Clearing the air on agriculture’s climate response

Richard Heath

The Australian agriculture sector is delivering more action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than every other sector of the economy apart from waste. You could be forgiven for being surprised by this fact given the focus on agriculture as one of the main contributors to climate change and the characterisation of agricultural communities as being resistant to climate action.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory (Table 1) shows that from 2000 to 2018 direct emissions from agriculture were reduced from 78 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent to 71 million tonnes. When agriculture’s contribution to the significant reduction in emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry is taken into account the contribution from the sector in overall emissions reduction is one of the main reasons the country can claim to be on track to meet its obligations under various international agreements.

What makes this reduction in emissions even more impressive is that during this time the value of Australian agriculture has almost doubled from $31 billion (1999/00) to $60 billion (2017/18).

The Australian Farm Institute convened a conference investigating climate change risks to agriculture in Brisbane in June. Conference participants heard from farmers who talked about the significant changes to practices and business plans they are making to become more climate resilient. For them, the climate threat is real and immediate, and they are quietly getting on with the job of making changes to both adapt to the impact and to mitigate the causes. Yet in spite of the evidence of agriculture’s reduction in emissions and the stories of farmers embracing the continued need for change, there is still a vocal sector of the community that places agriculture in the worst category of offenders when it comes to climate change contributors.

So how did this divide develop between those who believe that agriculture should be punished for inaction on climate change and those who look at the evidence of agriculture doing the heavy lifting when it comes to emissions reduction?

One logic-deprived argument used to justify accusations of the sector being resistant to climate action is that farmers are only interested in economic outcomes, not environmental outcomes. Good long-term economic outcomes can – and do – result from practices that also return an environmental dividend. Indeed, Australian agriculture has doubled in value from 2000 to 2018 while reducing emissions because as an industry it has moved en masse to more efficient, more environmentally sensitive and more profitable practices.

It is important for the community to recognise the proactive role that agriculture is playing in being part of the solution to climate change because the job is far from being done, and collaborative and cooperative action from multiple stakeholders is needed to accelerate the pace of change. Coordinated multi-stakeholder action requires common purpose and commitment – a task that is far more difficult to achieve if there is not a recognition of efforts made.

Farmers at the ‘Farming in a risky climate’ conference expressed no complacency around the actions taken so far. Forecasts of the continued and accelerating impact that climate change will have on agriculture in Australia are sobering. While farmers have been adapting to these impacts, there is concern that the incremental changes that have been made to this point will not be enough to deal with the pace of change in the future. Transformational change may be required, and for that change to occur there will need to be a much more collaborative discussion between the agriculture sector and the rest of the community.

Australian agriculture has been more than pulling its weight in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Recognition of this and acceptance of the sector as a trusted partner in delivering ongoing environmental benefits will make it more likely that policy is reasonable and rational. This recognition will also enable agriculture to continue, and indeed accelerate, development of the critical ecosystem services required to ensure a sustainable future for our natural capital.

Table 1: Australia’s emissions projections 2018.

Emissions by sector (Mt* CO2-e)

National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Projection

2000

2005

2018

2020

2030

Electricity

175

197

182

170

163

Direct combustion

75

82

100

107

107

Transport

74

82

102

105

111

Fugitives

40

39

55

55

62

Industrial processes and product use

27

32

34

34

33

Agriculture

78

76

71

71

78

Waste

16

14

13

11

9

Land use, land-use change and forestry

62

82

-22

-14

-1

Total

547 Mt

605 Mt

534 Mt

540 Mt

563 Mt

Source: Commonwealth of Australia (2018). * Mt = million tonnes