PRESSURE is building for the red meat game to find a way to decouple its greenhouse gas emissions intensity from production.
The signs are there from the early global trade movers that emissions intensity will form part of Australian beef's export competitiveness in the very near future.
This was how discussion unfolded at a big agricultural commodities conference in Canberra this month around how trade in a low-emission global economy would play out for livestock producers.
There was no argument the international trading environment for red meat is likely to be influenced by expectations on the emissions profile of the food traded.
ABARES' Dr Jared Greenville said the change would be driven by governments and choosy consumers.
If the beef industry gets on the front foot, this can be an opportunity, he said.
Climate and profits
Dr Greenville presented ABARES research which shows that a farm of today would be more profitable had it operated with the climate that existed from 1950 to 1999.
Temperatures have increased (1 degree from 1910, most since 1950), rainfall has decreased across southern Australia and the frequency of extreme heat events has increased, he explained.
While the effects were most pronounced in the cropping sector with a 36pc reduction in average annual profits, beef farmers' annual profits fell by around 5pc.
"On the positive side, farmers are adapting and that is helping to offset the impact of climate conditions," Dr Greenville said.
"Reducing the extent of the future adaptation task is an important risk management strategy."
The worldwide emissions pathway to achieving the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius is for net zero emissions in the second half of this century.
Keep in mind 'net zero' is not zero for every sector - there will be some sectors with positive emissions offsetting, Dr Greenville said.
He said a reasonable number of countries, including some significant trade influencers, were planning their transition to net zero emissions with legislated targets, proposed legislation and policy goals.
No country is planning to cut agricultural production.
"The signs from the early movers are there," Dr Greenville said.
For example, the European Union has said it plans to use free trade agreements to support these goals and is assessing emissions impacts in negotiations already, highlighting possible increases from beef specifically.
They are also discussing border carbon adjustments - taxes based on emissions profiles of imports.
These type of standards would definitely make emissions intensity part of Australian beef's export competitiveness, Dr Greenville believes.
United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation data shows Australia currently sits close to the middle of the pack in terms of beef cattle emissions per unit of production against major meat exporters and importers.
"In the EU, we have a relatively small share of the market and many of our competitors - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay - are more emission intensive," Dr Greenville said.
"But in Asia, we compete more against the US and sell into some markets which are domestically lower in emissions intensity than us.
"What this suggests is that reductions in the emission intensity of production might be required to maintain market access."
The cost of doing this will depend on both how the rules are set and the options producers have to lower their current emissions, he said.
"What we suggest is there is scope to work with the small number of exporters to ensure rules or standards suit our production systems," Dr Greenville said.
Emissions remained closely linked with the level of beef production in Australia and without significant further research and investment, there are limited options that significantly decouple the two, he believes.
"While we are not alone in this challenge, we can't leave it to other countries given our extensive production systems," he said.
He noted the industry was taking big steps to address the challenge via its carbon neutral by 2030 ambition.
Part of what was needed would be the development of accreditation systems that extend to low, and not just zero, carbon, Dr Greenville said.
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The story Why beef needs to unhitch emissions from production first appeared on Farm Online.