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Should agriculture be included in emissions reduction targets?

Neither Australia nor New Zealand include agricultural emissions in greenhouse gas reduction targets, making them global outliers.

Under the Paris Agreement, 196 countries have pledged to reduce their emissions toward a goal of net-zero by 2050. One hundred and nineteen of these countries include emissions from agriculture, but Australia and New Zealand are not among them.

What are agricultural emissions?

Emissions from agriculture are methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from nitrogen in soils and some carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in machinery and soil treatments.

What is Australia’s position?

Australia has been a laggard in committing to emissions reduction, stopping short of setting a net-zero target. The National Farmers Federation supports a net zero target. Agriculture was responsible for 13% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the year to December 2019. Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Michael McCormack says agriculture should be excluded from any net zero emissions target. 

How about New Zealand?

New Zealand has committed to a net-zero by 2050 target and has enshrined this in law, the Zero Carbon Act 2019. Methane from agriculture and waste (over 40% of emissions) is exempt, although it has a separate target of 24-47% reduction below 2017 levels by 2050. New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme (ETS) and despite agriculture being the largest emitter, agricultural emissions are exempt until 2025.

How do we rate on emissions reduction?

Climate Action Tracker (CAT) rates Australia’s Paris Agreement targets as ‘insufficient’ and New Zealand’s 2030 target as ‘insufficient’ to holding global warming below 20C.

Should agricultural emissions be included in the net-zero target?

For Australia, Rachelle Meyer, a farming systems academic from the University of Melbourne, says excluding agriculture is “misguided and dangerous” because it places more pressure on other sectors to reduce their emissions and places greater risk on farmers and the broader economy from climate change damage. It also compromises the achievement of the net-zero by 2050 target. The National Party of Australia says it does not want to hurt regional Australia by forcing farmers to reduce emissions.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned farmers they have until 2025 to reduce their carbon emissions before the government introduces financial penalties, and they could face taxes under the ETS as early as 2022.

What are the options?

While the agricultural sector has made progress with emissions reduction, the technology is not as advanced as other sectors and it is a significant challenge. Using forestry to utilise and store carbon in ‘carbon sinks’ to offset agriculture emissions can be effective, but large reductions in land clearing is also required. Australia’s land clearing rates are among the fastest in the developed world, and Queensland is the highest land clearing state. Agricultural grazing is the reason for most of the clearing.

Where does the sugar industry fit in?

The Australian sugar mills are not a significant carbon emitter, accounting for 0.05% of Australia’s total emissions. They burn mostly sugarcane waste (bagasse) for energy, which is low-carbon fuel rather than high-carbon fossil fuels. They produce as much energy as they use. The biggest emissions issue for sugar cane growing generally is pre-harvest burning, however most Australian cane is harvested green without burning and this has other agronomic advantages as well as being better for the environment.

What about dietary change?

Research is still emerging about how population dietary changes can contribute to more sustainable food systems. Eating according to the Dietary Guidelines - including reducing discretionary food intake - is a good start. As is avoiding food waste which squanders all the inputs required and agricultural and other supply chain emissions created to during its production.


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