What will an ETS do for Australia’s environment?
Australia is a young country blessed with an abundance of natural resources. During the first hundred years of settlement we grew rich from agriculture, in particular from exporting wool to the homeland England. More recently Australia has developed a mining sector and some now refer to us as the quarry for Asia. But with global warming concerns, and the likely introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), the Australian economy will undergo radical change.
The Carbon Pollution Reduction Bill is intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. However, given that the big global polluters, including China and India, have no intention of signing up to such a scheme, it is also generally agreed that an Australian ETS will have no significant impact on global emissions or temperatures. Furthermore, there is nothing unique about the greenhouse gas intensive products currently exported from Australia. If we significantly add, for example, to the cost of producing milk and iron ore here, the same products can be sourced from other places including South America.
Australian livestock industries represent a significant percentage of agricultural emissions and will be impacted hardest by the introduction of an ETS. The wool industry is already in decline with numbers of sheep having declined from 170 odd million sheep in the industry’s heyday to something now closer to 20 million and reducing. Australia’s export dairy industry has also already undergone a major contraction and its further demise is unlikely to significantly impact except local regional economies in Victoria and perhaps Tasmania. However, very large tracts of Australia, perhaps 60 percent of our land area, currently support a growing beef industry and the end of this industry will change the ecology of our rangelands as well as impacting financially.
Ross Garnaut, a key advisor to the government on climate change, suggested in his final report on climate change that the end of the beef industry would be a good thing for the Australian environment and that a switch from beef cattle to kangaroo would have multiple environmental benefits additional to reducing emissions.
In moderate rainfall areas, landholders are more likely to plant trees, than harvest kangaroos, because of the financial incentives provided by the ETS through what is referred to as abatement. Where large tracts of cropping and grazing land have already been replaced by plantation forestry, for example in the Murrumbidgee Catchment, there have been significant changes in hydrology and ecology resulting in particular in reduced water runoff into rivers and streams. In drier areas there will not be the same opportunities to benefit financially from the ETS through tree plantings and the harvesting of native wildlife could be an option. But only if this plains country does not become more susceptible to native woody weeds intrusions. Woody weeds could be controlled though the reintroduction of fire – but again with implications for the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mining has arguably a less diffuse impact on the landscape than either agriculture or forestry, but it never-the-less impacts. There is currently a battle between farmers and miners on the Liverpool Plains of northern central NSW, as farmers worry about the impact of proposed new coal mines particularly on their local aquifers. These types of disputes may become a thing of the past with the introduction of the ETS because both industries are likely to full into decline as Australia is forced to develop an economy without exploiting its natural resources – a very new proposition for this once lucky country.
In conclusion, the introduction of an ETS will not significantly impact on global emissions of greenhouse gases but it is likely to place some key Australian primary industries, in particular livestock industries, at a significant competitive disadvantage resulting in their eventual demise. Extractive mining industries are also likely to be significantly impacted in the longer term. Indeed the interventionist ETS and associated government policies will inevitably result in a restructuring of the Australian economy away from our traditional dependence on natural resources as a key source of wealth generation.
So, while the introduction of the ETS will not significantly reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it may deliver a benefit to Australia’s natural environment via the closure of Australia’s beef and mining industries. Many will argue that this represents a potentially good outcome for our natural environment.
Jennifer Marohasy BSc PhD lives in the Blue Mountains. For over twenty years she worked for Australian agriculture industries, including wool, beef and sugar, and in 1991 was awarded the cattleman’s union research medal.