Climate change & agriculture

How is climate change impacting on Australian agriculture?

Farmers are on the front lines of climate change in Australia. Huge swathes of our country’s farmland are currently suffering from the worst drought in living memory, while other parts have experienced devastating flooding and storms that have wiped out entire paddocks of crops in an afternoon. Global grain yields have declined by 10% from heat-waves and floods connected to climate change; bushfires and droughts are becoming the new normal. 

Food security obviously underpins our continued existence as a civilisation, and in Australia food security is much more fragile than most Australians understand. The Garnaut Review into climate impacts on Australia found that there would be a 92-97% decline in irrigated agriculture capacity along the Murray-Darling Basin by the end of century without significant global action on climate change. The Murray-Darling system provides 40% of Australia’s food. Climate change threatens Australia’s capacity to feed ourselves and the nations which we export food to.

What role can farmers have in addressing climate change?

We know that farmers all over the country are rising to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in diverse ways. Farmers are adopting climate-smart agricultural practices including sustainable intensification, diversification into renewable energy, revegetation, soil carbon sequestration, and regenerative agriculture (examples herehere and here). 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report into 1.5 degrees celcius made it clear last year, that we require brave and transformative change to alter our climate trajectory. More recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted the necessity of urgent action to address declining biodiversity and support the health of the natural world. 

In August 2019, the IPCC Special Report into Land Use & Agriculture will be released which is expected to highlight the key role agriculture must play in adapting and mitigating climate change. 

As a sector, we have bold ambitions to become a $100 billion industry by 2030. We’re very proud of our role as land custodians and are committed to being around for the long haul, and bringing the next generation of Aussie farmers back to the land. Our future truly is in our hands.

What are agriculture’s environmental responsibilities?

Agriculture is both vulnerable to and partially responsible for the challenges brought about by climate change. Globally, agriculture contributes a significant share of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing climate change – 17% directly through agricultural activities and an additional 7% to 14% through land use changes. 

Farmers are responsible for managing much of Australia’s ecosystem, with 48% of Australia’s land privately owned or leased for agricultural production. This land is thought to hold about two-thirds of Australia’s remnant native vegetation. Australian farmers have both a societal obligation and an economic imperative to care for this natural capital.

What are the economic implications of climate change for agriculture?

The direct effects of climate change on Australian agricultural production include fluctuations in growing conditions, water availability and frequency of adverse weather events resulting in price volatility and market uncertainty. Using the GTEM and Ausregion modelling methods, it is estimated that climate change impacts would cause Australian gross domestic product (GDP) to decline by 5–11% in 2050, compared to a business-as-usual GDP scenario without climate change.

What does the policy space for climate change and agriculture look like currently?

Development of climate change policy has been problematic in the current Australian political landscape. Nonetheless, Australia has committed to a target of reducing emissions to 26–28% on 2005 levels by 2030, representing a 50–52% reduction in emissions per capita and a 64–65% reduction in the emissions intensity of the economy between 2005 and 2030.

Federal Government strategies have supported agricultural adaptation to and mitigation of climate change impacts, for example the Emissions Reduction Fund, which in 2017 the Australian Farm Institute estimated distributed more than $225 million between farmers, land managers and carbon service providers. In February 2019, the Australian Government established a Climate Solutions Fund (CSF) to provide an additional $2 billion for purchasing low-cost abatement.

What would a national strategy address?

A national strategy on climate change and Australian agriculture must be adopted by the Federal Government via the Agriculture Ministers' Forum to better co-ordinate currently disparate industry, government and NGO efforts. This strategy should sit on a foundation of risk minimisation, supported by the pillars of strong research, development and extension, adoption of clean energy and a focus on the capture and storage of carbon, within an environment of continuous improvement.

Farmers for Climate Action commissioned the Australian Farm Institute to produce a report on the need for a national strategy.

The report can be downloaded here.

What has happened in relation to the national strategy so far?

An agreement came out of the April Agriculture Ministers' Meeting (AGMIN) in 2018 for the Agriculture Senior Officials Committee to prepare a paper for AGMIN on climate change adaptation in agriculture, which would include:

  • Potential climate change scenarios and impacts over time
  • Analysis of risks and opportunities presented by climate change to agricultural industries
  • A description of current work on managing emissions in the agriculture sector
  • A stocktake of approaches to adaptation across jurisdictions

The Victorian Government was tasked with pulling together this plan. It has been completed and is now with the Minister.