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Exempting cowburps & paying farmers not to provide them

Australia’s agricultural sector provides around 16% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The Rudd Government originally planned to exempt this sector from its CPRS until 2015 but to revisit the decision in 2013.  In a major cave-in Jelly-Back Rudd has brought this decision forward and permanently exempted this sector from the CPRS.  To realize greenhouse gas emission targets the rest of the community must now face close to 16% higher cutback requirements.  In addition farmers will be allowed to sell carbon credits to the rest of the community through such things as their use of bio-char.

This is a foolish policy switch but consistent with supporting the National Farmers Federation and the Liberal Party – in effect it provides a pure handout to farmers and leaves them lumbered only with the higher input prices that stem from CPRS price changes induced elsewhere.

Agriculture is difficult because it is difficult to measure emissions but methane is the second most important greenhouse gas – around 18% of global emissions.  Genetic engineering and the removal of microbes in ruminant animal stomachs are two possible ways of reducing methane emissions.  IPPC Head Rajendra Pachauri  has suggested cutting back on meat consumption as a lifestyle choice to reduce methane emissions.  Such a change would be fostered by a tax-induced charge on the consumption of ruminant animal meat.  Pachauri has been ridiculed for this suggestion but I cannot see that the argument is ridiculous if the habit is socially dysfunctional.  Just because we have grown into the habit of eating large amounts of red meat does not mean that this habit must be defended at all costs.

The main arguments produced by the Australian government are (a) That the policy will win support for the CPRS by getting the Liberals on side – the Nationals have rejected any compromise and (b) that agricultural products are an internationally-traded good.  On point (b) we export 65% of our beef production and produce 42% of the world’s wool.  My argument again is that all greenhouse charges should be directed at consumption of GGEs so that, on average, beef produces would get a 65% discount on any GGE tax.  The problem in these terms is difficult but not insurmountable.

Geoff Russell makes some good points over at BraveNewClimate – the role of our resident expert on all things, Tim Flannery, in promoting the interests of the cowboys is set out clearly – it’s the old ‘beef is natural’ line.  There are around 700 million tons of livestock on the planet compared to 330 million tons of humans so that modern livestock herds are anything but natural. Russell claims that, doing the accounting correctly, this livestock accounts for 51% of all emissions – most would see this figure as too high:

“What is the impact of 700 million tonnes of livestock? Apart from a displacement of wildlife, a new WorldWatch report put the total impact of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions at about 51% of our global total. Can the feeding, fodder growth, irrigation for the fodder growth, fertiliser, watering, transport, slaughter, refrigeration, cooking of 700 million tonnes of livestock really be half the global total of our greenhouse gas impact on the climate? I’d say the biomass estimates alone make this plausible. Certainly the livestock of the rich outconsume and out travel many of the world’s poor. While I think it’s too early to judge the robustness of the WorldWatch number, I expect it will eventually be judged reasonably close to the mark.”

6 comments to Exempting cowburps & paying farmers not to provide them

  • John Mashey

    I think there is a fair amount of land where in fact grass-fed grazing of livestock is a fairly usage pattern, and I’d hope any rules/taxes take that into account, i.e., not all beef is equal in impact.

    To be fair, rice paddies are big methane sources as well.

    However, given current emissions trajectories (and likely Oz temperature/rainfall changes) and Peak Oil status, I suspect this problem will eventually solve itself for Australia, albeit not pleasantly for the beef industry.

  • hc

    I think John we need to think generally about how we interact with the planet and the destructive fostering of vast ruminant populations is an issue. Yes all beef ois not the same but a generous steak carries significant external costs.

    Your claims about rice are correct.

  • John Mashey

    I need no convincing that there are many reasons for having less beef. NorCal diets tend to be be heavy on veggies+fruit, tofu, and {fish, chicken, turkey}, with occasional pork and beef. I might have a small steak once or twice a year, usually as part of an event menu, or rarely, if out for meal at one of the places that carries grass-fed beef from places like Niman Ranch, or Marin Sun Farms.

    I grew up on a farm that had been in the family 100 years. We had dairy cattle, not beef cattle. About 25% of our land was way more useful as pasture than anything else. Livestock are good natural manure-spreaders, or one can use the manure to reduce the inputs of fertilizer needed. [Consider the sustainability issues of modern fertilizer.] Around California, there are plenty of foothills areas whose topography, soils and rainfall are OK for grass for grazing, and really not much else. Of course, grass actually grows better if properly grazed. When we drive past feed-lots, I cringe.

    Even ignoring taste, beef varies wildly in its environmental impact and sustainability. Personally, I would think a lot of us would be healthier with much less, but higher-quality, more sustainable meat [which argues for more poultry, of course, but poultry don’t graze grasslands very well.] Of course, it would be nice if farmers that grow that can have business models that allow it. Sometimes, the only way for someone to stay in business is to graze cows.

    It would really be a good idea if economic and legal incentives worked to encourage that without perverse side-effects. For example, the US shifts in farm subsidy structures a few decades ago had some really bad, unexpected side-effects, such as a surge in the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup.

    In the US, in 1900, 40% of the population lived on farms, and now it’s ~2%, which means there are far less people around with firsthand farming/ranching experience. Given the urbanization level in Oz, I suspect you have the same issue.

    Example: A grad student colleague (at Penn State, which has always had a good ag school) was from New York City. His only wall decoration was a NYC subway map. He seemed to think food just appeared in grocery stores. He often drank chocolate milk, so one day, we took him up to the university pasture and showed him the dark cows, so he’d know where it came from. 🙂

    Anyway, I simply think that whacking beef as a uniform category seems counterproductive compared to arranging incentives to favor less impactful subcategories. I worry some that enough people are disconnected enough from farming that intuition about workable farming is not as good as it used to be.

  • derrida derider

    As I’ve said before, Rudd is thinking far more about making life impossible for Malcolm Turnbull than about what is in the national or global interest. He really is becoming dificult to distinguish from John Howard.

    It’s another reason I’m now definitely a Green voter, for all their economic ignorance.

  • Niko

    How bout we kill off all the pets and call it even.

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