Farmers are angry and perplexed by former Nationals federal leader Barnaby Joyce’s obsession with promoting coal-fired power stations and a deep seated reluctance by some politicians to acknowledge Australia’s carbon emissions must be curtailed.
As increasing climate variability threatens to cut our agricultural productivity 10 per cent in the next 20 years, farmers generally feel cheated and fed up with the political manoeuvring and denials of the need for practical policies on energy, climate change and drought says fast-growing national lobby group, Farmers for Climate Action (FCA).
While the rural sector was worried by soaring electricity prices, FCA argued most producers were just as fearful about by Canberra’s procrastinating and bitter internal conflicts over carbon pricing, emission issues and its indifference to renewable energy opportunities in regional Australia.
“I get calls every day from from mainstream farmers outraged at how government has handled this issue,” said chief executive officer, Verity Morgan-Schmidt.
We’ve got political leaders in denial saying things about climate which are not true and not helping farmers on the front line as global temperatures keep warming
“They’re incredibly angry their elected representatives actively advocate things which keep decisions roadblocked.
“We’ve got political leaders in denial saying things about climate which are not true and not helping farmers on the front line as global temperatures keep warming.”
Australia had to act quickly to adopt carbon-neutral policies and incentives to prevent the climate variability crisis getting any worse.
The most obvious “low hanging fruit” was to “de-carbonise” our fossil fuel-powered electricity sector which was already more expensive to operate than solar and wind power.
The groundswell of farmer frustration with Canberra’s policy paralysis on climate and energy issues had seen her young organisation’s support base treble in 18 months.
A majority of FCA’s almost-5000 membership ran broadacre grain, livestock or mixed farming enterprises dotted from the West Australian wheatbelt to Shepparton, Moree and Dalby on the east coast.
Dairy farmers, horticultural producers and vignerons were also bankrolling the two-year-old lobby group, chaired by prominent Riverina Angus beef producer, Lucinda Corrigan, “Rennylea”, Holbrook.
“Farmers are very pragmatic people who understand the big picture well,” Ms Morgan-Schmidt said.
“The data (from CSIRO and ABARES) clearly tells us the severity and frequency of heat stress events and drought conditions has increased and crop yields are falling.
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“The patterns vary, but between 2000 and 2015 south eastern and south western Australia’s total cropping farm productivity dropped 6.5pc and 7.7pc on long term averages, and wheat yields fell 16pc and 15pc.
“Then there’s the impact on pastures and livestock productivity.”
Nationally wheat yields fell 12pc relative to long term conditions, particularly in lower rainfall cropping areas.
Average summer temperatures Australia-wide are one degree hotter, but in eastern Australia they’re up almost three degrees
“At this point in time it’s still possible, within the laws of physics and chemistry, to limit our warming temperatures, but every year we fail to take action really matters,” she said.
At a panel discussion hosted by the Farm Writers Association of NSW, Ms Morgan-Schmidt, from a family farm at Bencubbin, WA, said while the beef industry was moving to a carbon neutral footprint by 2030, some farming industries could find it much harder to manage emissions.
“That’s why Australia must look at obvious early opportunities in de-carbonising big contributors like coal-fired power plants.”
Joining the forum panel were FCA members, Jim McDonald from NSW’s Liverpool Plains and former Goondiwindi cropper, turned New England wool producer and solar farm builder, David Mailler.
Mr McDonald noted hotter climatic conditions globally had pushed eastern Australia’s weather patterns more than 200 kilometres south in the past 20 years.
More frequent high pressure weather systems now delivered more clear, searing hot days in summer, and colder, frosty winter nights.
The number of summer days averaging above 35 degrees in his traditionally “safe” Quirindi district had jumped from 20 to 60 a year, while average days above 40 degrees had leapt from one to 10.
“The climate we have is more like that which the Darling Downs previously had, while our climate has slipped south of Dubbo,” he said.
“Average summer temperatures Australia-wide are one degree hotter, but in eastern Australia they’re up almost three degrees.”
While farmers had learnt to improve their resilience to climate variability by treating issues like groundwater overuse and tackling soil structure and nutrition challenges, without broad scale action tackling key causes of climate change the Liverpool Plains’ famed productivity would be lost.
This is an chance to reconfigure local industry and reboot regional Australia’s farm value-added sector
Mr Mailler said solar and wind power generators provided chances to rectify emissions issues and provide tailor-made energy services to local areas, including opportunities for regional communities to develop new skills and value-added industries.
“This is an chance to reconfigure local industry and reboot regional Australia’s farm value-added sector,” he said.
“Farmers can generate passive income 365 days a year by providing essential energy and continue to look after their land.
“At the moment, however, the lack of steady political policy has undermined domestic capacity and reliability and driven energy prices up.”
The Sydney forum followed the recent release of FCA’s crowd-funded Rural Futures Taskforce Report highlighting “a dearth of political leadership at the highest levels” and seeking to stimulate debate about “the type of future regional Australia wants to see”.
Recommendations included urgent action to address climate change to meet Australia’s international obligations, phasing out fossil fuel mining, establishing energy sector policy certainty with a focus on solar, wind, hydro electricity and bioenergy, plus more government and private investment in Northern Australian infrastructure and enhanced connectivity between regional and urban Australia.
The report noted how energy transition away from fossil fuels was not only already affecting domestic electricity production, but also the future of fossil fuel exports to India, China, Korea and Japan.
All would reduce thermal coal imports within five years.
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