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Wine Australia’s climate change investments for the sector

21 Jan 2022
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Climate change is irrefutable. 

This statement will come as no surprise to grapegrowers and winemakers, or to most readers of this newsletter. It has long been recognised that climate change represents the biggest risk to the global wine sector.

Wine grapes and grapevines are particularly sensitive to the environment around them and we've already been dealing with the effects of climate change in our vineyards and wineries for a good couple of decades. In some ways, this means we are ahead of other agricultural sectors in adapting to the changes. 

The climate is continuing to change. One of the consequences of climate change is that generally it is going to be warmer and drier everywhere. 

Rainfall patterns will also change – for example there is likely to be less rain in winter and more in summer than we record now. Climate variability, particularly season-to-season, will increase, as will the frequency of weather extremes that increase the risk of events like severe bushfires, which we have seen both in our country and overseas over the past few years. 

In 2020, Wine Australia released the Wine Climate Atlas with the University of Tasmania, which provides detailed projections for viticulturally relevant parameters in the short-, medium-, and long-term (out to 2100) for each wine region in Australia. It’s a valuable insight into what changes are in store for your region. We would like to acknowledge the outstanding work of the research team at the University of Tasmania who developed the Wine Climate Atlas, in particular lead researcher Dr Rebecca Harris who recently passed away. Dr Harris was a globally respected climate scientist and leaves an important legacy with the Australian grape and wine community that will help us in our current and future climate actions. She will be greatly missed. 

Consequences for our production chain

Figure 1: Climate change threats to wine production

Climate change has consequences for our entire production chain in both the short and long term (see Figure 1). We already see an impact on our vine productivity and vine phenology, with grapes ripening earlier than they used to. Different varieties are tending to mature together, which results in vintage compression that puts pressure on our winery infrastructure. Grapes ripen over a shorter period, affecting the development of the colour and flavour profile. In addition, grapes are being harvested at increasingly high sugar levels, resulting in wines with increased alcohol concentration which require management at the winery.

In the longer term, we may start to see changes in pest and disease pressures, which will need different management strategies in the vineyard. Some of our traditional winegrape varieties may not be as suitable as they are now for some regions. Water security will become an issue, and the wine sector will be competing with other agricultural sectors for dwindling resources. As the producer of a luxury good, this is a threat to our social licence to operate. Trade restrictions, including international carbon tariffs, will affect where and how we sell our wine.

Among the challenges there are some opportunities. Grapegrowing areas can expand into different regions. There is also huge scope to expand our range of cultivars to varieties better suited to a warmer and drier climate and tailored to particular regions. Currently worldwide, 80 per cent of wine production only uses 1 per cent of the available grapevine diversity. Even the new trade regulations offer an opportunity – a chance to demonstrate our ‘clean and green’ credentials.

Responding to the changes

There are two responses to climate change (see Figure 2).

On one hand we have adaptation, which is helping producers to deal with the effects of climate change – adapting to the changes that we can't avoid, as mentioned above. This is largely the main focus of the Australian wine sector so far, and Wine Australia investments in this area are ongoing. Currently, we’re investing in R&D projects on smoke taint, vintage compression, dry winters, improved forecasting of extreme climate events and rootstock and variety breeding for improved stress tolerance. We have practice change and adoption programs in irrigation best practice, cover crops and functional biodiversity, all of which are designed to help producers build climate resilience and manage their land in a sustainable fashion.

But the landscape is rapidly changing. There's an increasing urgency in the conversation around mitigation – action to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. 

Figure 2: Building climate resilience

Businesses are under commercial, regulatory and social pressures to reduce their carbon footprint and this is being passed on to everyone in the value and supply chain. There are a large range of options at our disposal for managing our emissions. It's important to recognise the benefits of being carbon neutral, know what your baseline is in your business, understand the opportunities for change and make a start – even though things might not necessarily seem perfect right now.

Aside from minimising the impact of climate change, there are opportunities for grape and wine businesses to benefit from reducing their carbon footprint. Climate mitigation activities in the vineyard and winery can reduce input costs and directly impact the bottom line. Sustainable practices can improve vine health and productivity and contribute to environmental stewardship, as well as helping to meet regulatory requirements of export markets and demand from suppliers and consumers for ‘clean and green’ products.

Opportunities for emissions reduction

Generally speaking, we’re a low emitting sector within agriculture. However, as we’ve seen, wine production is under particular threat from climate change, and we all understand we have an obligation to reduce our impact on the climate. 

Life Cycle Analyses both here and overseas show that approximately half the emissions of a bottle of wine are from packaging and transport (Figure 3). Such studies also allow opportunities for emissions reduction to be identified across the supply chain. 

Figure 3:Carbon footprint of a bottle of wine (Source AWRI)

What is the Australian wine sector doing about climate mitigation?

Many wine businesses are already reducing their carbon footprint. We’re ahead of the game in uptake of solar energy compared to other agricultural sectors in Australia and the wine sector internationally. Individual businesses are adopting long-term environmental strategies, using sustainable production practices and striving for carbon neutrality. There are already five Australian wine companies that are certified carbon neutral and others have made public commitments to emissions and sustainability targets. 

The Australian wine sector’s sustainability program Sustainable Winegrowing Australia allows producers to track their progress in adoption of sustainable production practices. It incorporates the Australian wine carbon calculator to capture emissions data and is a great asset for the sector. 

Collectively our sector has set a goal through Vision 2050 to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Australian Grape & Wine recently revised the goal to net zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2035. But how do we get there? 

A roadmap to net zero emissions

On 8 July 2022, Wine Australia announced that it is working with Edge Environment to deliver an Emissions Reduction Roadmap for the Australian grape and wine sector. This will recommend achievable emissions reduction targets, guide the sector collectively towards those targets and provide practical information for producers to manage their emissions. Find out more about the project and how you can be involved here

We're also going to establish a baseline of greenhouse gas emissions so that we can track progress and identify opportunities for reduction. The emissions component of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia will be reviewed to improve the metrics captured and build more rigour into the data. 

We are actively collaborating with other agricultural sectors in Australia on common priorities in climate via the Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) Climate Initiative and the Climate Resilience priority of Agriculture Innovation Australia. We also co-fund a project with the other RDCs and CSIRO to produce a common language and carbon accounting approach across the whole of agriculture, which will allow us to contribute collectively to national emissions goals. 

A number of federal and state government funding schemes are currently available, together with other initiatives such as the Innovation Hubs. We will keep abreast of the opportunities in order to leverage the maximum benefit for the grape and wine sector. 

It’s important to make a start

Climate and carbon emissions are complex and busy spaces. New carbon companies pop up daily, as do different initiatives and technologies, so it is easy to feel overwhelmed. However, it's important to make a start. We can commit to emissions targets as a sector and identify the opportunities for emissions abatement and carbon sequestration. The net zero carbon roadmap will help to collectively guide our progress. Put a foot on the path to zero emissions within your own business, even if the pathway ahead might not necessarily seem perfect yet. 

This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.