now. So Australia should pursue sector-specific policies – including in agriculture.

Governments must walk and chew gum. That means introducing policies to support emissions-reducing actions that farmers can take today, while investing alongside the industry in potential high-impact solutions for the longer term.

Accelerating near-term action will require improving the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, to help more farmers generate Australian carbon credit units. It will also require more investment in outreach programs to give farmers the knowledge they need to reduce emissions.

Improving the long-term emissions outlook for the agriculture sector requires investment in high-impact research, development and deployment. Bringing down the cost of new technologies is possible with deployment at scale: all governments should consider what combination of subsidies, penalties and regulations will best drive this.

Agriculture must not become the missing piece in Australia’s net-zero puzzle. Without action today, the sector may become Australia’s largest source of emissions in coming decades. This would require hugely expensive carbon offsetting – paid for by taxpayers, consumers and farmers themselves.




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The Conversation


James Ha, Associate, Grattan Institute

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

The Nationals signing up to net-zero should be a no-brainer. Instead, they’re holding Australia to ransom


AAP

Matt McDonald, The University of QueenslandPrime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly developing a plan for Australia to adopt a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Climate change was a central focus of the Quad talks in Washington which Morrison attended in recent days, and he is under significant international pressure to adopt a net-zero target ahead of climate talks in Glasgow in November.

Morrison is very late to the party on issue of net-zero – and lagging far behind public opinion. A recent Lowy poll showed 78% of Australians support the target.

But standing firmly in Morrison’s way is the Coalition’s junior partner, the Nationals. The words of key Nationals figures including Resources Minister Keith Pitt and pro-coal senator Matt Canavan suggest net-zero is the hill they will die on. And Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, not exactly a climate warrior, has indicated he’s yet to be convinced on the merits of the target.

Ultimately though, this is just bad strategy from the Nationals. It burns valuable political capital for no good reason, and abrogates responsibility to their own constituents.

Not much of a target at all

First, a net-zero emissions target is a really obvious position of compromise for the Nationals specifically, and for a reluctant Australian government more generally.

Every state and territory in Australia has already adopted this target for 2050, or bettered it. And most of our international peers have a net-zero target including the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Germany, France and the United States.

Getting to net-zero by 2050 also doesn’t necessarily require immediate or significant emissions cuts. As critics including Greta Thunberg and former IPCC chair Bob Watson have argued, the targets can create the impression of action without requiring immediate change.

Research shows many jurisdictions with a net-zero target do not have robust measures in place to ensure they’re met, such as interim targets and a reporting mechanism.

And the timeframe for net-zero – whether 2050 like most nations, or 2060 as per China – is way beyond the political longevity of our current government MPs. That means those now in parliament will be spared much of the political pain of implementing policies required to meet the target.

Finally, pursuing net-zero emissions (rather than just zero-emissions in sectors where that is feasible) allows fossil fuel companies to offset their climate damage, by buying carbon credits, rather than stopping their polluting activity. It also potentially allows for fairly speculative efforts to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere via geoengineering.

For these reasons and more, the net-zero goal is in often criticised as a dangerous trap for doing very little on climate change – which appears to be the goal of many in the Nationals.




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Nationals MPs Matt Canavan and Keith Pitt.
Nationals MPs Matt Canavan and Keith Pitt are vocal opponents of any moves to net zero.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Adapting to change

In opposing the net-zero target, the Nationals often point to potential damage to the nation’s mining and farming sectors, primarily a loss of jobs and economic growth. Some Nationals have called for those sectors to be carved out of any net-zero target.

On the question of agriculture, research released by the Grattan Institute this week shows it’s getting increasingly hard to argue the sector should be exempt from the target – its emissions are simply too great.

And there is much that can be done right now to cut agriculture emissions, if the government does more to encourage farmers to adopt the right technologies and practices.

