While the federal government boasts of decreasing carbon emissions from land clearing, state records show rapidly increasing rates of clearing, at great expense to the Emissions Reduction Fund. By Mike Seccombe.

Land clearing and climate change

There are lies, damned lies and Turnbull government statistics about Australia’s contribution to global climate change.

Take, for example, the figures it provides on greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land clearing. If you believe them, the cutting and burning of native vegetation by farmers and other landholders resulted in 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being added to the air in 2015-16.

That might seem like a lot, but there is good reason to suspect it represents just a few percentage points of truth.

In the same year that the federal government claimed 1.7 million tonnes of carbon emissions for the whole country, Queensland – the state that has both the nation’s worst record for land clearing and the best system for recording it – claimed by itself to have contributed some 26 times that amount.

In 2015-16, recently released data from the Queensland government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) shows, 395,000 hectares of land was cleared, producing 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

If you believe the federal government, nationwide carbon pollution from land clearing was down 13 per cent that year, compared with 2014-15. Yet the SLATS numbers show the amount of land cleared in Queensland was up 30 per cent, year on year.

The federal figures show CO2 emissions from land clearing are down about 90 per cent since 2012-13. Yet the SLATS data shows the area of land cleared annually in Queensland has gone up fourfold over the same period. In total, some 1.5 million hectares – an area rather larger than Northern Ireland – was cleared over the five years to 2015-16. And that was just in Queensland.

How can one set of official figures from the federal government show a dramatic decline in the CO2 emissions from land clearing, while another set of official figures from Queensland shows a dramatic increase in the rate of land clearing?

Something doesn’t add up here, particularly given the evidence showing land-clearing rates are going up fast elsewhere in Australia as well.

And it’s not just in terms of hectares and emissions where it doesn’t add up. Conservationists say it doesn’t add up in terms of taxpayer dollars either.

As of April this year, when the Turnbull government completed its fifth round of “ERF auctions” – the process by which it pays polluters through its Emissions Reduction Fund to pollute less – $1.4 billion had been spent buying promises of greenhouse gas abatement from the agriculture and land sector. Allegedly, this bought a saving of 122 million tonnes of greenhouse gas over several decades – about 80 per cent of the ERF abatement total – in the form of vegetation that would not be cut down by landowners. About 80 per cent of the claimed ERF CO2 abatement was from the land sector.

Leaving aside the expert analysis suggesting that in many cases farmers were being paid to not cut down vegetation they would not have cut anyway, the Queensland data shows a lot of landholders continue to clear land, thereby undermining the intent of the scheme. Assuming a continuation of the current rates of clearing, in less than two years the emissions from Queensland’s rampant land clearing will exceed the amount the federal government has saved so far.

Another, sixth round of ERF auctions will be completed next week, likely adding to what Lyndon Schneiders, the national campaigns director for the Wilderness Society, calls a “policy disaster and a scandalous waste of taxpayer funds”.

The idea of paying landholders to protect native vegetation could have been a “win–win” for farmers and the environment, Schneiders says, had it been coupled with strong land-clearing laws.

“Instead, the need to appease the reactionaries of the National Party has delivered a massive rort,” he says. “We are now in the ridiculous position where almost $2 billion will have been handed over to farmers to stop clearing the bush even as Coalition governments in New South Wales and Queensland declared war on the environment by gutting the laws that protected the bush from clearing.”

Some context helps explain Schneiders’ frustration.

Between 1998 and 2010, Queensland’s Labor government, first under Peter Beattie and then Anna Bligh, had progressively reduced the rates of clearing in the state from about 750,000 hectares per year to less than 90,000. They went up somewhat in the last year of the Bligh government, to about 150,000.

But in 2012 the Liberal National Party under Campbell Newman was elected, having promised to “retain the current level of statutory vegetation protection”.

That promise was broken within weeks. First it was announced that existing laws would not be enforced and active investigations into illegal clearing would be discontinued. Then came changes to the land-clearing laws introducing “self-assessable codes” and allowing broad-scale clearing.

Within two years, clearing rates doubled. And they continued to increase even after Labor returned to minority government in 2015, because it could not get new vegetation management laws through the parliament. In 2015-16, on the SLATS data, the rate was 395,000 hectares, with almost half that area in river catchments that fed onto the Great Barrier Reef, resulting in increased sediment onto the coral.

