Developing northern Australia: is carbon farming part of the dream?

The first ever White Paper on Developing Northern Australia was released in June 2015 spruiking a vision to unlock vast untapped potential.

Is carbon farming going to sweep the north in the rush of development?

Well, not exactly.

Despite 55 savanna projects in the north and counting, ‘carbon farming’ rates only the briefest of mentions: a breakout box in the business section recounting the savanna burning story and a mention on applying indigenous expertise in the culture section (the Carbon Farming Futures program rates a mention; alas, we are still waiting for a number of case studies from that program which remain unpublished). The drafting team even managed to resist a nod to carbon farming in the reforms to pastoral land section, where expansion of activities on pastoral leases is covered.

This is a pity.

Map of northern Australia showing the different kinds of land tenure. Source: Geoscience Australia in the White Paper

There are some basic things which would help clear the decks for carbon farmers. For example, the Northern Territory lacks any carbon legislation and is lukewarm on support for carbon farming. This has been okay for savanna burning to date, but what about when landholders apply for sequestration projects? Savanna sequestration is not far away, possibly as early as 2017. A scheme could be useful for those carbon right consents that will be required.

Tenure tensions have simmered in Western Australia also, with the rangelands reform proposal not implemented and the government not fully behind savanna projects in the Kimberley. Getting everyone on the same sheet here would also be useful.

The reality is that carbon farming has already delivered more than $20m worth of carbon credits and a further 7 million carbon credits are contracted for delivery under the Emissions Reduction Fund. That’s sounding like a $100m agribusiness. Plus the considerable landscape and social benefits that go with projects.

To help promote the carbon farming story in this context, Rowan will present at the Developing Northern Australia conference on 20-22 June 2016 in Darwin (I’ve given you some talking points Rowan!)

More broadly, the manifesto seems more aimed at the big end of town. Headliners include a $5b infrastructure facility, $600m for key roads and $200m for water. Even the land reforms proposed seem more geared to facilitating miners and developers rather than empowering the landowners themselves. There are, however, some interesting proposals around leveraging native title for commercial loans and providing financial support for native title corporations. There’s also a funky interactive map with various datasets.

Reading through this though, I feel the document lacks a sense of what are we really trying to do and why are we doing it. The document talks about realising ‘untapped potential’ and in the same breath talks about maintaining a ‘pristine natural environment’. If that were really the case, wouldn’t we see a bit more about things like carbon farming which are about looking after land?

There is a line that caught my eye which is quite relevant to carbon farming:

Commonwealth Government can remove impediments to growth by reducing regulatory risk…

That’s a nice memo to all parties: a bit more carbon policy certainty and we could all get on with this.

While there are some opportunities in this initiative, it seems likely that carbon farmers will have to look elsewhere to build their carbon farming dreams.