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The majority of the Emissions Reduction Fund is poured into questionable abatement schemes to discourage land clearing, while mass deforestation cancels out any climate gains. By Mike Seccombe.

Land clearing and climate change

Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen has been dead more than a decade now, but the spirit of Queensland’s longest-serving and longest-lived premier still infuses conservative politics.

Joh famously left school at 14 and lived for 15 years in a leaky cow bail in the bush, working from dawn to dusk clearing native vegetation. He was an innovator who realised the quickest way to do it was to connect a heavy chain between two bulldozers and tear everything down, then burn it. Then he planted peanuts in the denuded Kingaroy soil and became a rich man.

His method and his mindset persist in Queensland, the bulldozers and acreages being flattened bigger than he would have dreamed of back in 1933. 

In the most recent year for which we have official figures, 2014-15, 296,000 hectares of trees were cleared across Queensland. It’s a big number to get your head around. That’s rather more than the total land area of the Australian Capital Territory, about 120 times the City of Sydney.

The previous year, 295,000 hectares were cleared and the year before that 153,000 hectares. The Queensland government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study numbers for last year are not yet out, but are expected to be about the same as recent years.

This is an enormous environmental issue in Queensland, of course, in terms of lost habitat and biodiversity. It’s also a huge environmental problem for Australia as a whole.

As a result of this slash-and-burn clearing, 36 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions are produced each year, according to the Queensland government’s own calculations. That is about 90 per cent of Australia’s emissions from land use.

It is also a national economic problem. It ensures that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being spent by the federal government on the pretext of meeting Australia’s international commitments to combat climate change through tree planting are ineffectual.

As of this month, when the government conducted the fifth round of auctions under its contentious Emissions Reduction Fund, it had spent $1.4 billion buying promises of greenhouse gas abatement from the agriculture and land sector. Allegedly, this will save the emission of 122 million tonnes of greenhouse gas over many decades.

Even if we assume this money has been well spent – and there is a large body of expert opinion that questions whether it has – the actions of the state of Queensland alone will quickly neutralise any benefit.

Do the maths. In barely more than three years the emissions from Queensland’s rampant land clearing will exceed the amount the federal government has saved. And Australia will have spent $2.4 billion for no net benefit.

Let’s go back now to the time of Sir Joh, who managed by dint of an outrageous electoral gerrymander to rule Queensland for more than 20 years. His Country Party – rebadged the National Party in 1974 – was enthusiastic about knocking down trees.

Official data shows that in the final couple of years of the National Party government, in the late 1980s, land was being cleared at the astonishing rate of almost three-quarters of a million hectares a year.

In December 1989, though, the Labor government of Wayne Goss came to power and in 1991 enacted Queensland’s first attempt at protecting endangered bushland. The new restrictions, however, applied only to leasehold land. On private land, farmers could still do as they liked. Still, the legislation reduced clearing by about 60 per cent, to about 300,000 hectares a year.

Six years later, the government changed again and under the Nationals the rate of clearing went up to 400,000, and it shot up even higher a couple years after that when Labor again won office. In the first five years of Peter Beattie’s government, 2.5 million hectares were cut.

It was not until 2004 that Labor got serious about controlling land clearing, and thereafter it declined quickly. By 2010 clearing was down about 90 per cent compared with the bad old days of Joh, and most of what was cut was regrowth. Only 22,000 hectares of old-growth “remnant” bush was felled – only being a relative term in this context.

That’s as good as it ever got, however. In March 2012 Campbell Newman’s Liberal National government was elected. The new premier did not believe in human-induced climate change and his government was not much concerned about environmental issues.

Promises were made before the election to keep the protections of Labor’s Vegetation Management Act, and they were broken almost immediately.

Exactly three weeks after the election, Newman’s minister for natural resources, Andrew Cripps, announced a moratorium on “investigation and enforcement processes for alleged illegal vegetation clearing”. The door was opened to wholesale land clearing again, even before the new government could push radical changes to the land management legislation through parliament.

“The worst bits of the new laws were the self-assessable codes,” says Martine Maron, associate professor of environmental management at the University of Queensland.

“The thinning code, one of the self-assessable codes, basically says that if you’ve got remnant bushland you can clear three-quarters of it as long as you leave strips. You don’t need a permit for that.

“They also removed protections introduced in 1998, covering longstanding regrowth, more than 30 years old, on endangered ecosystems and in riparian areas, many of which drain to the Great Barrier Reef.”

Wide-scale clearing of remnant vegetation was permitted for “high-value” agriculture and irrigated agriculture. But it was a con, says Maron.

“Huge areas were cut in places where it was inconceivable you could do cropping – where you could maybe do temporary cropping for fodder, which is a low-value crop.”

The Queensland government’s 2014-15 Landcover report bears Maron out. Ninety-one per cent of the cleared land “was replaced by pasture”, it says.

“The remaining 9 per cent was replaced by crop, forestry, mining infrastructure and settlements.”

That is to say the Newman government approved the felling of hundreds of thousands of hectares of remnant vegetation under false pretences.

Newman is gone now, swept from office in February 2015 after just a single term. But his regime’s legacy lives on. The minority Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk has been unable to get legislation through to reverse the changes.

And so to the federal part of the story.

As is well known, the Abbott–Turnbull government axed the previous Labor policy aimed at ameliorating climate change by imposing a price on carbon emissions. Having abandoned a market-based system, the conservative government opted to pay polluters not to pollute, via the centrepiece of its policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Also well established is the fact that since the new policy has been in place, Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases have gone up. Multiple credible analyses now suggest Australia will not meet even its modest greenhouse reduction targets, agreed at the 2015 United Nations climate change summit in Paris.

