Climate Change: Science and Solutions for Australia

Chapter 8: Greenhouse gas mitigation: sources and sinks in agriculture and forestry

Page 12 of 16

Forest canopy. By Dr Michael Battaglia

Agriculture and forestry can make a valuable contribution to lowering Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by reducing their own direct emissions and by increasing the amount of carbon stored in soils and landscapes.


Our soils and forests store large quantities of carbon: somewhere between 100 and 200 times Australia’s current annual emissions. We can potentially increase these stores in our rural lands and perhaps store or mitigate enough greenhouse gases to off set up to 20 per cent or more of Australia’s emissions during the next 40 years.

Forest plantings are the most straightforward way to sequester carbon in rural landscapes and, along with reduced land clearing, provide the most immediate, significant, and realisable carbon sequestration opportunity.

Nearly a third of Australia’s terrestrial carbon is stored in tropical savannas: the continent’s most fire-prone biome in which half or more of the land may burn each year. These fires currently contribute 2–3 per cent of the nation’s total accountable emissions and have an important bearing on rates of carbon sequestration.

Ruminant animals (such as sheep and cattle) emit methane as a by-product of digesting feed. In 2008, this contributed 9.6 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions and was the largest component of agricultural emissions.

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Climate Change - Dr Michael Battaglia


Many of the low cost options for Australia to reduce its emissions lie in agriculture and forestry. Agriculture and forestry contribute around 24% of Australia’s national emissions in 2008, and can contribute to our national efforts by directly reducing their own emissions, or by helping us to sequester or store carbon in our landscapes. We can do that by reducing emissions in things like livestock, or by increasing sequestration through a forestation, or by increasing stores in soil carbon.

Doing these things not only perhaps gives us low cost abatement, but also gives us time to start to think about ways that we can reduce emissions in other sectors of the economy that may take more lead-in time, or more re-engineering.

In thinking about how we use agriculture we need to be mindful of liabilities we create for future generations and the options about land use, and we also need to understand that we are simultaneously facing the global food security crises at the same time as we’re trying to tackle and deal with greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture can help there, in that many of the best opportunities for abating carbon are also ones that can potentially increase production, or help us deliver environmental services and benefits from our lands.

So while emissions reductions, either from livestock, or other sectors of the economy, are permanent and long lasting contributions, we need to understand that increasing carbon stores is... only gives us a limited time. They saturate, that eventually the trees and forests mature, or our soil carbon reaches the new equilibrium. So they are opportunities that allow us to take the time to re-engineer the energy sectors or other components of the economy – they are not solutions in their own right.