Features Australia

Forestry fudging

No climate gain in soil pain

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

Under pressure to adopt an essentially meaningless policy, a promise to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, Scott Morrison’s federal government may adopt a meaningless solution in the next budget – land use and forestry schemes for absorbing carbon.

In a variation on a dodge used by Australia to meet previous climate targets, the Morrison government could allocate a few billion dollars in the next federal budget to schemes of varying worth to turn soils and forests into carbon sinks. The government can then claim Australia is soaking up as much carbon as it is emitting and that is a form of net zero emissions – achieved without any of the immense economic pain a serious policy would create.

An additional benefit is that such schemes would placate the National party which has been mostly opposed to any net zero declaration, albeit now indicating it might accept such a policy provided that the agricultural sector is excluded. The party’s electorates and voters would take most of the tax dollars allocated, possibly for farmers doing little more than changing how they use their land.

Whether this soils policy, whatever form it might take, actually reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is beside the point. Even after decades of research the calculations are hardly an exact science and, in any case, the reduction would not matter much one way or another even if global warming is to be taken seriously. The important point is for the government to seen to be doing something. Such is the state of public policy in Australia.

In statements on the issue in early February, Morrison ruled out following Australia’s major trading partners in adopting a net zero emissions policy, unless technology emerges that permits such a goal without mass economic devastation. However, during all the manoeuv-ring, he also indicated that the May budget would contain a ‘soils strategy’.

There are no details on just what form that soils strategy might take, but an indication is a publicised deal announced in late January when Microsoft, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, purchased $500,000 in carbon credits from New England cattle business Wilmot Cattle Company.

Wilmot created the carbon credits by changing around how it grazed cattle with the added benefit that the company is ensuring it will not be over-grazing in drought years. Details of the deal are confidential but, crucially, Wilmot may also have gained in productivity and output through the changes. The company farmed smarter and picked up a nice pay- out for its troubles.

For those who consider a soils strategy to be cheating, and many do, the use of allowances for forestry and land use by countries unwilling or unable to meet their climate obligations by simply cutting emissions has long been a feature of the climate debate.

When the various signatory countries to the now-defunct Kyoto Protocol calculated their emissions, they were allowed a land-use, land-use change and forestry (or LULUCF) adjustment. Anyone who tried to make sense of the reports submitted by the signatory countries on their submissions encountered LULUCF adjustments which radically and mysteriously changed the country’s total emissions.

LULUCF adjustments have continued in the successor Paris agreement, proving helpful to countries who want to report additional reductions. The EU’s 2030 Climate and Energy Framework says: ‘The 40 per cent greenhouse gas target is implemented by the EU Emissions Trading System, the Effort Sharing Regulation with Member States’ emissions reduction targets and the land use, land use change and forestry regulation. In this way, all sectors will contribute to the achievement of the 40 per cent target by both reducing emissions and increasing removals.’

Australia has also used such adjustments. Academics who wring their hands over Australia’s lack of climate activity point out that when the original Kyoto agreement was negotiated in the 1990s, Australia managed to include an allowance for the emissions from land clearance in its emissions baseline. The baseline, set in 1990 for most countries signing Kyoto, is used as a reference for all further emission reductions. These are expressed as a percentage reduction on the emissions for that year.

As Australia was clearing a lot of forests in 1990, thanks to lax Queensland laws, the result was a high emissions baseline. Australia only ratified Kyoto when Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 but when it did the higher baseline meant that it was relatively easy for the country to meet its obligations under the treaty.

Australia is by no means alone in adopting ‘accounting tricks’ as these dodges have been called. Russia, for example, set its baseline at 1990 when the old Soviet-era messy manufacturing sector was still in full swing. In fact, it is difficult to find any signatory country to Kyoto that did not have some easy escape clause in meeting its climate obligations.

The Paris agreement permits each country to set its own goals and Australia has set a reasonably ambitious target of reducing emissions by 22-28 per cent below emissions in 2005 by 2030. However, to the horror of academics, the government wants to use surplus credits from the Kyoto agreement to meet its Paris obligations. It is not clear that Australia will be allowed to do this under the still to be finalised rules governing such matters.

However, there are no rules governing what countries can do in meeting the net zero goal, and even green voters and the media seem to be unaware of, or indifferent to, the forestry clearance dodge. Claiming carbon absorption by, say, allowing cleared forests to grow is an easy way to confuse the issue.

In any case, without these accounting dodges, the net zero goal is simply impossible to achieve short of shutting down major industries such as steel and cement manufacturing, as well as banning aviation, coal mining and cruise ships, amongst other activities. Those who support the goal believe they have a way to reduce emissions in the power industry through the use of renewables but, when asked about industries such as steel smelting, retreat into fantasy about the use of hydrogen. The government has allocated $1.9 billion for research into areas such as so called green hydrogen and carbon absorption in soils, but so far emissions-free smelting remains a distant dream.

But then there is a dream-like quality to the whole issue. In the climate debate countries promise everything to keep activists quiet, without showing any of the determination or willingness to deliver on those promises which, in any case, are often for deadlines beyond the next election. The climate debate is a lot of sound, fury and hot air, but none of it means much at all.

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