We need Australia's land to go beyond zero emissions | RenewEconomy

We need Australia’s land to go beyond zero emissions

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Beyond zero emissions – what was once seen as ‘radical’ has now become mainstream by respected international organisations.

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There were two important events in the climate calendar last year that were hidden by the announcements around the G20 by the US, China and India.

One was the recent shift from the UN Environment Program and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to talking not only of zero emissions, but of negative emissions – of going beyond zero emissions. This is an area Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), the University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales have been researching and providing pathways towards for some years. What was once seen as ‘radical’ has now become mainstream by respected international organisations.

So far, the research has highlighted solutions to reducing carbon pollution across various sectors (energy, buildings, transport), and mapped out ways in which these sectors can move to zero emissions, thus ensuring they and associated businesses remain relevant on a viable planet.

Last year, one piece of research demonstrated not only how to move to zero emissions, but how to move Australia’s economy beyond zero emissions – into the ‘negative emissions’ UNEP and UNFCCC have outlined as necessary to avoid the worst ravages of a changing climate.

There’s a gap in the Australian identity which has been formed out of a history of relying on the land for economic growth. In the changes to the natural landscape to make way for agriculture over the past 200 years, by rugged people conquering a ‘harsh’ landscape; by struggle and dust and livestock.

Most Australians have never been to ‘the bush’ or ‘the outback’. Many would probably prefer a jaunt in Asia. And this disconnect, between how we have seen ourselves and how we actually are, has meant we have kept romantic notions of rural Australia intact whilst never actually engaging with it, or perhaps even wanting to.

This disconnect could impact heavily on Australia’s role in reducing carbon pollution. Because it’s out here, amongst the trees and the paddocks, that the real work in addressing climate change must happen. It’s out here that the carbon pollution genie can be put back in the bottle. And out here is the only place that it can happen.

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Left unchecked, climate change will result in more droughts, floods and bushfires. Farmers in NSW and Queensland are yet again suffering though extended drought. Increasingly, sons and daughters do not want to take on the family farm. Rates of depression and suicide are high.

Left unchecked, the way we use land in Australia could be responsible for as much as half of all emissions in this country. This is a far call from the substantial attention placed on the energy and transport sectors in achieving emissions reductions.

Dealing with emissions reductions on the land is sensitive stuff. We need farmers, land management groups, Indigenous peoples and others with experience on the land to solve this issue. It requires social and economic transformation.

Whilst the ‘locavore’ movement has galvanised people to cut their ‘carbon miles’ by buying from local producers, it will take more than that if we want to keep agriculture viable in this country.

It will take a reduction in the amount of meat people eat regularly. Eating less red meat will have a huge impact. Reducing herd size by 20 per cent will equal a reduction of eleven million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution every year.

It will mean an end to land clearing, and an end to the reclearing of previously cleared land. Tree clearing has made eastern and south-western Australia hotter, and eastern Australia drier than would otherwise have occurred with global climate change. Rainfall has decreased due to tree clearing in Queensland, New South Wales and southwest Western Australia since the1950s, leading to more drought, and less resilience to climate change. These changes are not just necessary to slow climate change, they’re necessary if we are to maintain an agricultural industry in this country.

It will mean embracing new technologies and methods that keep topsoils intact; allowing native vegetation to grow alongside crops and livestock; changing the way we burn savannah landscapes in the northern regions of Australia.

We need to let go of the idea that Australia could become Asia’s foodbowl. It can’t. Not now, and definitely not in a future where our growing areas are constrained by a changed climate.

Leaving existing forests and woodlands to soak up carbon pollution rather than add to it will also play a key role. If left to recover from clearfell logging, the native forests of south east Australia can sequester as much as 7.5 billion tonnes, or ten years worth of carbon pollution.

Revegetation offers the opportunity to drought proof farms and provide alternative revenue streams for farmers.

This is a challenging issue, but one that must be addressed if we are go beyond zero.

Dr Stephen Bygrave is CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions and Adjunct Professor at UNSW.

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7 Comments
  1. properly managed livestock 6 years ago

    Too often people mistakenly use very simplistic linear thinking when dealing with what is actually a complex and cyclical issue. And a classic case with this is methane and ruminant animals – GHG’s are bad > methane is a GHG > cows emit methane > cows are bad.

    However what this completely misses is that in Nature’s grand scheme, ruminants (large grazing herbivores) are merely part of a cycle, and absolutely essential in seasonally dry grassland regions to allow the carbon trapped in otherwise lignifying grasses to be released back into the system. In their absence, this dry and senescent grass will be cycled the only other way Nature can, which is by fire.

    The question then becomes which of these 2 methods, ruminants or fire, is “better”?
    Data from Australia’s CSIRO, reveals that a grass fire is up to 3.6 times as GHG intensive as a ruminant for the same amount of plant material.
    Why don’t we stop burning savannah grasslands, and instead use properly managed livestock to heal the land, reduce GHG’s, and produce safe clean food and fibre.

