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Australian red meat industry’s net zero target based on land-clearing data that is ‘not reliable’

<span>Since 2020, the size of the national beef cattle herd has increased by roughly 2 million, returning to similar levels seen in 2005.</span><span>Photograph: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images</span>
Since 2020, the size of the national beef cattle herd has increased by roughly 2 million, returning to similar levels seen in 2005.Photograph: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images

Greenhouse gas reduction figures celebrated by Australia’s red meat industry are based on unreliable land-clearing data and could be erroneous, an independent analysis has found.

In Queensland, where roughly 44% of the national cattle herd grazes and the majority of land clearing has occurred, the Statewide Landcover and Tree Study (Slats) has recorded deforestation at almost twice the rate of the national system used to calculate emissions on the red meat industry.

In an analysis of both systems, Martin Taylor, a former conservation scientist with WWF Australia and now adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, found the national carbon accounting system (NCAS) may be significantly underreporting deforestation in the state.

“It’s good Meat and Livestock Australia is attempting to reduce their emissions but it has to be based on reliable data,” Taylor said. “We can’t be building stories on data that analysis suggests is erroneous.”

MLA has widely publicised a 65% reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels. Nearly 90% of the industry’s emissions are associated with the production and processing of beef cattle.

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

Taylor’s latest report, released in December, analysed satellite data from 2018-19 and 20219-20 and concluded deforestation in Queensland is 36-62% higher than NCAS reporting. These findings are yet to be peer reviewed.

“The reported decline in red meat industry emissions is almost totally due to declining deforestation and rising regeneration reported in the national greenhouse accounts,” Taylor said. “So if those accounts are not reliable and under-report deforestation it throws the industry claim into doubt.”

According to the source of MLA’s claim – a 2022 CSIRO report based on NCAS data – decreasing deforestation means land managed by the sector has become a net carbon sink.

The report found that land cleared to make way for grazing pastures emitted 87 megatonnes of CO2 across Australia in 2005. But in 2020, increasing forest regrowth offset land-clearing emissions, and land managed by the industry – which equates to half Australia’s land mass – sequestered one tonne of CO2 from atmosphere in total.

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The author of the CSIRO report, Dr Brad Ridoutt, said the data used to produce the figure had “significant potential for uncertainty” but is consistent and retrospectively updated as the NCAS becomes more accurate.

“The national figures are not based on laboratory samples, they are based on models,” he said.

Prof Beverley Henry from the University of Technology Queensland said the industry’s recorded decrease in emissions since 2005 was largely due to the introduction of stricter environmental laws and lessening economic incentives to clear increasingly marginal land, rather than any sector-led initiatives.

“When they publish their emission reductions land-use changes should be separated out,” Henry said.

If changes in land use were excluded from the sector’s emissions accounting, greenhouse gases would have been just 11% lower in 2020 compared to 2005 levels; though Ridoutt’s report found this was mostly due to a reduction in livestock numbers.

Since 2020, the size of the national beef cattle herd has increased by roughly 2 million, returning to similar levels seen in 2005.

In the early 1990s, Henry was contracted by the government to assist in building the land-use emissions component of the NCAS. Later she worked in the Queensland Slats team.

She said that while the veracity of both systems has improved over time, Queensland’s state system measures changes in tree cover more accurately. However, she added that the NCAS system is based on standardised accounting set by the United Nations and should be used.

“If we are going to have credibility it is appropriate to use data consistent with these accounts,” she said. “But its accuracy at any location is a different question.”

Separating land-clearing data in the industry’s marketing material would provide a more accurate picture of their own sustainability efforts, she said.

“I think increasing the efficiency of production is very worthwhile for a whole lot of reasons and will lead to lower emissions per kilogram of meat,” she said. “But I don’t believe, based on what we know now, it is possible for the industry to become carbon neutral.”

Last week, MLA said their self-imposed target is “not necessarily something that needs to be met”, although it has since reaffirmed its commitment to reaching the goal.

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The director of the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Mark Howden, said the 2005 baseline is a convenient choice to demonstrate greenhouse gas reductions.

“Generally speaking, that period around 2005-07 was peak emissions from land-use change [due to land clearing],” he said. “When you’re at peak emissions, there is only one way to go, and that’s down.”

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Howden said including land-use changes in emissions accounting is “legitimate” but it’s a one-off reduction.

“If you stop land clearing then clearly you can’t use that on a continuing basis to push your emissions down,” he said. “That means you’ve then got to reduce your actual emissions.”

An MLA spokesperson said the NCAS data is appropriate given it is public, low cost and nationally consistent.

“MLA would welcome any improvements to national datasets that delivers improved accuracy at a macro scale,” a spokesperson said.

They said MLA is “forthright about the contribution of [land-use change emissions] to deliver the majority of net emissions reduction to date”.

And they said that since 2017 the red meat industry has spent more than $180m on research and development focused on reducing methane emissions from burping cattle, which accounts for almost 80% of the industry’s annual emissions. But these technologies are yet to prove commercially viable.

“The net emissions reduction delivered by sequestration does not diminish from the continued investment in solutions and technology for the industry to reduce methane [produced by cattle],” a spokesperson said.