The Zero Carbon Australia Land Use report (2014) outlines research showing how greenhouse gas emissions from land use – agriculture and forestry – can be reduced to zero net emissions within 10 years.
This result is within Australia’s capacity in spite of the finding that our agriculture and land use sector is the biggest emitting sector in Australia.
This finding is partly explained by the fact that a number of agricultural industries are among the most emissions intensive activities in the Australian economy.
Australian beef production, for example, is surprisingly even more emissions intensive than the production of Australian aluminium and steel¹
However, the underlying explanation for why the BZE tally puts agriculture at the front and centre as a key driver of the rate of near term climate change – and at odds with Australia’s ‘national inventory report’ – is that many agricultural GHGs are either simply excluded from the inventory, and/or are, like methane, shorter-lived and more potent than the benchmark GHG, carbon dioxide.
This results in many agricultural GHGs having a bigger warming impact than the usual 100-year carbon accounting system implies. Using a decadal, 20-year carbon accounting system that factors this potency in reveals that agriculture is in fact a bigger GHG emitting sector than all of Australia’s energy consuming sectors put together.
Emissions from agriculture are even more significant when the impact of activities is calculated over 20 years instead of the more common 100-year accounting approach. When considered from this perspective, agricultural emissions could account for as much as 54% of Australia’s total emissions. (Executive Summary)
However, the land use sector is also the only sector of the Australian economy at present that can draw large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, by sequestering it in growing plants and healthy soil.
And with Australian agriculture currently the largest producer of shorter term GHGs – via savannah burning, land clearing and re-clearing, and enteric fermentation in ruminant livestock – this also means that the land use sector, and livestock producers in particular, are in a unique – and critical – position.
Farmers, pastoral corporations, crown lease holders, state and territory regulators and all farming communities are in a position to address both:
- The source of the most potent agricultural emissions, and also;
- The immediate as well as long term health of plants and soils, so that the longer-lived GHG carbon dioxide can be ‘drawn-down’ out of the atmosphere over the centuries to come, and so that resilience in the land use sector is increased rather than worn away.
This means that Australia’s land use sector as a whole is singularly well-placed to undergo a transformation into a sector that, as a whole, could effectively ‘buy some time’ and be integral to measurably reducing climate impacts from global warming.
Australia can eliminate net greenhouse emissions from land use: agriculture & forestry, giving rural communities economic opportunities & increased resilience to climate change. (Executive Summary)
The land use sector in Australia could accomplish both sufficient mitigation and sufficient sequestration to be net zero within 10 years
It can do this in various ways including stopping deforestation and replacing grazing with revegetation – aka carbon farming – in some areas.
The key findings of the study are:
- The size and type of this sector’s emissions means that the land use sector could take a critical and leading role in stalling and reversing climate change;
- Australia could drastically and genuinely reduce its net agricultural emissions to around zero by changes to some agricultural activities and limited revegetation;
- Revegetation of on average 13% of Australia’s cleared land can draw down sufficient carbon to balance ongoing emissions from land use over the 100 year accounting period – to attain balance over the next 20 years the average revegetation rate required would be 28%;
- The eucalyptus tall open forests of south-east Australia would sequester 7,500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes if allowed to recover from clear-fell logging.
Climate change threatens rural communities
“The adverse impacts of a changing climate are going to have serious effects in agriculture and water sectors. This would have an impact on food security, nutrition, and rural livelihoods.”
William Sutton: World Bank Lead Economist: 2013, page 13 Zero Carbon Australia: Land Use: Agriculture and Forestry Discussion Paper
The land use sector in Australia is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Recent climate projections show that by 2100 global temperatures may increase by 4 to 5 degrees C. The climatic changes in the years ahead will have a dramatic impact on our ability to maintain agricultural productivity and the viability of rural communities.
- Increasing temperatures cause higher evaporation, soil degradation, higher irrigation demand and lower crop yields
- Lower rainfall causes water scarcity: a 10% reduction in rainfall can cause 30% lower stream flows.
- Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and cyclones can slash crop yields
Many farmers are already experiencing challenges in running their farms. Extreme weather events are becoming both more frequent and more intense, resulting in more regular and severe droughts, bushfires and floods.
Steps towards zero-carbon land use:
- Ceasing clearing land for agriculture
- Ceasing re-clearing land
- Reducing savannah burning
- Reducing emissions from beef cattle through changes to diet, breeding and herd management techniques to increase productivity
- Managing beef exports and herd sizes for their significant climate impacts, especially in the northern rangelands
- Reducing soil emissions
- Reducing manure emissions through better management of manure
- Revegetating 13% on average of cleared land for carbon sequestration, or 28% for attaining sufficient drawdown to effectively balance near-term warming. This is an opportunity to revitalise rural and regional areas and diversify income sources for farmers. It would be prioritised on steep land, degraded land, land suffering from salinity or unproductive land.
The Zero Carbon Australia Land Use report comprehensively assesses:
- land use practices in Australia as a source of greenhouse emissions,
- land use carbon accounting methodologies and baselines
- the potential of the land to draw down atmospheric CO2, and
- the impact of changes to land use patterns on local economies.
Graciela Metternicht, Professor and Director of The University of NSW Australia, Institute of Environmental Studies:
“The science and knowledge presented in this report contribute to ongoing national and global debate on how the management of land-based biomass production and consumption can be developed towards a higher degree of sustainability across different scales. The report deals with the highly contentious and complex environmental issue of how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and forestry land uses in Australia; through modelling and exploration of different alternative scenarios, it discusses plausible opportunities toward substantial emissions reductions in the agricultural sector. Undoubtedly many of the proposed interventions require transformational changes in policy and people’s behaviour for their successful implementation, including a concerted effort from farmers, rural and urban communities and government.”
- Video and Podcast: Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop Land Use Report co-author
Zero Carbon Australia: Land Use: Agriculture and Forestry Discussion Paper
First Edition: October 2014
Pages: 184 including appendices
Beyond Zero Emissions
Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia
Get a full copy of the Land Use Report
Launching the report
- Brisbane launch audio – download the podcast here (41.37 MB, Duration: 1:30:22)
The Land Use Agriculture and Forestry project has been led by researchers:
- Andrew Longmire,
- Dr Chris Taylor and
- Gerry Wedderburn-Bisshop.
Volunteers assisted with modelling agricultural emissions, landscape carbon sequestration potential and the value of agricultural production for the whole continent, using peer-reviewed methodologies.
The Land Use Report was a joint project with:
The project was made possible by the generous support of a private donor, and significant assistance from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.
Land Use Report Snapshot
The image of cows on the web front page and report cover
Copyright Jocelyn Smit and David Young