Labor's Carbon Farming Initiative - a chance to get things started? Opinion Article

Aug 19, 2010 - 10:00am

By Corey Watts, Regional Projects Manager, The Climate Institute

Well, it’s still anyone’s game, and both major parties have all but put all of their carbon cards on the table.

The Climate Institute has already commented on the Coalition’s soil carbon policy [see below]. Now, the Government has pledged to introduce a  Carbon Farming  initiative if re-elected. Essentially, they seem to have lifted the agriculture and forestry offsets outlined in the proposed CPRS, brought them forward, and are proposing to open the market to overseas buyers. 

Under the proposed initiative, power companies and other polluters could offset their emissions by purchasing, for example, low emissions management of livestock, avoided land clearing, new carbon forests and the management of fire in tropical savannahs.

On the face of it, this has the potential to give landholders a significant stake in the transition to a low carbon economy. It might also help to remove some of the fear and confusion around emissions trading and still widespread in the rural community, as more people start to see real opportunities in this carbon thing. 

It should also give the nascent carbon forestry sector, in particular, a chance to recover from the hit they took when the CPRS was shelved. 

Note that, contrary to some of the commentary, the Initiative would only include Kyoto-compliant offsets. This means soil carbon is out; or rather, still has a shot at the National Carbon Offset Standard. 

Unfortunately, without a firm commitment to an emissions trading scheme, domestic demand is likely to be modest. 

As to the potential for international demand, we just don’t know. If it’s high, then the carbon price should float up to the international mark (around $20/tonne), which, while still only a modest incentive, could be enough to top up existing market drivers for more efficient, lower emissions production. 

Clearly, the introduction to an emissions trading scheme, or even a solid pledge and timeline, would spur on domestic demand. Another, broader concern, is that carbon credits sold overseas won’t count towards Australia’s target, and hence we can’t use on-farm abatement so purchased to meet our international obligations. 

Labor has promised $20 million for research in to soil carbon and biochar, and $45 million to assist ‘landcare’ grapple with administration and ease landholders entry into the new marketplace. These too are welcome, though it’s not clear if they actually represent new funding.

There are a number of groups keen to realise the potential of a carbon market - you know who you are! It strikes me that this money would be best used to help leaders over the line, rather than trying to shift laggards. How this money is used will make a big difference to people’s confidence and the Initiative's success. 

Regardless of what team you support, what’s really interesting, it seems to me, is that both major parties have put forward a carbon farming scheme of one sort of another. That’s got to be a first! It’s crucial that, at the very least, landholders are given a good shot at becoming part of the solution to global warming.

One thing’s for sure: whoever wins on Saturday, there will still be a lot of work to do. 

Corey Watts

Corey Watts is the Manager of Policy and Science Projects at The Climate Institute. He works with scientists, communicators, and policymakers to promote public literacy in climate science, understand climate risks for Australian life and society, and help ensure public policy matches the science of climate change. Hailing from Western Australia, Corey studied biology at Murdoch University and later earnt a Master’s in environmental history and policy from the University of Melbourne. He has worked in environmental science, research, and policy development. 

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