Climate Council’s head in the sand

Climate Council of Australia is a high-profile climate change campaign organisation, whose “Chief Councillor” is former Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery. (It could be argued the Council has more than enough chiefs, with others occupying the roles of Chair and CEO.) Although he has written books on climate change, Flannery’s main areas of academic research have been zoology and palaeontology.

The Climate Council was created after the former Climate Commission, an independent body created by the federal Labor government in 2011, was disbanded two years later by the newly elected conservative Liberal/National coalition government. [1] Flannery had been Chief Commissioner.

The Council has issued ninety-five reports, with an unfortunate feature of some being what they’ve omitted rather than what they’ve included.

Two examples have dealt with the related issues of land clearing in Queensland and land carbon in vegetation and soils.

Land clearing in Queensland

The report Land clearing & climate change: Risks and opportunities in the sunshine state was issued in 2018. [2]

In addition to highlighting the extent of clearing, the main points of the report were: (a) government policies affect the rate of land clearing; (b) land clearing contributes to climate change; and (c) key aims of land use policy should be to avoid clearing, allow regrowth and encourage replanting.

The only risk referred to (despite the use of the plural “risks” in the title) was the supposed “risk of reversal”. The authors argued that we must not rely on land carbon to offset fossil fuel emissions, as sequestered carbon could be released back to the atmosphere by land clearing or natural disturbances, thereby reversing the initial sequestration.

There is no doubt that we must address the issue of fossil fuels, but that does not diminish the need to include land use in our efforts to overcome climate change. Indeed, we will not succeed without it. (More on that point below.)

The only opportunities referred to were those involved in strengthening a bill currently before the Queensland parliament, which proposes amendments to Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act 1999.

Queensland has been the most destructive Australian state in terms of native vegetation for decades. The Queensland government’s own Statewide Landcover and Trees Study has shown that, since records began in 1988, creation of pasture has been responsible for 91 per cent of clearing. In the most recent reporting period, the figure was 93 per cent. [3]

Despite those alarming figures, in its report dealing solely with land clearing in Queensland, the Climate Council said nothing about livestock-related clearing.

Indeed, almost laughingly (if it were not so serious) the report compared “land use sector” emissions with those of the “agriculture sector”.

Here we have an organisation whose reason for existence is to “provide independent, authoritative climate change information to the Australian public” willingly accepting the dangerous deception of “internationally agreed definitions and methodologies for carbon accounting”, without considering the reality that land clearing for livestock grazing is an agricultural sector activity.

It is those “internationally agreed definitions and methodologies” that have assisted policy makers to effectively ignore the livestock sector’s overall contribution to the climate crisis, willingly playing into the hands of their industry supporters.

The issue has been raised by this writer with Flannery and his fellow commissioners Amanda McKenzie (CEO) and Will Steffen, but they have chosen to ignore it.

Land Carbon

In its 2016 report, Land Carbon: No substitute for action on fossil fuels, the Council downplayed the influence of land carbon on climate change and its importance in respect of efforts to overcome it. [4]

Its main argument was that carbon sequestration on land should not be considered a valid offset for fossil fuel emissions, as it may be seen to excuse such emissions.

Key concerns were the risk of reversal (referred to earlier) and scale, as they argue that the extent of sequestration would be dwarfed by fossil fuel emissions. (p. 39)

However, in a landmark 2008 paper, Dr James Hansen and his fellow authors argued that sequestration of carbon in land sinks was an essential component of returning atmospheric carbon concentrations to 350 parts per million (ppm). [5] Hansen had been prompted to establish a target by climate change campaigner and author, Bill McKibben, who adopted the figure as the name of the organisation he co-founded, 350.org.

Hansen’s supplementary material indicated a maximum sequestration potential of 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon per year through action in relation to forests and soils, which represents a rate of sequestration nearly fifty per cent higher than that relied upon by the Climate Council. Current carbon emissions from fossil fuels are around 10 gigatonnes per year. Converting the figures to carbon dioxide results in figures of 5.9 and 36.7 gigatonnes respectively. [6]

Despite the differences in estimates, even the Climate Council states (with my underlines), that we must “return back to the land as much as possible of the atmospheric carbon that originated from the land”. (p. 15) Yet it effectively ignores key measures required to do so, including the critical measure of a general transition away from animal agriculture.

An example of the Climate Council appearing to ignore the issue is its view that cattle grazing represents an ongoing limitation to the amount of land that can be used for carbon sequestration. (pp. 29-30) That is a similar approach to that of climate change author, Philip Sutton, who referred to the need for reforestation in a September 2015 seminar, while expressing concern over perceived difficulties of such a requirement  in relation to food production. Both ignore the fact that far less land would be required for food production if we were not relying on animals as a nutrient source.

The Climate Council has mentioned “strategic grazing management” favourably, even though that measure represents little more than tweaking around the edges of the problem. Using similar terms, including “rotational”, “mob”, “regenerative”, “cell”, “adaptive” and “management-intensive rotational” grazing, researchers at the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford argued in 2017 that the “extremely ambitious claims” made by proponents of such approaches are “dangerously misleading”. [7]

When citing deforestation as the main reason for loss of carbon from human land use, the Climate Council failed to refer to the overwhelmingly dominant cause of that deforestation, which has been meat production. (p. 16) [Footnote 1]

When mentioning agriculture in the caption to a related image, there was no reference to the animal variety.

