There has been much hype recently over a new brand of beef which is being marketed as carbon neutral. A problem with that claim is that the mechanism used to classify the product is flawed.
The company and product
The product, “Five Founders”, was launched in July 2019 by North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCO), which is 80 per cent owned by the Queensland government’s Queensland Investment Corporation.   The company is targeting domestic and export markets, including China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. 
NAPCO operates stations with around 200,000 cattle across 6.1 million hectares (61,000 square kilometres) of Queensland and the Northern Territory.  More than half the world’s countries have a smaller land area than that of NAPCO’s combined operations. 
Outdated global warming potential
The process for achieving carbon neutral certification is administered by the federal Department of the Environment and Energy.
Organisations seeking to be certified must measure emissions, reduce them where possible, offset remaining emissions, obtain an independent audit and publicly report.
Five Founders livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions (as opposed to energy related emissions from the farm and feedlot and off-farm supply chain emissions) were calculated using a herd inventory and emission calculation approach derived from the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) Beef Herd Management method.  
The methodology specifies that a global warming potential (GWP) of 25 be used for methane (CH4) emissions.    GWPs are expressed as multipliers representing the warming effect of a unit mass of a non-CO2 greenhouse gas relative to the same mass of CO2 over a specific period.
The approach enables the emissions of different greenhouse gases to be aggregated in order to determine the overall CO2-equivalent (CO2-e) figure.
The GWP of 25 for methane was specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), based on a 100-year time horizon. It was amended in its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) to a figure of 34, allowing for climate-carbon feedbacks. Even without those feedbacks, it had been increased to 28. Unlike those involved in the NAPCO classification process, the Australian red meat industry’s Sustainability Steering Group now uses a figure of 34. 
Australia’s national greenhouse gas inventory has also not kept up with the conservative IPCC, which may be unsurprising when the nation is a recognised laggard in dealing with the existential threat of climate change.
If the correct multiplier had been used, NAPCO’s gross annual emissions would have been 11,543 tonnes, rather than the 9,514 tonnes claimed. [Footnotes 1 and 2] If we were to accept the validity of carbon offsets (referred to in more detail below) and if they were to fully negate the declared emissions figure, then the revised net level of emissions would be 2,390 tonnes, rather than nil.
Another deficiency in the carbon neutral classification system is that it fails to consider the shorter-term impacts of methane emissions, which are a key feature of cattle farming’s overall emissions profile.
Methane breaks down in the atmosphere to a significant extent within around 12 years from its release. Accordingly, the commonly-used 100-year GWP (showing the average impact over a period of 100 years) greatly understates its shorter-term impact. The issue is critical when considering climate change feedback mechanisms and tipping points, with potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said: 
“There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. The choice of time horizon is a value judgement because it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.”
Based on an alternative 20-year time horizon, the GWP multiplier for methane increases from 34 to 86.
Allowing for that level of impact, NAPCO’s gross emissions would be 25,301 tonnes, 176 per cent above the declared figure.
The relevant emissions comparisons are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Gross emissions (tonnes) from NAPCO’s “Five Founders” product
A dangerous reliance on carbon offsets
As NAPCO has been unable to reduce its emissions to zero even when applying an artificially low GWP, it has relied on carbon offsets in order to claim carbon neutrality. The offsets comprise a native forest regeneration project in Queensland and two renewable energy projects in China and Vietnam. They are being measured in arrears in this instance. [Footnote 3]
The overriding problem with carbon offsets, including those administered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, is that they excuse an ongoing carbon emitting activity when that activity itself must be addressed. Related to that concern, the offsetting activity: (a) may have occurred independently of the emitting activity; (b) may contribute to activities that increase emissions in the longer term; and (c) to the extent it does provide longer-term benefits, should be undertaken in its own right as part of a global emergency response to the climate crisis.
In the words of Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester: 
“Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”
Sharon Beder from the University of Wollongong has argued: 
“Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism that enables individuals to buy themselves green credentials without actually changing their consumption habits, and nations to avoid the more difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming.”