    • Hrimnir Benediktsson 6 years ago

      Hooved meat animals such as cattle, sheep and goats are far too damaging for Australia’s semi-arid areas (most of the continent) and fragile and very old soils.
      The damage done by hooved meat animals has not yet been completely revealed but will eventually turn Australia into a dust bowl where trees and shrubs that are hundreds of years old will die off with no replacement stock to tie down the soil, since many of the younger replacement plants have been eaten by livestock.
      We need to be de-stocking Australia’s traditional sheep and cattle stations in semi-arid lands and doing our best to regenerate them before large-scale desertification of Australia destroys the land over the coming decades and up to the end of the century.

    • Hrimnir Benediktsson 6 years ago

      Hooved meat animals such as cattle, sheep and goats are far too damaging
      for Australia’s semi-arid areas (most of the continent) and fragile and
      very old soils.
      The damage done by hooved meat animals has not yet
      been completely revealed but will eventually turn Australia into a dust
      bowl where trees and shrubs that are hundreds of years old will die off
      with very little replacement stock to tie down the soil, since many of the
      younger replacement plants have been eaten and trampled by livestock.
      We need to
      be de-stocking Australia’s traditional sheep and cattle stations in
      semi-arid lands and doing our best to regenerate them before large-scale
      desertification of Australia destroys the land over the coming decades
      and up to the end of the century.

  2. Peter Thomson 6 years ago

    Stephen, are you aware of Allan Savory’s work on reversing desertification by stock grazing in South Africa?

    Here is his TED talk from 2013 on this subject:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change?language=en
    Also on YT if, like me, you find the TED site does not stream well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI

    Savory’s work suggests that reducing stock levels is not particularly effective, but changing herd management practices and actually increasing stock levels has a much greater benefit for both reducing desertification and GHG emissions. He calls this holistic grassland management, and it has been trialled at a number of locations around the world.

    Are these practices being trialled in anywhere in Australia?

    • Jan Veselý 6 years ago

      Actually, the Savory Institute is very active in Australia. This is an ideal example of GHG sequestration method which should get governmental support. All you need is just to re-educate farmers. And you will have win(climate)-win(farmers)-win(consumers)-win(government) scenario.

    • Hrimnir Benediktsson 6 years ago

      Criticism (of Allan Savory’s Holistic Management ideas)
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Savory

      An assessment of multiple research studies, published by the United
      States Department of Agriculture, concluded that “these results refute
      prior claims that animal trampling associated with high stocking rates
      or grazing pressures in rotational grazing systems enhance soil
      properties and promote hydrological function”.[27]
      Similarly, a survey article by Briske et al. (the same author) that
      examined rotational grazing systems found “few, if any, consistent
      benefits over continuous grazing.” [28] These confirm earlier research [29]
      that compared short duration grazing (SDG) and Savory Grazing Method
      (SGM) in southern Africa and found no evidence of range improvement, a
      slight economic improvement of a seven-unit intensive system with more
      animals but with individual weight loss. That study found no evidence
      for soil improvement, but instead that increased trampling had led to
      soil compaction.

      A coauthor of the USDA paper pointed out that Briske had examined
      rotational systems in general and not Savory’s holistic method with its
      many components, and contrasted the success reported by many ranchers
      practicing multi-paddock grazing with the general lack of evidence found
      by formal research.[30]
      In March 2013, the Savory Institute published a research portfolio with
      selected abstracts of papers, theses and reports supporting holistic
      management and responding to some of their critics.[31]

      The assertions made in Savory’s TED Talk have been reviewed and criticized by rangeland scientists.[32]
      In addition to claims about reversing desertification, Savory stated at
      the same time, “…people who understand far more about carbon than I do
      calculate that for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you
      here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store
      it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that
      on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take
      us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people.” Jason West and
      David Briske, writing on the climate science website RealClimate, set
      out figures for carbon storage and uptake by the world’s vegetation, and
      concluded that, “It is simply unreasonable to expect that any
      management strategy, even if implemented on all of the planet’s
      grasslands, would yield such a tremendous increase in carbon
      sequestration.”[33] Briske’s conclusions were disputed by engineer Seth Itzkan, a supporter of Savory, in a self-published paper.[34]

      Another recent review in the International Journal of Biodiversity
      also criticized Savory’s methods and assertions, finding little
      peer-review support for many of his more contentious assertions. The
      authors concluded that: “Ecologically, the application of HM principles
      of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils,
      water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing
      systems. Contrary to claims made that HM will reverse climate change,
      the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are
      vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to
      store the carbon emitted each year.”[6]

      Savory has been criticised by the writer George Monbiot who has looked into the claims made by Savory in a 2014 article in The Guardian. He concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support Savory’s claims.[7]

  3. Johl 6 years ago

    Any chance youcould put up a bigger image? That’s basically a thumbnail!

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