Don't fall for doomsayers' 'hot air'

It’s a fact almost universally accepted that you should never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. These days, I think we can add climate change to that list, because it can raise the temperature of the room (pardon the pun) like few other topics.

That said, with the Glasgow climate conference just around the corner and a federal election looming, carbon politics is once again on the agenda.

Here at NSW Farmers we support the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, but we need to make sure agriculture doesn’t get left with all the hard work once again. Farmers have been the whipping boy of climate policy for too long while other sectors have largely skated by untouched. Agriculture feeds us all, and we need the impact on the sustainability and profitability of agriculture to be at the forefront of decision makers’ minds. 

The raw reality of carbon politics is that everyone wants a solution, but no-one wants to pay for it. In the past, governments of all persuasions have been able to use farming as a way of offsetting our national carbon footprint. For years now our farmers have done most of the work towards meeting our international obligations and have received little, if any, compensation for that work.

After Kyoto, there was a simplistic argument that you could save the planet by taking beef off the menu, but the science doesn’t stack up. Now it is true that cows fart and burp – anyone who’s been around cattle will attest to that – and they do release methane. This methane then stays in the air for around 10-12 years, at which point it turns into carbon dioxide, which farmers turn into grass and crops, which then fuels more cow farts. This is a very rough sketch of what we call the “carbon cycle”. 

A recent paper from the University of California titled “Methane, Cows, and Climate Change” points out that since methane only exists in the atmosphere for a relatively short time, it doesn’t accumulate in the same way carbon dioxide does. The author writes there is an a general “misinterpretation of methane’s role in warming the climate, while also ignoring possible solutions that could offset greenhouse gases from other sectors”.

Put simply, emissions from the backside of a cow may put you off your lunch, but they aren’t killing the planet. Animals have been releasing methane since dinosaur times, but we can light a match without fear of incinerating ourselves because that methane doesn’t accumulate. The methane that came out of a T-Rex eventually made its way into trees that over millions of years turned into coal deposits.

You see, agriculture, rainforests, and wetlands all produce methane, but in the greater context of the carbon cycle these are not the evils the climate activists assume them to be. In fact, agriculture uses carbon dioxide as a critical input, we use billions of tons of it to create food and fibre. Ruminants like sheep and cows are a critical part of sequestering carbon in the landscape, yet advocates with alternate agendas have systematically demonised their role. 

It is important we bring the conversation back to what’s really important, and that must include contextualising these biogenic emissions with the broader carbon cycle. Taking emissions out of context is no longer acceptable.

Biogenic emissions are cyclical, and they are very different to adding a new gas well, digging a new coal mine or putting a new truck on the road. Those things release greenhouse gases that were otherwise safely stored, and this is where we really need to focus any climate policies.

It is critically important that our leaders ensure these biogenic emissions are treated very differently to mining and heavy industry when they come up with carbon policies, especially with the upcoming Glasgow climate conference set to spark another round of heated debate.

If the politicians and bureaucrats buy in to simplistic arguments from a tweet or a sticker,  we will not only destroy farmers’ livelihoods and risk our food supply, but we’ll also miss the opportunity to tackle the real problem.

The carbon cycle is far too complex to give misinformed opinion and social media slogans the same weight as scientific and economic fact when forming policies around climate change.