Calls to rethink the role of methane

Philip Hopkins

CATTLE Australia (CA) has urged the federal government to rethink the role of methane in the beef industry in its decisions on how Australia will tackle climate change in the future.

CA, which is the peak council for the grassed beef sector, said a single focus on absolute emissions reduction under current carbon dioxide-equivalent accounting frameworks was detrimental for the beef industry.

“Emerging science changes the perception that livestock are large emitters and therefore must be accounted for differently in the future,” CA Chief Executive, Dr Chris Parker, said in the organisation’s submission to the federal government’s proposed Agriculture and Land Sectoral Plan, which aims to guide Australia’s 2050 net-zero ambition.

“Methane emissions from livestock are part of a biogenic cycle. They have a different impact on global temperature rise than emissions from fossil fuels, which persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years and are inherently linked with storage within soil and vegetation,” he said.

Dr Parker said the grass-fed beef industry would become climate neutral, having no additional impact on global temperature rises.

“The beef industry is an important part of the solution to global warming. Considering the cyclical short-lived nature of biogenic methane, emissions targets for the grass-fed cattle industry that strive to net zero should be avoided and alternative ‘better’ metrics,” he said.

“Future targets need to stimulate optimising positive impact on the climate, not detrimental to profitability and productivity to our sector.”

Beef and dairy are key parts of Gippsland’s $7 billion food and fibre sector, which in turn make up almost half of Gippsland’s $16 billion gross regional product.

Dr Parker pointed out that grass-fed producers were the custodians to almost 80 per cent of Australia’s agricultural land, which is more than 50 per cent of Australia’s total land mass.

“The Australian beef industry has made a leading contribution to combat further global warming and with the right support in coming years will achieve the state of climate neutral having no additional impact on global temperature rise,” he said.

An ABARES report last year found that even with the CO2e accounting methodology, Australia’s emissions intensities are below average for cattle compared to other major developed producers and export countries.

“Australia reduced agricultural emissions more than most other developed countries in the last 30 years,” he said

There was also demands from special interest groups and popular media to reduce meat consumption, especially from ruminants, to reduce global warming.

“Calls for consumers to reduce meat consumption to reduce their carbon footprint are simplistic, ideological and do not consider the societal, nutritional and environmental benefits of ruminant production is a sustainable food system.”

CA also emphasised the need for a serious review of Australian national parks and conservation areas in order to limit bushfire emissions and halt associated biodiversity loss.

“While emissions measurement and increasing regulation apply to agriculture, annual bushfire emissions are not accounted for … and are referred to as being part of ‘fast carbon cycles’ – biological processes include photosynthesis, plant respiration and decomposition,” he said.

“Over the past decade, Australia has emitted about 485 million tonnes of CO2 per annum …. which is a similar amount to Australia’s anthropogenic emissions.”

Dr Parker said CA also sought recognition and further research into the role that grass-fed livestock play in influencing annual fast cycle carbon emissions and/or sequestration. “Livestock play a critical part in protecting native flora and fauna across our vast forests and grasslands through biomass management and associated fuel reduction in the context of recent large bushfires, many of which have centred on national parks,” he said.

“CA urges government to work closely with the grass-fed cattle sector to generate better outcomes for our conservation areas, reducing emissions and protecting our biodiversity.”

Dr Parker also noted that native animals such as macropods – kangaroos, wallabies, tree-kangaroos, wallaroos and quokkas – may emit similar amounts of methane as cattle on a feed intake basis. This was important given plans to expand national parks.

“In many instances, the removal of domestic animals and their associated anthropogenic emissions footprint in line with greater areas set aside for conservation does not equate to a net emissions reduction,” he said.

Dr Parker extrapolated on the methane issue, where globally more scientists agreed that methane is a short-cycle greenhouse gas that is reabsorbed into the environment on a 12-year biogenic carbon cycle.

“It turns into carbon dioxide, a key ingredient …. that grass and trees absorb through photosynthesis to create energy and oxygen,” he said.

Livestock methane was seen more globally as part of the natural cycle and was not an accumulative, one-way street; it was part of the climate solution. At a global and national level, the method to measure the contribution of different GHGs to global warming was GWP100, “which uses an estimate of equivalency to carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis to account for the warming caused by short-lived GHGs”.

“GWP100 is widely acknowledged by scientists to have shortcomings in measuring the warming contribution of short-lived GHG emissions such as biogenic methane,” Dr Parker said, “There are a range of more suitable metrics for reporting on methane emissions identified as GWP, Radiative Forcing Footprint and several other more accurate metrics.”

Dr Parker said GWP100 overstates the effect of constant methane emissions on temperature by a factor of three-four, while understating the effect of any new methane emission source by a factor of four-five over the 20 years after the introduction of the new source.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions and keep warming below 1.5 degrees allowed metrics other than GWP100, such as GWP of Radiative Forcing Footprint.

Thus, CA said it would be legitimate and useful for countries to start the actual warming impact of their emission issuing a metric like GWP in their country reports to the IPCC. “Cattle Australia supports a target to be climate neutral by 2028, at which point emissions from the beef industry will have no additional impact on global temperature rise,” Dr Parker said.

CA emphasised that the government should report emissions from the red meat sector using GWP and GWP100 and other suitable metrics to better reflect the true impact of methane emissions on the climate and on Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts.

CA also emphasised other measures and barriers to make the beef sector more productive and sustainable. These included:

  • Greater ongoing and long-term research of carbon sequestration in soil, including better technology and methodologies to measure carbon in a landscape to 30cm, as well as monitoring that supports natural capital;
  • Baseline tools using CO2equivalency are a barrier to adoption, as producers don’t want to be told their supposed huge emissions problem will never be economically addressed;
  • Methane inhibiting technologies have no clear incentives due to high implementation costs with no productivity gains and unreliable market indicators for sustainability credentials;
  • Limited opportunities to renewable electricity opportunities on-farm, large-up front costs to do so;
  • Beef producers must receive the financial and technical support necessary for environmental stewardship, while remaining profitable and resilient;
  • The ongoing development and investment of the Net Zero CRC, a multi-stakeholders approach to transitioning Australian agriculture to net-zero, healthy, resilient and profitable food systems by 2040;
  • Establish a steering committee with key stakeholders like CA to analyse all the bodies nationally and internationally to generate one coordinated plan, and;
  • Prioritise an Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) methodologies that encourage adoption of feed supplements and other technology to reduce livestock emissions.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.