Australia’s Agriculture Sector Contributed 1.8% of Global Agricultural Emissions in 2021

Australia is a major agricultural producer and exporter. Agricultural production covers 55% of the nation’s landmass (427 million hectares in 2020) and accounts for 24% of water extractions (2,746 gigalitres in 2019-2020). In total 12% of Australia’s goods and services exports were agricultural related and the sector as a whole account for 2.5% of national employment. Agricultural production is currently growing, with an increase of 7% in gross value across the past 20 years. Around 70% of Australian agriculture is exported, fluctuating between $40 billion and $60 billion since 2001-02. Over 90% of rice and 80% of sugar crops are exported, as are 78% of beef, veal, mutton and lamb.

Figure 1: Proportion of Australian agricultural commodities

Given the significant impact of agriculture on the Australian biomass and economy, it is unsurprising that it is a high source of carbon emissions. Agriculture accounts for around 13% of Australia’s annual GHG (15% in 2019); of this, the beef and sheep industries in Australia constitute around 10%. According to Climate TRACE data, Australia’s agricultural emissions for 2021 were 5.72 billion tonnes of CO2e100 (calculated for a 100-year global warming potential time horizon). This figure is up 0.67% from 2015, with the majority of the increase resulting from enteric fermentation; methane emissions from the digestive system of livestock including cattle.

Figure 2: Climate TRACE trends for Australian agricultural emissions 2015-2021

This slight increase is supported by data provided by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, noting that agricultural emissions increased by 3.3% (2.5 Mt CO2-e) from June 2021 to June 2022, primarily due to the increase in livestock numbers and crop production as the country recovered from a prolonged drought. However, the Inventory states that agricultural emissions rose only from 19.7 Mt CO2-e in March 2015 to 19.9 Mt CO2-e in March 2022 (0.1% increase).

This discrepancy may be linked to the measurement of emissions resulting from fires. As the Climate TRACE data demonstrates, cropland fires are one area of emissions fluctuation. Emissions from this category refer to the combustion of agricultural residue and also includes wildfires. Australia has a troubled history with the measurement of emissions resulting from wildfires across forests and land clearing for agricultural purposes. While the Inventory states that ‘Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) emissions have fallen more than 10 Mt CO2-e between 2015 and 2021, the climate TRACE data shows a 55.15% increase over that time. Indeed, Australia has been identified as a hot spot for land clearing, much of which occurs to service the agricultural sector.

Land clearing is linked directly to enteric fermentation, and more generally to Australian total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Due to the high proportion of beef and sheep commodities, around half of agricultural sector emissions (42%) are methane, a far more potent and damaging greenhouse gas emission than carbon dioxide. Industry bodies across the sector recognize the need for sector-wide emission reductions, with Australian Port Limited pledging carbon neutrality by 2025 or better and the National Farmers’ Federation supporting an economy-wide net-zero aspirational target of 2050 (with conditions). However, while the Australian Red Meat Industry committed in 2017 to an aspirational target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, they also acknowledge the myriad ways in which beef production generates greenhouse gas emissions: through meat processing processes, loss of soil, burning to manage weeds, land clearing, and others. Reducing emissions across all these factors will require significant financial and community resources.

Figure 3: Emissions sources from agriculture. ‘Towards net zero: Practical policies to reduce agricultural emissions’. The Grattan Institute.

Climate TRACE data for 2021 demonstrates that enteric fermentation accounts for the most significant proportion of GHG agricultural emissions, followed by:

  • Other agricultural soil emissions (953.41 Mt CO2-e100)
  • Rice cultivation (981.44 Mt CO2-e100)
  • Synthetic fertilizer application (415.13 Mt CO2-e100)
  • Manure management (389.61 Mt CO2-e100)
  • Cropland fires (207.92 Mt CO2-e100)

While these other agricultural sectors constitute a far smaller proportion of overall agricultural GHG emissions, addressing them will require some fundamental changes to farming practices in Australia. Despite these challenges, the likelihood that meaningful efforts will be undertaken has increased over the last past few years. Catastrophic droughts, bushfires and floods have caused significant hardship to farmers, and increased community consensus that climate change action must be taken should the sector wish to grow and prosper. The Australian agricultural sector is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and consequently, new groups such as Farmers for Climate Action have formed. They are becoming increasingly vocal in their calls for governments and the community to support farmers to reduce emissions and better adapt to climate change’s impacts.

In addition, many organizations are suggesting changes in farming practices and new technological breakthroughs that could assist in reducing emissions. Changes in behaviours include changing the way manure is stored and treated, much of which is currently piled up in large settlement ponds. While still largely untested, technological options to reduce methane emissions include anti-methanogen vaccines and supplements. Should these be effective, their impact can be increased by farming behavioural changes such as breeding for low-methane stock, feeding legumes to grazing cattle, harvesting animals at a younger age and reducing stock numbers of emissions-intensive animals. Non-animal-related agricultural emissions can be reduced by transitioning away from fossil fuels to electrify the sector, using energy efficiency measures, and more efficiently targeting fertilizers alongside reducing fertilizer use through crop reduction. Finally, land clearing must remain at or below current levels. Wildfires remain an unknown hazard; the 2019-2020 bushfires released 940 million tonnes of emissions, almost double Australia’s reported 2019 emissions. Australia must ensure these forests can regrow rather than replace them with agriculture. This will be critical in the quest to achieve the dramatic reduction in agricultural emissions that is required for the sector to achieve its net zero goals.


This Post was submitted by Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver


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