Australian Rangeland Society

Russell Grant, Local Land Services Western Region, 
PO Box 307,  Cobar  NSW  2835.  Email:  russell.grant@lls.nsw.gov.au

John Gavin, Remarkable NRM, PO Box 32, Wilmington  SA  5485.   Email:  johngavin@remarkablenrm.com.au

In late October, a successful Rangelands Carbon Conference was held in Cobar, western NSW, hosted by Local Land Services Western Region with support from the Australian Government. The event attracted more than 160 participants who heard twenty four speakers discussing various aspects of the emerging carbon economy. The audience included other landholders, land management and carbon-based government staff as well as representatives of carbon aggregator businesses. Gus Whyte has provided a detailed appraisal of workshop content later in this newsletter.

Prior to the superseding of previous arrangements in February this year, approximately 40 per cent of all Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) generated through the Australian Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative had been issued to projects in the rangelands.    These activities accounted for almost all of the land sector ACCUs issued. Over 14.5 million ACCU’s have been issued (2/2/15) to 159 projects with over 5.6 million ACCUs issued to agricultural projects occurring almost exclusively in the rangelands of Australia.

Since that time the importance of the rangelands in meeting Australia’s emissions reduction has only increased.  The majority of credits have been issued to projects being delivered in Western NSW, however South West Queensland is also involved in a large way and an increasing number of credits are being generated by implementing early dry season burns in the sub-tropical savannahs. Nationally, the carbon market is estimated to have generated well in excess of $500 million dollars in payments or contracts for future delivery, across the rangelands of Australia.

Unlike the situation in some other states, the holders of Western Lands Leases in NSW are able to gain approval to generate carbon credits from their land. The carbon economy is therefore a reality in the Cobar area, with projects totalling in excess of one third of a billion dollars awarded to less than one hundred landholders through the April and November Emissions Reduction Fund reverse auctions. These projects are based on the following methodologies:

  • Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative—Avoided Deforestation 1.1) Methodology Determination 2015
  • Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) (Human-Induced Regeneration of a Permanent Even-Aged Native Forest—1.1) Methodology Determination 2013

The avoided deforestation methodology involves landholders rescinding the right to clear forested land for the purpose of grazing or cropping where a clearing approval process had been finalized before 30 June 2010. For the purpose of the methodology, a forest is defined as a community with greater than 20 per cent cover of trees greater than two metres in height occupying an area greater than 0.2 hectares.  Projects mostly involve landholdings covered by an Invasive Native Scrub Property Vegetation Plan under the NSW Native Vegetation Act 2003 where landholders originally intended to combat woody thickening to improve native grass cover through selective clearing of nominated invasive species below a stem diameter of 20 centimetres.

The human-induced regeneration methodology involves the removal of pressures such as grazing that may have been suppressing the regeneration of native plant communities for a period of at least ten years.  It relies on a change of management that promotes the regeneration of native species through in-situ seed sources.

The emergence of carbon as an enterprise presents Cobar landholders with a welcome new income source in a pastoral economy dealing with ongoing drought, woody thickening and encroachment, high levels of unmanaged grazing pressure as well as declining infrastructure. However despite the obvious short-term benefits, there are a range of longer-term issues to consider:

  • Carbon contracts have a maintenance life of 25 or 100 years, with the large majority of participating landholders in the Western Division, opting for a 100 year permanence obligation. What are the longer-term implications of contractual obligations on property value and maintenance of carbon outcomes? Will pastoral or other uses survive over this timeframe?
  • Carbon projects promoting woody thickening will possibly operate on a different tangent to current understanding of best practice management which focuses on “keeping open areas open” and maintaining mosaic grassy woodlands. What are the productivity and ecological outcomes of promoting woody thickening on open areas both at the property and regional scale?
  • The management of carbon projects may have different goals to currently-accepted management practice. For instance, while best practice pastoral management centres on improving groundcover to maintain landscape function and generate biomass, carbon projects may see good grass cover as a fire risk and an impediment to the growth of woody species.

Landscape-scale changes in pastoral and ecological values due to thickening and encroachment are widely-documented in rangeland literature. The avoided deforestation and enhanced regeneration models potentially challenge existing wisdom on what are good outcomes for rangelands. On the other hand, funded projects provide a once in a generation opportunity for landholders to develop infrastructure to improve property management.

Natural resource management interests keenly await soil carbon-based methodologies that reward landholders who regenerate the landscape through practices promoting groundcover or perennial grass growth. Such approaches are dependent on the establishment of cost-effective ways of measurement of outcomes or other means of validation at a suitable scale for rangelands and these are yet to be developed. In the short-term, competing industrial abatement methodologies may undercut the carbon price to the point where land-based methods have limited financial appeal, so it may be some time before soil carbon emerges a big winner for rangeland managers.