On mining, the Nationals are fighting a losing battle. Soon, the world will no longer want our coal. As others have noted, we must prepare for the change and diversify the economy, rather than lamenting what’s still left in the ground. And Australia can easily replace coal-fired electricity generation with renewable energy, backed by storage.




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Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Quad talks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is working on a net-zero by 2050 plan.
Evan Vucci/AP/AAP

For whom do the Nationals speak?

By refusing to compromise on a net-zero target, the Nationals are burning all sorts of political capital they could potentially wield with the Liberals on a range of issues. The Nationals would have held particular sway over Liberals concerned about holding on to their inner city seats in a 2022 election.

More importantly, the position of Keith Pitt, Matt Canavan and other intransigents in the Nationals isn’t just an abandonment of future generations. Nor is it only a rejection of our responsibilities to vulnerable people in all parts of Australia and the world, or our duty of care to other living beings.

It’s also a spectacular betrayal of their own constituencies. Rural Australia will be disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in the form of higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and increasing disasters like drought and bushfires. And the long-term economic costs of inaction for rural constituencies will be potentially catastrophic.

It’s for these reasons that organisations like the National Farmers Federation have specifically called for a commitment to net zero emissions.

In the 2019 election, the Nationals received just 4.5% of the vote in the lower house, with the Liberal Nationals of Queensland achieving just 8.7% (as a proportion of the national total). In both cases, it was less still in the Senate.

Yet despite speaking on behalf of a small fraction of the country, the party is holding Australian climate policy to ransom.

Maybe we can’t get the intransigents in the National Party to suddenly recognise their obligations to the planet and its inhabitants. But surely they can be convinced to represent the interests of rural voters? Time – what little we have left – will tell.




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The Conversation


Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

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

Climate change is testing the resilience of native plants to fire, from ash forests to gymea lilies


One year following the 2019/20 fires, this forest has been slow to recover.
Rachael Nolan, CC BY-NC-ND

Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University; Andrea Leigh, University of Technology Sydney; Mark Ooi, UNSW; Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong; Tim Curran, Lincoln University, New Zealand; Tom Fairman, The University of Melbourne, and Víctor Resco de Dios, Universitat de LleidaGreen shoots emerging from black tree trunks is an iconic image in the days following bushfires, thanks to the remarkable ability of many native plants to survive even the most intense flames.

But in recent years, the length, frequency and intensity of Australian bushfire seasons have increased, and will worsen further under climate change. Droughts and heatwaves are also projected to increase, and climate change may also affect the incidence of pest insect outbreaks, although this is difficult to predict.

How will our ecosystems cope with this combination of threats? In our recently published paper, we looked to answer this exact question — and the news isn’t good.

We found while many plants are really good at withstanding certain types of fire, the combination of drought, heatwaves and pest insects may push many fire-adapted plants to the brink in the future. The devastating Black Summer fires gave us a taste of this future.

Examples of fire-adapted plants: prolific flowering of pink flannel flowers (upper left), new foliage resprouting on geebung (upper right), seed release from a banksia cone (lower left), and an old man banksia seedling (lower right).
Rachael Nolan

What happens when fires become more frequent?

Ash forests are one of the most iconic in Australia, home to some of the tallest flowering plants on Earth. When severe fire occurs in these forests, the mature trees are killed and the forest regenerates entirely from the seed that falls from the dead canopy.

These regrowing trees, however, do not produce seed reliably until they’re 15 years old. This means if fire occurs again during this period, the trees will not regenerate, and the ash forest will collapse.

This would have serious consequences for the carbon stored in these trees, and the habitat these forests provide for animals.

Southeast Australia has experienced multiple fires since 2003, which means there’s a large area of regrowing ash forests across the landscape, especially in Victoria.

The Black Summer bushfires burned parts of these young forests, and nearly 10,000 football fields of ash forest was at risk of collapse. Thankfully, approximately half of this area was recovered through an artificial seeding program.