Forest regeneration projects fall into category (c) referred to above. In a landmark 2008 paper, leading climate scientist Dr James Hansen and co-authors argued that, in addition to dealing with fossil fuels, we would not achieve a critical threshold level of 350 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere without massive reforestation.  The aim would be to reduce CO2 concentrations (at that time around 400 ppm) by drawing them from the atmosphere, while also reducing ongoing emissions.
The Australian livestock sector is now seeking to claim credit for forest regeneration activities when it has been responsible for most of the nation’s land clearing.  The ongoing loss of carbon sequestration resulting from that clearing is not accounted for in official greenhouse gas emissions reporting.
Other environmental problems
Excessive carbon emissions are just one of many environmental problems that have been caused by beef production, including introduction of feral species such as donkeys, horses, cattle, buffalo, goats and camels; introduction of invasive pasture grasses; land clearing; degradation of natural water sources; proliferation of artificial water sources; baiting of dingoes; and manipulation of fire regimes. 
An example of such problems in respect of NAPCO is buffel grass, which is prevalent at the company’s Cungelella and Goldsborough properties in Queensland.   It is a native of Africa and Asia and was originally introduced to Australia to suppress dust and improve pasture.
In a 2015 episode of ABC’s Landline program (with further quotations below), NAPCO’s manager at Goldsborough, Stewart Taylor, said, “buffel’s king and we work with it”. 
The government of South Australia has a different view. It has declared the grass a weed and banned it. The problems include the fact that it forms dense monocultures that displace native vegetation and cause habitat loss and forms a continuous, flammable ground layer that can carry hot fires, affecting native flora and fauna and threatening infrastructure and public safety. 
Ecologist John Read describes buffel in the Northern Territory as “a cancer across the countryside”, taking out trees and all the other grasses.
Grazier Steven Cadzow of Mt Riddock Station, located north of Alice Springs, seems unaffected by such concerns, saying: [Footnote 4]
“We’re in a business. I mean, our business is growing kilos of beef per square kilometre and that’s what we do and if this grass is going to help us do that and stay viable, well, we’ll keep it.”
Although NAPCO’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are welcome, the results have been overstated.
To the extent that benefits are achieved, a critical concern is that they are focused on an activity that is many times more emissions intensive than plant-based agriculture (while also involving other significant environmental problems). As a result, they will never reach the level of emissions reduction that would be derived from a general transition away from animals as a food source.
If we wish to retain a habitable planet, such a transition is essential.
- NAPCO has not provided a breakdown of emissions within the “livestock” category in its Five Founders public disclosure summary.
The figures in this article assume that methane emissions are responsible for 86 per cent of those emissions, which in turn represent 84 per cent of the product’s overall emissions. The figure of 86 per cent is the mid-point in the range (84-88 per cent) suggested by a 2013 study funded and promoted by Meat and Livestock Australia, excluding emissions from land use and direct land use change. 
The balance of livestock emissions are assumed to be in the form of nitrous oxide for the purpose of the comparison. To the extent that this assumption were to overstate nitrous oxide emissions, it has the effect of reducing the calculated GWP20 emissions slightly, while having no effect on the GWP100 figures.
Regardless of the assumptions made, NAPCO’s emissions estimates are understated.
- Related to the previous footnote, the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (Measurement) Amendment Determination 2013 (No. 1) included the following amendment, with the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) due later that year: 
“10 Section 1.8 (after the definition of Global Warming Potential)
Note: It is intended that the Global Warming Potentials will be updated from 1 July 2017 to align with those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in The Physical Science Basis (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).”
This means the GWPs that applied at that time (which included a GWP of 21 for methane) were to be amended 10 years late, while ignoring the further update from AR5 (2013).
If NAPCO’s estimates are found to have been based on the earlier version of the reporting regulations, then the understatement of figures will be even more pronounced than indicated in this article.
- NAPCO’s public disclosure summary and the government’s summary regarding the Five Founders product incorrectly state that both overseas offsetting projects are in China. However, Phot Not is located in Vietnam, and the project is shown as such on the relevant verified carbon units registry website. 
- At the time of writing, the transcript of ABC’s Landline program had mistakenly attributed Steven Cadzow’s comment to Stewart Taylor. Cadzow’s Mt Riddock Station is not a NAPCO property. The author has notified the ABC.
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Leah Kennedy, Shutterstock, Cattle Muster, ID: 204949009