Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.
It’s February and the September quarter 2013 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures have just been released but are getting rather less coverage than in the heady days when Kevin Rudd pronounced climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time … etc.
The big issue at present is of course whether (or should this be “weather”) the carbon tax has done anything. Peter Hannam in The Age sketches the position of the players. Christine Milne pointing to the cuts in electricity emissions to claim yes, and Greg Hunt using the same figures to belittle the impact. Of course, we have an academic Frank Jotzo pointing out that what matters is what the emissions would have been without the tax. Ah! That’s obviously correct but rather tougher to estimate.
In total, our emissions have increased by 1.2 percent and Hannam singles our land-clearing as the culprit, because its gone up.
What the hell is land clearing? It’s easily the most complex of all the emission categories and it’s worth considering in some detail, because almost nobody ever does.
Land clearing is the sum of some other categories. Cutting stuff down is called deforestation and growing stuff is called either afforestation or reforestation depending on whether there was ever anything there before you started to grow stuff. The three terms are formally defined in the September Quarter document with afforestation and deforestation being formally defined as: “new commercial and environmental forest plantations by direct human action on land not forested in 1989.” It notes that net emissions are typically negative because growing stuff exceeds cutting stuff.
It all looks rosy until you go digging through the actual data. At which point things get very murky. The formal spreadsheets Australia submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are extremely detailed … as they should be. And we find that rather more categories are used to generate the three subtotals.
Basically, land is considered to be in one of a few states: Forest Land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements, and two categories of Other. In each category, land can either be entering the category or remaining in it. If Forest becomes Grass (via clearing), then typically it stores less carbon so we get a positive carbon emission. That’s easy. That same land might emit carbon for some time after the initial clearing, so there is a category of “Grass remaining Grass”. That’s not so easy. And what about Forest remaining Forest? Well that’s also easy, if you don’t do anything, Forests accumulate carbon so you get a negative emissing … a gain. Gains are good.
Are you still with me?
It’s important to understand that smallish net figures can hide huge gains and losses. For example, our latest submission to the UNFCCC was late in 2013 and covers 2011. We got a carbon gain from Forests remaining Forests of 84 million tonnes. That’s a really big number which we can and do use to offset any cutting stuff down activities during the year. So where does this 84 million tonnes come from? Remember the definitions? Remember the phrase direct human action? It appears that this Forest land, represents a massive amount of good work because, presumably it must have been planted by somebody. Yes? Well no. Not at all. It’s a scam. Everybody does it. Meaning it’s legal within the letter of the UNFCCC rules and other countries with plenty of land and trees pull exactly the same scam, but that doesn’t make it any less of a scam.
The giveaway is buried even deeper in the UNFCCC submission. It’s the area of Forests remaining Forests. All 107 million hectares of it. As of 2011 in our State of the Environment report, the area of native forests and woodlands in Australia was around 148 million hectares with 2 million hectares of plantation forests. But we’ve just seen that according to our NGGI we have by “direct human action” produced 107 million hectares of new forests since 1989.
What’s basically happening is we are enlisting quite a bit of natural forest growth to offset a substantial amount of our cutting stuff down. And who is it that is cutting stuff down? Again we need to look at the detail and not just settle for the net figures. Except that we can’t because they aren’t published at the level we need in the September quarter report. For example, if we look at the latest available UNFCCC submission, we can see that about about 80 percent of the Forest-to-something emissions come from Forest land being converted to Grassland. The other 20 percent is Forest land being converted to Crop land.
Who converts Forest land to Grass? It’s almost entirely the cow boys. So the bottom line is that sequestration from native forests is being used to offset about 68 million tonnes of annual emissions from the cattle industry knocking down forests.
Add in the methane from the cattle, both those on the “Grass remaining Grass” and the “Forest becoming Grass” and you might just understand how Australia’s cattle are doing more to warm the planet than our coal fired power stations. My very first post to BNC was the republication of an op-ed with Barry Brook and Peter Singer back in 2008. Since then, Australia has gained about a million cattle and climate scientists have increased estimates of the warming impact of a tonne of methane compared to a tonne of CO2 over the next 20 years by almost 50 percent. This makes the cattle’s 2.01 million tonnes of methane equal to about 211 million tonnes of CO2. Add in the 68 million tonnes from land clearing and you have a 20 year impact bigger than all our energy industries.
But nobody seems to give a damn. None of our so-called environment organisations. Not ACF, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, the Climate Council. Their silence on the cattle industry is deafening. Nor does it matter that cattle have done the lion’s share of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef over the past couple of decades. The cattle industry in Queensland is the biggest contributor to silt, particulate nitrogen pollution and phosphorous pollution and these have been slowly degrading the reef for a couple of decades. The current commendable campaigns to save the reef from the impacts of increase coal port dredging haven’t bothered to ask what will happen if they win? The reef will still be in just as much trouble as it was before they started.