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Cows and coal

By William York - posted Friday, 20 June 2008

Bob Brown, Tim Flannery and all want to stop the export of coal. This should stop someone somewhere else from making more greenhouse gas. Even though the exported coal would not be counted against us, it would be a good thing to do.

Really we want to stop greenhouse gases coming from our own continent. So why not stop the export of beef. Cattle contribute 10 per cent of our greenhouse gases by way of methane. Worse than this we export some 60 per cent of the finished product and the methane is left behind. We could tax farmers as they tried to do in New Zealand but we should hit the consumer with an emissions tax on steak, hamburgers, pies and sausages, anything with beef in it. It could be a GET, a Global Emissions Tax. As a collateral benefit, in order to encourage children to eat their greens we could offer them a GET refund they could cash in at the local milk bar.

In fact perhaps we should concentrate on eating lamb and mutton. After all there are delicious Mediterranean lamb dishes.


I mentioned removing all the cattle from Queensland, where half the cattle herd live, to a very well informed farmer in his home office in Collins Street. His response was “Well if I de-stock the cattle, I would put sheep in their place, except you cannot do that in Queensland”.

He then explained the concept of the “dry sheep equivalent” or DSE. If you replace cattle, which have a rating of say 10 DSE to get the same earning power from your land you would need ten wethers, each with a DSE of 1. Unfortunately the ten wethers would produce just about as much methane as the cattle they replaced.

But in Queensland you cannot run sheep in cattle country so if you de-stock you destroy the capital value of your farm land. If the Commonwealth brought this about they might have to pay compensation for lost value. This is not necessarily the case for the states which points to making sure that the Commonwealth controls whichever financial sticks and carrots are devised to attempt to modify our behaviour.

The alternative fix to taxes or permits is a technology fix. Just like “clean coal”, we need “clean cattle” producing little or no methane.

This is a perfect place for the Rural Research Organisations (PDF 822KB) and another Commonwealth funding initiative. We might be able to selectively breed cattle to convert feed to energy more efficiently. We might be able to modify the bacteria and other hangers-on that make the methane or we might vaccinate the cattle to do the same thing. This will of course take some time to explore and results so far are not overly encouraging.

But help is at hand. A week ago I listened to the moderator of a discussion on climate change broadcast on student FM radio declare she had turned vegetarian as her contribution to reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But of course she is way behind California where The Global Warming Diet: Cool Recipes for a Hot Planet has just been published by chef Laura Stec, with Eugene Cordero, a professor of meteorology. The book discusses the contributions made by agricultural systems to greenhouse gases, suggests food choices and gives recipes.


So coal and cattle are, in a manner of speaking, in the same boat. So let’s forget about stopping exports. If we must use fluorescent light bulbs to save some coal burning in power stations then shouldn’t we make the children eat their greens and then reward them?

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About the Author

William York likes to find the funny side of life. He used to write for BRW back in the late 1980's.

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