It also acknowledged the importance of protecting carbon stored in coastal ecosystems (including mangroves and coastal wetlands), but did not link such a measure to the impact of fishing and therefore diet. (p. 27)

Although the Climate Council is willing to use alternatives to standard methods of reporting in relation to fossil fuels (by including exported fossil fuel emissions in Australia’s figures), it has retained conservative standard reporting methodologies in relation to land use emissions. (p. 20).

Given the massive extent of livestock production across the Australian land mass, the extent of land clearing should be no surprise. In the sixth largest country on the planet, livestock grazing covers 54 per cent of the land area, as demonstrated by Figure 1. [8]

Figure 1: Australian Land Use

Much of the land that is grazed has not been cleared, but the grazing has had other destructive impacts, including: the introduction of invasive pasture grasses; manipulation of fire regimes; degradation of land and natural water sources; and (particularly relevant to climate change) loss of soil carbon. The introduced species are destroying fragile landscapes that have not evolved to cope with them.

The Great Barrier Reef

Another issue in which the Climate Council has ignored livestock production’s impacts has been coral loss on the Great Barrier Reef.

Here is how it highlighted its recent reef-related activities in its 2016-17 annual report:

“Over the past year, we’ve had a particular focus on the unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching taking place on the Great Barrier Reef. Our work has included a series of reports, original video content, a newspaper advertisement, two journalist trips and engaging with local tourism operators.”

Despite all that activity, it appears to have published nothing that highlights the horrendous impact of animal agriculture. Cattle grazing has been the main source of sediment and phosphorus in the reef’s waters, and a major contributor to nitrogen loads. A key result has been major outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish, which had had a far greater impact than coral bleaching until at least 2012 and possibly overall. [9]

A token article on animal agriculture’s impact

Less than two months after this author posted an online presentation highlighting links between environmental organisations and the livestock sector, the Climate Council (which had been included in the presentation) posted a short article on the impacts of animal agriculture. [10, 11] [Footnote 2] The article appeared more than five years after the councilors came together in the council’s predecessor organisation, the Climate Commission. The adverse impacts it referred to were conservative, and the council still couldn’t help itself; it concluded with comments not on the livestock sector, but on power generation.

Conclusion

If we are facing a climate crisis requiring emergency action, why are critical measures seemingly off-limits for the Climate Council?

It appears to have fallen well short of its claim to have been “changing the narrative and ensuring Australians are equipped with the best information on climate change and solutions”. [12]

Author

Paul Mahony

Footnotes

  1. At that point in the paper, the Climate Council went from items (i) – (iii) to items (i) and (ii) with no commentary between them. This appears to have been a typographical error.
  2. The presentation was not suggesting that anyone had been influenced by the links or that anyone was trying to influence others; it simply noted that the links exist.

References

[1] Arup, Tom, “Abbott shuts down Climate Commission”, Sydney Morning Herald, 19th September 2013, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/abbott-shuts-down-climate-commission-20130919-2u185.html

[2] Steffen, W., Dean, A., Climate Council of Australia, “Land clearing & climate change: Risks and opportunities in the sunshine state” , 23rd April 2018, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/qld-land-clearing-report/

[3] Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation. 2016. Land cover change in Queensland 2015-16: a Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) report. DSITI, Brisbane, https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/land/vegetation/mapping/slats

[4] Steffen, W., Fenwick, J., Rice, M., Climate Council of Australia, “Land Carbon: No substitute for action on fossil fuels”, 29th September 2016, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/land-carbon-report/

[5] Hansen, J; Sato, M; Kharecha, P; Beerling, D; Berner, R; Masson-Delmotte, V; Pagani, M; Raymo, M; Royer, D.L.; and Zachos, J.C. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, 2008, Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, Supplementary Material, p. xvi, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217, https://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abs/ha00410c.html

[6] IPCC Working Group III: Mitigation, IV Units, Conversion Factors, and GDP Deflators, http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg3/index.php?idp=477

[7] Garnett, T., Godde, C., Muller, A., Röös, E., Smith, P., de Boer, I., zu Ermgassen, E., Herrero, M., van Middelaar, C., Schader, C., van Zanten, H. (2017), “Grazed and Confused?”, Food Climate Research Network, http://www.fcrn.org.uk/sites/default/files/project-files/fcrn_gnc_report.pdf

[8] Australian Government, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, ABARES
National scale land use (based on Land Use of Australia 2010-11, Version 5, ABARES 2016)
Last reviewed 5th March 2018, http://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/aclump/land-use

[9] Mahony, P. “Meat eaters vs The Great Barrier Reef”, Terrastendo, 18th June 2017, https://terrastendo.net/2017/06/18/meat-eaters-vs-the-great-barrier-reef/, citing Brodie, J., “Great Barrier Reef dying beneath its crown of thorns”, The Conversation, 16th April, 2012, http://theconversation.com/great-barrier-reef-dying-beneath-its-crown-of-thorns-6383 and De’ath, G., Katharina Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., Puotinen, M., “The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes”, PNAS 2012 109 (44) 17995-17999; published ahead of print October 1, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109, http://www.pnas.org/citmgr?gca=pnas%3B109%2F44%2F17995

[10] Mahony, P., “The link that too many ignore”, Terrastendo, 26th August 2016, https://terrastendo.net/2016/08/26/the-link-that-too-many-ignore/

[11] The Climate Council of Australia, “From farm to plate to the atmosphere: food-related emissions”, 16th October 2016, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/from-farm-to-plate-to-the-atmosphere-reducing-your-food-related-emissions

[12] Climate Council of Australia, Annual Report 2016-17, p. 2, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/2017/12/07/annual-report-17/

Image

Adwo, “Free range Australian bull”, Shutterstock

 

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