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August 08th 2009 print

Viv Forbes

ETS Forum – Agriculture is a carbon zero sum game

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (the Australian ETS) cannot have any beneficial effects on climate, but it and its associated policies will certainly increase farm costs, decrease farm employment and reduce food production.


Emissions trading and agriculture


              “Only a foolish horse fights with his feed bag
                                                               Genghis Khan                                 

Most of human history has been a struggle for food and energy.

The abundance of food in the western world during the last century or so is not the normal human condition. Snow and ice, drought and famine have been regular and persistent visitors to mankind.

We are lucky to live in a time of recent natural global warming. Warmth increases plant growth rate, lengthens the growing season, expands plant habitat and makes more land arable. As the oceans warm, they expel some of their vast reserves of carbon dioxide, the essential atmospheric plant food. Warm oceans also produce more evaporation, and thus more precipitation for adjacent land masses. Man’s recent production of carbon dioxide from burning coal and oil and calcining limestone has also helped to unlock buried carbon and restore valuable carbon dioxide (CO2) to the biosphere.

Warmth, water and more abundant carbon dioxide  were the main causes of the Green Revolution of the 20th century, which has enabled farmers to feed the growing millions on earth.

All these beneficial developments are threatened by two things – the distinct possibility of a return to natural global cooling, and silly government policies all over the western world that will slash food production.

If an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is introduced in Australia, it is inevitable that Agriculture will be sucked into it, some operations immediately, others later. Most Australian farmers understand these threats and are becoming increasingly hostile to all ETS proposals. 

Australian farmers produce a copious harvest of wool, cereals, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy products, eggs, sugar, cotton, fruit, vegetables and nuts.

Not one of these products can be put on the market without producing so-called greenhouse gases (GHG) such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane. Water and carbon dioxide are produced by every truck, tractor, dozer, road train, helicopter, plane, ute, car, quad bike, diesel engine, generator, pump and chain saw used by farmers, and their electricity is largely produced by burning coal, gas or diesel, all of which produce water and carbon dioxide as well . Farm animals (and all the people who look after them) emit various quantities of GHG from both ends.

There is no technology on the horizon to replace any of these farming activities with ones that do not produce GHG (even if that was a good idea).

The aim of carbon dioxide taxation  is to forcibly reduce Australia’s production of GHG, and to levy a tax on all GHG produced. This will be achieved by requiring all but specially favoured businesses to buy increasingly rationed emission permits.

The ETS will also increase farm input costs for electricity, transport, steel, cement, fuel, fertiliser, building materials and stock feed. And unlike the GST, there is no refund of carbon taxes paid on input costs.

Therefore the ultimate effect of carbon dioxide taxation  on agriculture must be to reduce our production of essential food and fibre, and to increase the costs on those activities that remain. This means less production of food, reduced export income, fewer agricultural jobs and higher prices for every item of food.

Much ado is made of the fact that ruminant animals produce methane, another common natural gas, as well as CO2. Where is the surprise? ALL animals, including humans, emit GHG. So do forests, bacteria, swamps and rotting organic matter – methane is the harmless “Will o’ the Wisp”, or swamp gas. It seeps from the Black Sea and exists in prodigious quantities in ocean sediments. In energy generation, it is the “clean green natural gas”, but in cows it is the “deadly greenhouse gas”. Let’s have some consistent logic here.

And where does the carbon in all animal emissions come from? Cows cannot manufacture carbon from nothing, nor do they run on diesel fuel – every carbon atom emitted from either end of the cow must have come from what she ate – mainly grasses, grains and legumes.

Where do the plants get their carbon from? It comes from the dreaded carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or from the humus in the soil. Humus comes from decaying organic matter which got its carbon from the atmosphere. 

So every atom of carbon in methane emitted by farm animals came originally from the atmosphere. It goes back to the atmosphere, oxidises to carbon dioxide, is absorbed by plants and moves once more around the cycle of life.

Taken over their life cycle, farm animals do not add one atom of GHG to the atmosphere. The cycle of life is a closed circle, and if emissions are taxed, then extractions must be credited. Cows and sheep are the same as forests – they extract carbon from the atmosphere, store increasing quantities in their growing bodies, and return it to the earth if they are buried, or to the atmosphere if their bodies are left to decompose. All effort spent measuring, taxing or researching animal emissions is a negative benefits game.

Agriculture, forestry, soils and animals are all zero carbon sum games. They should all be totally exempt from the silly Emissions Trading Game. Including them will achieve NOTHING except food shortages, fraudulent accounting games, profits for speculators, jobs for regulators and high food costs – a pointless game played at great cost to farmers and all who rely on them. 

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (the Australian ETS) cannot have any beneficial effects on climate, but it and its associated policies will certainly increase farm costs, decrease farm employment and reduce food production.

Farmers will be satisfied with just three amendments to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme: “Reject, Reject, Reject”. 

A longer edition of this article is available here


Viv Forbes, BScApp, grazier, soil scientist and mineral economist, Rosevale, Qld