Skip to main content
29th February 2024

Australian red meat industry says it doesn’t need to meet its self-imposed net zero target

Article by The Guardian

Meat and Livestock Australia says its target of achieving net zero emissions in the red meat industry by 2030 is “not necessarily something that needs to be met”.

The industry body announced the goal in 2017 and has promoted it to both regulators and consumers, so far investing $180m towards research and development for ways to cut emissions associated with animal production to net zero.

A 2022 CSIRO report commissioned by MLA found the industry emitted almost two-thirds the volume of greenhouse gases in 2020 compared with a 2005 baseline.

But it said the reported reductions have been driven by a decrease in land clearing and an increase in forest regrowth, as recorded by Australia’s national carbon accounting system. An analysis by the University of Queensland said the NCAS may be grossly under-reporting land clearing rates.

In Queensland, where more than 40% of the national cattle herd resides, the 2020-21 statewide landcover and trees study reported significantly higher rates of deforestation than the NCAS data. About 89% of land clearing was attributed to livestock operations.

MLA’s environmental sustainability manager, Margaret Jewell, said the 2030 target was encouraging the industry to consider and reduce their environmental impact.

“The important thing about the target is that its aligning the industry on committing to continued improvement in sustainability and motivated investment,” Jewell said.

Jewell said MLA is confident in the baseline data, but added: “You’re going to have a pretty big level of error because you are trying to do an industry analysis.”

“It’s the macro dataset that is enabling us to track the biophysical progress of our industry towards a target,” she said. “We’ve been extremely transparent with that methodology.”

The CSIRO report also noted that while emissions were 6.4% lower in 2020 compared with the year prior, this was due to a reduction in livestock numbers. It said if livestock numbers increase, emissions would too.

In 2020 the national herd size – including roughly 2 million dairy cattle that are excluded from the red meat industry’s emissions – was 24.6 million. By 2023 it had grown to 28.7 million.

Investment in emissions reduction technologies have focused on finding ways of reducing the quantity of methane released by burping cattle, which is the largest source of the sector’s emissions.

This includes feeding cows seaweed based additives, but one of the longest commercial trials failed to meet hoped-for methane cuts and led to the animals eating less food.

Jewell said the research was in its infancy and has had “slightly inconsistent” results.

“The industry needs technology that almost makes sense to adopt regardless of whether they reduce methane or not, but because they have a productivity advantage,” she said.

“The commercial viability of those [food additives] means they are not something likely to be widely adopted by the industry.”

Prof Mark Howden, the director of the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, said the sector’s net zero target is “effectively not possible”.

“It’s pretty well embedded in the public consciousness that red meat is high profile in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per serve,” Howden said.

“I suspect the industry saw this as a fundamental threat to their future … A few years ago everybody was kind of jumping on the net zero bandwagon without actually thinking through what it actually meant,” he said.

The CSIRO found the industry would fall short of meeting its net zero target, and instead recommended the adoption of a “climate-neutral” target that would require a reduction of methane emissions rather their complete elimination.

The red meat sector is expected to release updated emissions data in April.