Act now to cut farming emissions by 2050: new Grattan report

Farmers should not be exempt from any Australian target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and governments should act now to curb agricultural emissions, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Towards net zero: Practical policies to reduce agricultural emissions shows that the agriculture sector was responsible for 15 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, emitting 76.5 million tonnes.

Cattle and sheep account for 75 per cent of emissions in the sector. Assuming herd numbers recover from recent years of drought, emissions are projected to rise, reaching 82 million tonnes by 2030.

Including agriculture in any net-zero target is necessary if Australia is to reach net zero across the economy, and will reduce the risk of Australian exporters being subjected to future carbon tariffs from other nations.

Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to climate change: changes in rainfall patterns over the past 20 years have cut profits across the sector by 23 per cent. It is also one of the most difficult sectors in which to cut emissions.

But there are things that can and should be done now.

The Federal Government should do more to encourage farmers to deploy low-emissions technologies and practices.

The Government should spend more on programs that provide practical advice to farmers on how to reduce emissions and secure resilient income streams.

It should also boost support for research and development of methods that might enable livestock producers to thrive in a net-zero future.

Even with this support, agriculture is still likely to be a major source of emissions in 2050. These will have to be offset by removing carbon from the atmosphere and permanently storing it, either in trees, soils, minerals, or underground.

This offsetting will have to be paid for by taxpayers, consumers, or farmers.

But the report finds that overall, Australian farmers stand to benefit considerably from actions that reduce emissions and limit climate change.

Smarter land management can boost farm productivity and store carbon, creating carbon credits that will be in-demand as the economy approaches net zero.

The more that farmers can reduce emissions, the fewer credits they will need to offset their own emissions, and the more they can sell to others – diversifying their revenue streams.

Curbing emissions today is the key to maximising this economic opportunity.

This is the third in a series of five reports Grattan is publishing in the lead-up to the international climate conference in Glasgow in November, showing how Australia can build momentum towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

The first two reports, on transport and industrial emissions, can be read online. The final two reports, on offsetting carbon emissions and on electricity, will be published in coming weeks.

‘Net zero by 2050 is a tough target and the climate clock is ticking. An economy-wide carbon price would be the best policy, but we can’t wait around for that,’ says the series lead author, Grattan Institute’s Energy and Climate Change Program Director Tony Wood.

‘Our series identifies sector-specific policies Australia should implement to set us on the path to net zero.’

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