Agriculture Industries Energy Taskforce July 2021: speech by Dr Alan Finkel

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14 July 2021

The Agriculture Industries Energy Taskforce works collaboratively to lower energy costs for Australia’s productive agriculture industries.

Dr Alan Finkel spoke to the taskforce about opportunities to reduce emissions in the agriculture sector through technology.

Speech to the Agriculture Industries Energy Taskforce

I have often said that without an energy supply, it’s back to the Stone Age.

Energy is central to who we are, critical to the way we live, and conveniently woven into the fabric of our lives.

And it’s in agriculture where we have seen the promise of energy most effectively harnessed for human benefit. 250 years ago, through innovations such as the seed drill, the threshing machine and the cotton gin, we saw major growth in energy-intensive machinery that transformed farming processes and almost doubled farming output.

That was the Industrial Revolution.

Fifty years ago, through the combination of dwarfed wheat with energy-intensive production of nitrogen fertilisers, improved irrigation and mechanical cultivation, we were able to:

  • double the global production of cereal crops
  • triple the value of the global food trade
  • free billions of people from the misery of starvation and malnutrition.

That was the Green Revolution.

But progress has come at a cost.

The Green Revolution increased the energy consumption of wheat production fifty fold – courtesy of:

  • fossil fuel derived chemicals
  • electrical water pumps
  • coal and oil burning machinery.

As a result, greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere from our agrarian activities.

Nobody set out to do this on purpose. It’s a by-product of civilisation.

But today, Australian agriculture contributes 67 million tonnes of emissions per year.

Belching livestock account for about 70% of these emissions; but the remaining 30% are, to a large extent, from energy use.

And yet, in our rush to respond to the very real and worsening threat of climate change, we must never forget that agriculture underpins our society.

The average Australian goes about their day in the certainty that there’ll be enough to eat, and the abundance we so often take for granted is thanks to farmers’ extraordinary stressful work and hardship.

I have witnessed it first-hand.

When I was tasked with reviewing the National Electricity Market in 2016, I held extensive consultations right across Australia.

On one such occasion, I spoke to a number of large scale irrigators in South Australia who were heavily reliant on electricity to power their pumps.

At the time, they were hurting, because the wholesale price of electricity for pumping was soaring, and they couldn’t get a forward contract from retailers to cap the likelihood of their costs going up even higher.

Of all my consultations, that discussion remains etched in my mind because of the visible pain that those irrigators were suffering.

Since then, partly because of the Finkel Review, and largely because of the actions of Ministers and the Energy Security Board, and the low marginal costs of solar and wind electricity, prices have, thankfully, settled down.

But the pressures on agriculture have continued to mount.

Climate change is making itself felt in increasingly frequent and more severe weather events.

Simultaneously, the world has more mouths to feed, and farmers and growers face ever increasing demands from customers to provide lower and lower emissions products.

To its lasting credit, the agriculture industry has resolved to meet these challenges.

The Australian red meat and livestock industry has set the ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The National Farmers’ Federation has called for a national target of net zero by 2050.

And we have this Taskforce – a coherent voice for the sector and a clear point of access for government.

But, when it comes to emissions from agriculture, nothing is simple.

From livestock, manure, even humble rice, the path to net zero is difficult.

And no single government policy is capable of meeting all the varied local needs of this diverse and dynamic industry.

So, what can we do?

Through the National Electricity Review, the National Hydrogen Strategy and now the Low Emissions Technology Investment Roadmap, I have been fortunate to contribute to the building blocks for a brighter energy future.

The underlying principle of the Roadmap is to drive the cost of low-emissions technologies down to the point where they become cheaper than the high-emissions incumbents – rendering them obsolete.

I firmly believe we can reduce emissions, while simultaneously achieving economic growth, by investing in a low-cost, abundant, reliable, clean electricity and hydrogen supply available to all, including the agricultural community.

And we can combat the vagaries of climate and markets by embracing new tools and technologies.

Take the use of clean hydrogen to make zero emissions ammonia, which is then used to make zero emissions ammonium nitrate and urea fertilisers.

Or the zinc bromide batteries being pioneered by Australian company, Gelion, to support solar powered irrigation systems.

Or the development of a seaweed based supplement by the CSIRO that can significantly reduce methane emissions in livestock when added to their diets.

Just as the genius of science has been vital in overcoming previous obstacles, so too it will aid us in the future.

I look forward to the upcoming Q&A session where we can go through some of the specifics.

And I look forward to working with all of you to create an energy system that powers our economy as well as protects our planet.

May the Force be with you.

Thank you.

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