Less well known is the degree to which the Emissions Reduction Fund focuses on reducing emissions from the land sector.

A comprehensive analysis by Margaret Blakers and Margaret Considine, for the Green Institute, published in November, noted that more than 80 per cent of emissions are from industry, but 80 per cent of abatement through the fund is from the land sector. Only 4 per cent is from the energy and industrial processes sectors, which produce most of the emissions.

There is nothing wrong with that in theory – although it is indicative of the government’s reluctance to tackle big polluters. Well-managed natural ecosystems can soak up and store large amounts of carbon over time.

According to the Wilderness Society’s analysis of the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund spending, carried out for The Saturday Paper, projects were mostly in Queensland (47.8 per cent) and New South Wales (43.7 per cent). This included the most recent round of auctions, conducted a couple of weeks ago.

It seems paradoxical. Queensland, as we have already documented, has relaxed its land clearing laws, resulting in massive deforestation, while NSW also relaxed its laws in November, although we have yet to see the consequences.

“One of the common misconceptions is that a lot of the ERF money is for planting trees,” says the Wilderness Society’s Jess Panegyres. “Actually there are very few planting projects. Most is either avoided deforestation – not clearing – or allowing cleared vegetation to regrow.”

The analysis shows 69.1 per cent of spending from the fund went on regeneration projects – leaving cleared native forest areas to regrow – and another 22.3 per cent went on avoided deforestation. Just 8.6 per cent of projects involved actual planting.

And therein lies the great failing of the Emissions Reduction Fund, according to its many critics: the government has spent vast amounts of money paying landholders not to cut down trees they probably would not have cut anyway, and to allow the regrowth of trees they would have allowed to regrow anyway.

The first failing, says Dr Paul Burke, an economist and fellow at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy who has recently produced a major study of spending through the fund, relates particularly to NSW, where large numbers of landholders hold old permits to clear land – issued before July 2010 – but have never used them.

“This applies especially to farmers near Cobar and Bourke, who are being paid under the avoided deforestation part of the scheme,” he says.

“It is difficult for the government to know exactly what it is buying. It’s possible for farmers to receive funding to not clear land they were not planning to clear anyway.

“The government money in that case is contributing not much in the way of emissions reduction.”

It is a nice earner for landholders, though, and an easy option for the government. Burke notes, however, that the number of such “avoided deforestation” arrangements is likely to decrease because the amount of eligible land, where the landholder has historical, unused permits to clear, “is starting to run out”.

Perhaps an even more egregious flaw relates to the payments made for regeneration projects.

As the Green Institute report notes, more than half the abatement bought by the Emissions Reduction Fund comes from “just two mulga-dominated bioregions in south-west Queensland and western NSW”.

It’s very resilient stuff, mulga. Clear it, and within a decade or so it’s back. It covers vast areas of semi-arid Australia, where it is often used by landholders for fodder and re-cleared every 15 years to maintain pasture.

On average, the authors found, the government had paid landholders about $360 a hectare for avoided deforestation and about $205 a hectare for regeneration.

“For comparison, median farmland values in 2015 based on sales in the mulga regions were $78 per hectare (Cobar Shire), $58 per hectare (Paroo Shire),” their report says.

As if that deal wasn’t good enough for graziers, they were not required to stop their land clearing forever.

“One-quarter of all contracted abatement is by definition not ‘permanent’, with participants having opted for a 25-year permanence period, [meaning] ‘permanence’ may represent little more than the deferral of one clearing cycle,” the report says.

“Carbon credits generated by these projects will represent shorter and shorter sequestration periods as projects approach their end dates, but will still be treated as equivalent to genuinely permanent abatement from other sectors.”

There were big questions, too, over projects with longer permanence periods of up to 100 years.

 “Ongoing management of the revegetation projects was the responsibility of the landholder, or of the new landholder if the property changed hands. Yet the income was heavily ‘front-loaded’.”

And that is the key point. Instead of opting to make real, permanent reductions to Australia’s carbon by, for example, shifting energy generation from fossil fuels to renewables, the government has focused its efforts on buying – renting, really – abatement from the land sector.

“There is a legitimate case for putting money into the restoration of the Australian landscape,” Panegyres says. “You could actually do the land sector very well – it’s just a shame that the ERF hasn’t been set up to do a good job.”

And so long as state governments – particularly Queensland – continue to allow huge areas of land to be cleared, even that abatement will be overwhelmed.

But the ideological descendants of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the National Party are determined to stymie change.

Back in August 2014, farmer Ian Turnbull, 79, who was being prosecuted for illegal land clearing on his property at Croppa Creek near Moree, shot dead a NSW environment officer, Glen Turner.

The response from those on the political right was disturbingly understanding of the murderer.

Barnaby Joyce, the federal agriculture minister and then-deputy leader of the National Party, saw it as the consequence of landcare laws – the “crazy situation where you don’t own the vegetation on your land, the state government does, and many people have had enough”.

Joyce, like Bjelke-Petersen, like Campbell Newman, doesn’t believe in human-induced global warming, only in a simplistic view of property rights. The irony, of course, is that his constituents on the land are among those most at risk from climate change.

It’s the Joh view, the view from the cab of a D9 dozer. Knock it down and damn the consequences.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "La la land management". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.