How ‘carbon farming’ is sucking the life out of our outback communities

The Paroo Shire in western Queensland is struggling to overcome a key plank in addressing climate change that has hit its population levels, economy and social cohesion.

Sep 25, 2020, updated Sep 25, 2020
Carbon Market Institute chief John Connor (L) with farmer Peter Yench, who has earned millions for carbon farming through federal government credits. (AAP Image/Supplied by Carbon Market Institute)

Carbon Market Institute chief John Connor (L) with farmer Peter Yench, who has earned millions for carbon farming through federal government credits. (AAP Image/Supplied by Carbon Market Institute)

The shire, based on the town of Cunnamulla, has only 1580 people, a level that has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years because of drought but more are leaving as carbon farming takes hold in the mulga country.

Farms that were used for cattle, sheep and goats have been locked up under a scheme in which an individual or business can earn carbon credits for restoring land to natural vegetation. One tonne of greenhouse gas abatement equals one tradeable carbon credit which has a spot price above $16.

Paroo has become a focal point of the scheme. According to the background to a motion the Paroo Council is putting the Local Government Association conference later this year, more than 44 million carbon credit units have been issued nationally. About 11 million have been in Queensland and of those 3 million have been in the Paroo council area.

Carbon farming is a key plank of the Morrison Government’s emission reduction policies under its technology roadmap, but there are also doubts about its effectiveness and questions about the cost of measuring its impact.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said carbon farming is a key focus of the Government’s strategy.

” I think it’s a really big deal,” Taylor told an industry forum last week.

The State Government has also been supportive. A 2017 Queensland Government report found the state could benefit by up to $4.7 billion from carbon farming and there were about 250 carbon farms in the state.

Paroo Mayor Suzette Beresford said the council had no issues with farmers earning extra income from carbon farming.

“Our issue is the absentees who buy properties, lock them up and walk away,” she said.

“We have got a large number of those. That’s where we feel the impact.

“I know there is one individual who has 11 properties in our shire so I guess it’s a lucrative, passive income.”

The motion to the conference said it was “a big ask” for a small community to shoulder the burden and unintended consequences of a national policy that has no form of redress for local government.

“We estimate we are likely to lose 450,000 sheep-goat equivalent (in the shire),” Bresford said.

“The equates to 38 full-time jobs, but it depopulates our area because owners and employers are no longer needed to fence stock and maintain full capacity.

“We get a decrease in operational expenditure and capital improvement.

“Some of our pastoralists have a portion of their land under carbon farming and that provides another income stream and provides capital for investing and assists with a bit of income during drought and we have no argument with that.”

It’s the so-called special interest groups, or companies formed to make money from carbon farming. In the first quarter of 2019-20, 3.6 million Australian Carbon Credits were issued.

The problem for Paroo is that there is no landscape management or firebreaks. There’s no pest control for dogs and pigs and cluster fencing is difficult for properties adjoining the carbon farm. Even more profound is the loss of people, which Beresford said leads to a loss of community and social cohesion as neighbours suddenly disappear.

“We are still obliged to provide services to these people like roads,” Beresford said.

“I’m not sure whether the Federal Government realised the full impacts when these contracts were issued.

“We are looking at them to maybe put something in future contracts to amend this, particularly with landscape management.

“We also feel we need a bit of compensation.”

The motion to be put to the LGAQ conference is for a lobbying effort to start to convince the state and federal governments to investigate the impacts and provide mechanisms for local governments to deal with the decline in rates.

Murweh Mayor Shaun (Zoro) Radnedge said about 23 per cent of landholders in the council’s area were carbon farming.

“It’s definitely a problem,” he said and citing landscape management as the primary issue.

“You can’t blame the farmers. They’ve had years of drought.

“The biggest problem is the ones who walk away.

“For a big corporate on the coast it costs nothing to buy land out here to offset their emissions.”

He set a bold target to reduce the cost of measuring carbon in the soil as the first step in firing up interest in the sector.

Measuring carbon is expensive, which is making it difficult for many farmers to meet the criteria of the Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund.

Angus Taylor wants to cut the cost by 90 per cent but soil carbon expert, Professor Budiman Minasny, said cutting it in half to about $50/hectare is more likely, well short of the $3/hectare target.

Can storing carbon in the soil really make a difference?

Michael Crawford from the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performing Soils (Soils CRC) said the cost of measuring carbon is not the main issue.

He said the lack of reliable, adoptable, profitable methods for sequestering carbon in Australian farming systems is a much bigger problem.

Even with the massive growth of minimum till farming across Australia, the amount of carbon levels have stagnated or even declined.

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“The amount of carbon is increasing at best 0.2–0.4 tonne per hectare and in some cases it’s declining up to 0.5 tonne per hectare,” Dr Crawford said.

That is partly because Australian soils just are not as fertile as other countries.

“With our low to medium rainfall, warm summers and because of the soil types, we don’t get the build up of organic material,” Crawford said.

He thought the focus on reducing the cost of measurement was a mistake. “It’s like saying ‘if you want to run fast you need to get a better stop watch’, or ‘if you want to lose weight you need a new set of scales,” he said.

Crawford wanted investment to focus on proving new methods of storing carbon in the soil, like cover cropping (the practice of sowing a crop between harvests to maintain ground cover), or using different grazing systems, as well as composts, biochar, compost and manures.

What carbon actually looks like

The Carbon Funding Initiative has been operating for eight years, paying farmers and other land managers to capture greenhouse gas emissions and store them in vegetation and soil, or to reduce emissions from livestock or savanna fires.

The fund began underneath Julia Gillard’s carbon pricing mechanism and now its part of the Coalition’s Emission Reduction Fund.

The number of projects has surged by 60 per cent this year to 640 with a large number in New South Wales and Queensland.

John Connor, the CEO of industry organisation the Carbon Market Institute, said there are 140 between Bourke and Cobar alone.

“Those projects get up to about 28 million tonnes of carbon production, which is the same as the emissions from NSW transport in a year,” he said.

Carbon farmer and grazier in Bourke, Michael Marshman, said payments from the Carbon Emissions Fund have provided him with a crucial income stream during the drought and enabled him to “rest” his property.

“Not only did we have to reduce stock to promote regeneration but we had extra finances from carbon farming so we didn’t have the pressure to run stock when we shouldn’t during the drought,” he said.

Marshman also stopped running sheep or goats because they are one of the first animals to knock off seedlings as they come through the ground.

Changes needed

Marshman does think reducing the cost of measuring carbon would make a difference to landholders with smaller holdings.

“The threshold is about 10,000 acres to make a project worthwhile because of the cost of setting up and measuring the carbon storage, so there were quite a lot of small graziers who couldn’t get into it because their properties were too small,” he said.

He would also like to see a change in the amount of vegetation cover allowed.

“A lot of places aren’t eligible because they’ve already got more than 20 per cent canopy cover on their property and that’s when its classed as a forest and they can’t claim it under the guidelines,” Marshman said.

– additional reporting ABC / Lucy Thackray and David Claughton

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