Livestock production soon to be climate neutral
[as published in the Stock Journal]
The Australian red meat and livestock industry continues to lead other industries in becoming more sustainable and being part of the climate solution. It continues to invest in technologies, strategies and partnerships in pursuit of being carbon neutral by 2030 (CN30). Since 2017, MLA has co-invested $140 million in CN30 with plans to invest a further $150 million before the decade is out. For several years now, our industry, particularly the cattle sector, has also explored different climate metrics to better understand the industry’s impact on the climate.
In March this year, MLA released a CSIRO commissioned report that identified and evaluated pathways for the Australian red meat industry to become climate neutral. Climate neutral refers to a status whereby the radiative forcing (RF) footprint is stabilised. In simple terms, this means there is no net contribution to future warming.
Understanding and articulating how different climate metrics account for livestock emissions is important because greenhouse gases (GHG) behave differently. Methane is a flow gas that breaks down in the atmosphere within about 10-12 years. In comparison, CO2 can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. Livestock methane is part of the biogenic cycle, meaning it is a recycling of atmospheric carbon, while fossil fuel methane is new emissions to the atmosphere.
The standard global emissions reporting metric, GWP100 measures emissions in CO2 equivalents. GWP100 overestimates the impact of biogenic methane on the climate. It is unsuitable for livestock emissions as it does not show the actual impact of our emissions. For example, methane that was emitted 100 years ago is now long gone, but CO2 emissions that were emitted at that time are still persistent in the atmosphere.
Other climate metrics, such as GWP star (GWP*) and the RF footprint, better account for the short-lived nature of biogenic methane and its effect on the climate. GWP* looks at whether methane emissions are increasing or decreasing over time, while the RF footprint acts like a balance sheet to see whether the industry is increasing or decreasing its overall climate impact.
To stabilise the climate, GHGs with long atmospheric lifetimes like CO2 need to reach net zero. However, for a GHG with a short atmospheric lifetime, such as methane, a modestly declining emissions trajectory is consistent with climate stabilisation.
The March 2023 CSIRO report concluded that the Australian beef industry is likely to reach climate neutrality by 2026. This complements previous CSIRO research from 2021, which found the Australian sheep industry was already climate neutral.
The Paris Agreement is about stabilising the climate. In a few years, our industry will be able to scientifically claim that cattle and sheep production have achieved that goal and are no longer having an impact on future climate change.
This significant climate stabilisation milestone demonstrates that the industry is doing all the right things and is on the right path. Industry discussions are currently underway about how best to promote these achievements, while continuing to evaluate progress and strategies of more ambitious goals. At the very least, this stepping stone milestone should see an end to the uneducated, yet somewhat effective, comments that are often levelled at our industry like having a “guilt free steak”.
By Travis Tobin