Ash to ashes: On the left, unburned ash forest in the Central Highlands of Victoria; on the right, ash forest which has been burned by a number of high severity bushfires in Alpine National Park. Without intervention, this area will no longer be dominated by ash and will transition to shrub or grassland.
T Fairman

What happens when fire seasons get longer?

Longer fire seasons means there’s a greater chance species will burn at a time of year that’s outside the historical norm. This can have devastating consequences for plant populations.

For example, out-of-season fires, such as in winter, can delay maturation of the Woronora beard-heath compared to summer fires, because of their seasonal requirements for releasing and germinating seeds. This means the species needs longer fire-free intervals when fires occur out of season.




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The iconic gymea lily, a post-fire flowering species, is another plant under similar threat. New research showed when fires occur outside summer, the gymea lily didn’t flower as much and changed its seed chemistry.

While this resprouting species might persist in the short term, consistent out-of-season fires could have long-term impacts by reducing its reproduction and, therefore, population size.

Out-of-season fires could have long-term impacts on gymea lilies.
Shutterstock

When drought and heatwaves get more severe

In the lead up to the Black Summer fires, eastern Australia experienced the hottest and driest year on record. The drought and associated heatwaves triggered widespread canopy die-off.

Extremes of drought and heat can directly kill plants. And this increase in dead vegetation may increase the intensity of fires.

Another problem is that by coping with drought and heat stress, plants may deplete their stored energy reserves, which are vital for resprouting new leaves following fire. Depletion of energy reserves may result in a phenomenon called “resprouting exhaustion syndrome”, where fire-adapted plants no longer have the reserves to regenerate new leaves after fire.

Therefore, fire can deliver the final blow to resprouting plants already suffering from drought and heat stress.

Drought stressed eucalypt forest in 2019.
Rachael Nolan

Drought and heatwaves could also be a big problem for seeds. Many species rely on fire-triggered seed germination to survive following fire, such as many species of wattles, banksias and some eucalypts.

But drought and heat stress may reduce the number of seeds that get released, because they limit flowering and seed development in the lead up to bushfires, or trigger plants to release seeds prematurely.

For example, in Australian fire-prone ecosystems, temperatures between 40℃ and 100℃ are required to break the dormancy of seeds stored in soil and trigger germination. But during heatwaves, soil temperatures can be high enough to break these temperature thresholds. This means seeds could be released before the fire, and they won’t be available to germinate after the fire hits.

Heatwaves can also reduce the quality of seeds by deforming their DNA. This could reduce the success of seed germination after fire.

Burnt banksia
Many native plants, such as banksia, rely on fire to germinate their seeds.
Shutterstock

What about insects? The growth of new foliage following fire or drought is tasty to insects. If pest insect outbreaks occur after fire, they may remove all the leaves of recovering plants. This additional stress may push plants over their limit, resulting in their death.

This phenomenon has more typically been obverved in eucalypts following drought, where repeated defoliation (leaf loss) by pest insects triggered dieback in recovering trees.

When threats pile up

We expect many vegetation communities will remain resilient in the short-term, including most eucalpyt species.

But even in these resilient forests, we expect to see some changes in the types of species present in certain areas and changes to the structure of vegetation (such as the size of trees).

Resprouting eucalypts, one year on following the 2019-2020 bushfires.
Rachael Nolan

As climate change progresses, many fire-prone ecosystems will be pushed beyond their historical limits. Our new research is only the beginning — how plants will respond is still highly uncertain, and more research is needed to untangle the interacting effects of fire, drought, heatwaves and pest insects.

We need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions before testing the limits of our ecosystems to recover from fire.




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The Conversation


Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University; Andrea Leigh, Associate Professor, Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney; Mark Ooi, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW; Ross Bradstock, Emeritus professor, University of Wollongong; Tim Curran, Associate Professor of Ecology, Lincoln University, New Zealand; Tom Fairman, Future Fire Risk Analyst, The University of Melbourne, and Víctor Resco de Dios, Profesor de Incendios y Cambio Global en PVCF-Agrotecnio, Universitat de Lleida

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