Carbon emissions and the future of South African agriculture. By Anna Mouton.
Global warming threatens South African agriculture as much by changing consumer behaviour as by changing the climate. Growing awareness of the environmental impacts of agriculture is leading consumers to question how their food is produced and transported —answering those questions have consequences for the future of our export industries.
The push to quantify carbon emissions
A common perception among consumers is that so-called food miles — the distance between farm and fork — determine the contribution of a foodstuff to climate change. But distance is not everything, contends Hugh Campbell, general manager of Hortgro Technical. Factors such as efficiency of production are among the many that also play a role.
The South African fruit and wine industries recognised that maintaining market share would hinge on addressing consumer concerns. They combined forces and established the Confronting Climate Change initiative in 2008. One of the main aims of the initiative was to develop a carbon calculator.
“There was increasing pressure — a push — from the markets to know what our carbon footprint was,” recalls Campbell. “And the pull from a South African perspective was to make sure that we were developing a pathway to reduce our emissions — to do the right thing.”
Seed funding from the Department for International Development in the United Kingdom, along with support funding from the Post-Harvest Innovation Fund and the National Agricultural Marketing Council, kick-started the project. This was followed by substantial support from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. The current partners in the project include the industry bodies for pome and stone fruit, citrus, table grapes, and wine. Implementation is by sustainability consultancy Blue North.
The right tool for the job
The carbon footprint of a foodstuff is the sum of the greenhouse gases emitted in its production and transport. All the gases are converted to carbon-dioxide equivalents — CO2e. Sources of greenhouse gases in fruit production typically include electricity, fuel, agrochemicals, and fertilisers. Sources in fruit packing include electricity, fuel, and packaging.
Working out a footprint starts with knowing the inputs — how much of each emission source was consumed. “Each of those inputs is multiplied by an emission factor,” explains Anél Blignaut, senior associate at Blue North. Emission factors relate the inputs to a quantity of carbon dioxide that is specific to that input.
For example, container ships emit on average 0.02 kg of CO2 per cargo-tonne per km, compared to airfreight, which emits on average 0.53 kg of CO2 per cargo-tonne per km.
The carbon-calculator tool guides users through the process of entering all their inputs, as well as their outputs — for example crop yields or tonnage packed. Blignaut emphasises the importance of basing the tool on international standards, to ensure correct accounting for inputs. “Our tool has been reviewed by the Carbon Trust, to ensure that we followed the standard correctly.”
Users access the carbon calculator online. “We thought it would just be a matter of developing this online calculator,” says Campbell, “but we soon realised that a major part of its success would depend on doing extensive training.” The Confronting Climate Change initiative holds workshops throughout the year, including free workshops for first-time users. Users also have access to support.
“The user receives a very detailed report,” says Blignaut. “Your report will benchmark you against others in your area, in kg CO2 per kg fruit, as well as relative to the inputs that contribute the most to your overall carbon footprint.
“One of the biggest benefits that’s come out of carbon footprinting is the information on operational usage which then translates into costs,” reflects Campbell. “The biggest one is electricity.” The shock of seeing the numbers motivated many in the industry to innovate and to reduce their electricity usage, resulting in substantial savings.
Trading in carbon credits
As growers have acted to reduce their carbon footprint, and to adopt sustainable practices, they’ve begun to wonder whether there could be additional financial benefits, in the form of carbon credits.
Carbon credits can be defined as the monetary value of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. “Let’s say I produce a lot of emissions, and you have a way of capturing those emissions — I can pay you to offset my emissions,” explains Blignaut. “But I still need to reduce my emissions, and only offset those emissions that I can’t practically reduce.”
There are standards for what counts as a carbon credit. Offsets must be measured and verified before they can be registered as carbon credits. The credits then become available for purchase on carbon exchanges. In theory, certain activities on farms could qualify as carbon credits. “By planting an orchard — planting trees — you don’t necessarily offset emissions,” cautions Campbell, “because you’re removing them twenty years later.”
When the trees are removed, a certain portion of the carbon they captured is released, so that carbon remains in the short-term carbon cycle. But to register a carbon-credit project, you must sequester carbon for the long term. You must prove the permanence of that carbon sequestration.
South African growers have struggled to register carbon credits so far, but Blignaut thinks that change is happening. “Confronting Climate Change and Blue North are working with an international company, the Climate Neutral Group, to see how we can streamline the process, and make it easier for growers. We plan to approach producers soon, to hear whether they would be interested in being the guinea pigs for this process.”
Taxing times ahead
South Africa implemented a carbon tax in 2019. Carbon tax works much the same as income tax — a tax is levied on emissions above a certain threshold. The threshold depends on the activity. Emissions from diesel and petrol for road travel are taxed separately through a levy on fuel.
Agriculture is not currently subject to the carbon tax. That may change when the second phase of the tax is implemented in 2023, and growers may face taxes on emissions resulting from fertilisers, soil amendments, diesel generators, and land-use changes, among other sources. Calculations published by Blue North estimate that the carbon tax on agriculture could amount to approximately R343.00 per bearing hectare.
But the tax will impact the fruit industry regardless of whether agriculture is directly taxed or not. Eskom is also exempt for now — but their grace period expires next year. This could result in further significant increases in the cost of electricity.
The bottom line is that activities which generate emissions will become evermore costly, either due to price hikes or due to direct taxation. Which brings us back to the carbon-calculator tool. “Your report will highlight your hotspots — those areas that contribute the most to your total carbon footprint,” says Blignaut. “That will help you to prioritise, so you can address those areas that will deliver the biggest wins.”
But, Blignaut adds, we shouldn’t forget about the benefits of the carbon calculator for the industry as a whole. “There are no other countries with comparable industry-wide projects to calculate carbon footprints. South Africa is the leader in this area.”
For more about the Confronting Climate Change initiative, and the carbon-calculator tool, visit www.climatefruitandwine.co.za.
What do users say about the carbon-calculator tool?
Bernedette Ferreira, Compliance Manager, Fruitways
“We’ve been using the carbon calculator for some time now, and we find the tool very useful. The tool enables us to monitor our carbon output, and to understand the main drivers of our carbon footprint. Knowledge of these aspects helps us to have a focused approach to reducing our footprint. The tool is well-designed, easy to use, and helps us to benchmark ourselves against other role players.”
Paul Clüver, Managing Director, De Rust Estate
“We have to know what our environmental impact is, and how to reduce it. And for that we need to measure our emissions. That’s why the carbon calculator is important. We’re collecting data, with the ultimate goal of learning how to achieve sustainability.
“I think it’s good to be part of an industry that’s attempting to develop a better understanding of our impact. Furthermore, I think it would be good if more people participated in this project, because then our data would get better. If you have lots of data, you can start to draw correlations with profitability, and figure out how to reduce your carbon footprint while staying profitable.”