Extract from The Guardian
In just three years the rate of land clearing will create enough additional carbon dioxide emissions to cancel out emissions savings the government says it will make by paying farmers $670m to stop cutting down trees.
Lenore Taylor Political editor
Monday 29 February 2016 00.01 AEDT
A land-clearing surge in Queensland is set to create additional carbon dioxide emissions in just three years that are equivalent to those the federal government claims it is avoiding by paying other farmers over $670m to stop cutting down trees, according to a new analysis.
The Queensland land clearing along with weakening land clearing laws in several other states are threatening Australia’s chances of meeting the climate change targets it pledged in Paris last year and raising questions about the coalition’s “Direct Action” climate policy.
A new study of Australian tree-clearing by environmental services company CO2 Australia – obtained by Guardian Australia – has quantified the recent blow-out in greenhouse emissions from the weakened laws, after a decade in which declining tree clearing played a key role in Australia meeting its climate change commitments.
The Queensland Labor government wants to repeal laws passed by Campbell Newman’s government that led to the sudden rise in tree clearing, but may not succeed in doing so and is facing fierce resistance from the Liberal National party and others.
Land clearing in Queensland, along with weakening land clearing laws in several other states, is threatening Australia’s chances of meeting the climate change targets it pledged in Paris last year.
Tentative moves by federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s department to assess whether the clearing contravenes federal laws have also prompted a backlash - particularly from his own National party colleagues.
But the CO2 study, commissioned by the Wilderness Society, shows the turnaround in clearing threatens to wipe out emission reductions bought by the Turnbull Government’s Direct Action scheme and jeopardise Australia’s chances of meeting its promise to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26-28% by 2030.
The study quantifies the impact on emissions of the discrepancy between the federal government’s data on Queensland land clearing and state government data, as well as the absence of accurate national data to predict land clearing emissions as NSW and Western Australia also move to relax their rules.
Part of the blow-out in emissions from land use and tree clearing was quietly acknowledged in the federal government’s latest report on Australia’s greenhouse emissions, released a few days before Christmas, which projected that emissions from land clearing would rise 24% from 2013 levels, from an average 37m tonnes to an average 46m tonnes a year up to 2020 and 44m tonnes a year between 2020 and 2030.
In 2013-14, 300,000 hectares were cleared in Queensland alone, double the rate in 2011-12. Between 2012 and 2015 land clearing emissions in Australia rose 11 times faster than any other sector.
Between 2012 and 2015 land clearing emissions in Australia rose 11 times faster than any other sector.
But Queensland government data also released last year revealed a far higher rate of clearing than the federal data would suggests, a rate that would take national land clearings emissions to 55m tonnes a year between 2020 and 2030.
At that rate land clearing would emit an additional 118m tonnes of carbon dioxide over that decade – on top of the higher rates the federal government is already factoring in – a blow out of over 10% on the reductions the government pledged to make by 2030 in the agreement forged last December in Paris. Queensland government data shows a far higher rate of land clearing than federal data suggests.
Professor Stuart Phinn, director of the remote sensing research centre at the University of Queensland, said Queensland’s approach was “world’s best practice.”
“The Queensland approach is based on a long time series of satellite imagery, tied to field measurements of the amount of vegetation on the ground,” he said. “It’s been developed over 15 years.”
Both studies use Landsat satellite imagery, but in Queensland field officers drive out to check that changes in the satellite images are being correctly interpreted.
The federal government insists its national data collection system has been ticked off as compatible with the United Nations climate change accounting process.
Hunt’s office has been contacted for comment.
But Lyndon Schneiders, national campaigns director of the Wilderness Society, says the new data shows Australia is “lying to the world and lying to ourselves” about the true state of greenhouse emissions.
“Land clearing across the country has spiralled out of control in the last three years ... at exactly the same time as the national government is spending up to $2.7bn, in large part by trying to reduce land clearing,” he said.
“... the state governments, particularly in Queensland and also in NSW, are handing out tree clearing permits like confetti.
“The whole system is in disrepair. We are making commitments a nation ... yet we are relying on data that is completely different to the data that is being generated out of the states, so we are lying to the international community and we are lying to ourselves.”
The CO2 report confirms that at the same time land clearing laws are also being weakened around the country and in many states, there is patchy data to quantify the increase in tree clearing or its impact on greenhouse emissions. It says there is no connection between what the states are doing with vegetation management laws and what the federal government is promising to achieve in reducing greenhouse emissions.
“There is a conflict between the emission reduction objectives of the Australian government ... and the recent trend for state and territory regulatory reform that has, in a number of cases, reduced barriers to vegetation clearing,” the CO2 report says.
“There currently appears to be little incentive for state and territory governments to seriously consider the greenhouse gas implications associated with vegetation management ... reform.”
In New South Wales, the Baird government is scrapping the Native Vegetation Act, which prevents the broad-scale clearing of native vegetation. Conservation groups have walked out of talks on replacement legislation because it offers what they consider to be unacceptably weak protections.
In 2013, the Western Australian native vegetation regulations were relaxed to allow up to five hectares of clearing at a time, without a permit, and the re-clearing of regrowing forests up to 20 years old.
The Queensland government, concerned about the land clearing rates, also requested that Hunt’s department write to some landholders with land clearing permits asking for information about possible breaches of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, but those letters prompted a fierce backlash from agricultural groups and from National Party senator Barry O’Sullivan who attacked the “green activist inclinations” of the federal department.
In late December, the federal environment department wrote to the landholders saying it was “concerned” that some of the clearing could have an impact on one of the “matters of national environmental significance” the EPBC act is designed to protect. These include nationally-listed threatened species, migratory species, and the Great Barrier Reef marine park, but not greenhouse emissions.
The federal department then sent another letter to the landholders three weeks ago expressing “deep regret” if the previous letter had caused them distress.
“We are keen to ensure, at the minister’s direct request, that all assistance is provided to ensure you are able to continue your business as soon as possible, in accordance with the law,” the February 5 letter states.
Up until 2013 land clearing rates in Australia were declining and that was the primary reason Australia had been able to meet climate change goals.
Australia “overshot” the greenhouse gas reductions it promised under the Kyoto Protocol largely because of land clearing restrictions in Queensland that had already been agreed at the time. This allowed Australia to “carry over” 128m tonnes of emissions reductions into the second stage of the international process, which ends in 2020, and meant we could easily meet the target we had promised for that date. Five other big developed countries announced in Paris that they had voluntarily cancelled emission reduction “credits” achieved by overshooting their first Kyoto protocol greenhouse targets, but Australia refused to follow suit.
Over its first two auctions the emissions reduction fund has paid around $670m to buy 51m tonnes of land sector greenhouse gas abatement, according to the Clean Energy Regulator. Much of that - but not all of it - was avoided tree clearing. The blow-out in land clearing emissions contained in the national figures, but using the Queensland government figures for that state, adds 18m tonnes of emissions each year, undoing the ERF-purchased land sector emissions reductions in just three years.