An analysis of Queensland government clearing notifications, released last month by the Wilderness Society, found another million hectares was slated to be flattened this year.

It now seems all but certain that when all the votes are tallied from the state’s November 25 election, Labor will form a majority government, which should at last put the brakes on the deforestation. During the campaign, Labor promised major reform, including a review of all the contentious self-assessable codes.

But even as the rate of land clearing appears set to decline in Queensland, it is increasing elsewhere, notably NSW. The story there is similar to that of Queensland. In 2005, on best official estimates, about 75,000 hectares of native bush was cleared. Then the Carr Labor government introduced new native vegetation laws, and it dropped by about 80 per cent.

In the past year, at the urging of miners, farmers and the Nationals, new laws were passed and regulation dramatically wound back. In most cases landholders can self-assess, notifying government but requiring no further approval. The new regime came into force in August, despite opposition from Labor and the Greens.

Last week the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, represented by the Environmental Defenders Office NSW, began legal proceedings in the Land and Environment Court seeking to overturn the new land-clearing codes.

Essentially they will argue the government did not observe due process in formulating the new codes. One of the grounds for the action is that the primary industries minister, the Nationals’ Niall Blair, failed to fulfil a legal duty to obtain the “concurrence” of Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton before making the codes. Documents obtained under freedom of information laws suggest she approved the codes retrospectively.

It’s too early to say what effect the new regime will have on land-clearing rates, if indeed they survive the legal challenge. But they could potentially open up hundreds of thousands of hectares to unregulated clearing. Hence Schneiders’ strong words about Nationals rorting the taxpayer by driving moves at a state level to make it easier for landholders to cut down bush even as the federal government spends vast sums to discourage it.

David Morris, chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office NSW, which is running the legal challenge, sees the regulatory backsliding as part of a broader trend to greater rates of land clearing and “the regression of state and territory native vegetation laws”.

Consider the case of Western Australia, where the state environment protection agency has repeatedly complained that the fragmented approvals system and lack of any centralised database make it impossible to get any clear picture of the extent of land clearing. It did so again in its latest annual report, noting a general lack of regulation and 40 different types exemptions to even the limited existing protection regime.

Or take the Northern Territory. In the past two years there has been an almost tenfold increase in clearing, compared with the average over the previous 12 years. Last year, 43,500 hectares was approved for clearing. This year a similar area was either approved or pending approval, although conservationists claim a great deal more clearing goes completely under the radar.

The Environmental Defenders Office NSW has been engaged by the Environment Centre NT to advise on a potential challenge in the territory Supreme Court to a decision to allow the clearing of more than 20,000 hectares of native bush for pasture on NT’s Maryfield Station.

Notwithstanding the size of the area involved, the territory’s environment protection agency found no need for an environmental impact statement. In doing so, it not only ignored the local effects on biodiversity but also the broader consequences for federal climate change targets.

Morris reads from the EPA’s decision: “Greenhouse gas emissions have not been considered in the proponent’s application. The project is likely to make a considerable contribution to the NT’s annual greenhouse gas emissions as a result of vegetation clearing …”

But, it continued: “In the absence of government policy to guide decision making the NT EPA considers the project’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the national context does not constitute a significant impact on the environment.”

Morris says this process is not isolated. “There are numerous examples throughout the country of clearing being retrospectively approved, of apparently unauthorised clearing going uninvestigated or unpunished and of major applications being approved despite failing to address government guidelines, requirements or principles,” he says. “Overall, it is difficult to see why the community should have any confidence at all in our current land-clearing laws.”

Nor, as a consequence, should we have any great confidence in the federal government’s assertions that Australia is pulling its weight in mitigating climate change. How can we know we are meeting our targets when we have no accurate picture of how much bush is being bulldozed?

To Morris, the solution is obvious. “Given the varying quality of regulatory regimes, data, monitoring requirements and enforcement capabilities at state and territory levels it’s clear that the Commonwealth needs to step in and legislate to bring consistency and rigour to land-clearing laws throughout the country.”

Sadly, the risks are also obvious: the National Party and its landholder constituency would scream. And the truth would come out, that the government’s climate change targets are a crock.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2017 as "Compromised land".

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