Thursday, 16 June 2011
Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011; Second Reading
The statement that was just made by the previous speaker, the member for Paterson, in relation to young people understanding the need but not prepared to do anything about it, I think actually reflects more on the coalition than any young people. If you actually engage with young people, they do understand that there is a serious issue to be debated here and I think they would like this parliament to be serious about the issue.
The bills before the parliament are in relation to the carbon farming initiative, and some people, particularly in the agricultural community, have given the imprimatur that this is about farming. It is not just about farming; it is about utilising or sequestering carbon in a number of areas that can involve the landscape, that can involve the farming community but it does not necessarily have to be in relation to the farming community. So a few of my remarks will be about the landscape and land abatement, particularly soil carbon and the way in which it may or may not be part of a process to actually abate carbon or greenhouse gas emissions. Some of my remarks will be related to the carbon tax, to emissions trading schemes and to ways we can address greenhouse gas emissions.
I am pleased to see the member for Wentworth in the chamber. He is one of the few people out of all of us, myself included, who has some real credibility on this issue. I congratulate him for that. Some parts of the debate might not have been easy for him over the last few years, but he has shown a degree of consistency that I think people have appreciated—even those who may not have agreed with him at various times. The rest of us probably do suffer some degree of guilt for understanding the need but not being prepared to follow through—and I again include myself in that.
There has been a lot of talk about the role of soil carbon. No-one in this building has a greater love affair with soil than I do. Soil is one of my great loves. As a young farmer in my 20s I was involved with the development of what is now called no-till farming, or conservation tillage farming—there are a number of variations to the theme. In those days we were having difficulty with root development in sunflowers. Sunflowers have a taproot and, if they can access subsoil moisture in the better soils, obviously the need for rainfall is heavily reduced. We were having difficulty getting the sunflower root to develop through the hardpan created by conventional tillage methods. Little did we know at the time that those methods were doing a lot of damage, but the issue at the time was how to get a better root development so we could utilise the moisture stored in the soil. When I was about 25 I built an implement to go on the back of a four-wheel-drive tractor to rip a trench every 30 inches early in the season before the rainfall occurred, and then plant over that trench later on. That sounds farcical now, but it actually did work. However, I did not need to do that to achieve the right outcome. What I did need to do was keep machinery off the land and change the technology to what is now called no-till, or conservation tillage, farming.
That change in technology did a number of things. It created a greater income, for one thing. It also created some unique features in the soil. Some of these heavy clay soils—podzols, chernozems—were comparable with the best soils in the world, in the Ukraine, parts of Africa, small parts of America and the Darling Downs and the Liverpool Plains of Australia. I have moaned in here about the coal seam gas industry and others invading these areas, and I will mention that again if I have the time. These soils have the capacity, under current technologies, to hold quite massive amounts of water. It is proven technology now that if you do go down the no-till pathway not only do you increase the infiltration rate of the soil but also you improve the microenvironment within the soil. When you relate that to the residue of the previous crops, you see that it has an impact on humus and organic matter, which is soil carbon.
The debate about whether soil carbon can be held in those soils and about the rate at which it accumulates in those soils is ongoing, but it is a debate that needs to occur—and it is part of the carbon farming initiative issue. These technologies, and grazing technologies as well, do have an impact not only on the productivity of the pasture but also on the productivity of the microenvironment within the soil. Many people are looking at soil carbon, or humus and organic matter, as a saviour. But whether soil carbon can go into a market or not is almost irrelevant to me, as a practising farmer. The money is in the productivity. The money is in soil environment improvement; it is in water quality and environmental improvement; it is in the reduction of soil erosion. That is where the money is. There has been too much preoccupation with this as a snap-your-fingers exercise and all of a sudden the farming community will be making a lot of money out of selling soil carbon. To sell something you have to be able to deliver it. Particularly with some of our cracking soils and soils subject to drought, there are no guarantees that, while you may have the carbon there one year, you will have it the next year.
There is a lot of research on soil carbon, and that is why I do support this initiative. Some research will come out of it, as it will come from other measures being debated in parliament, too. There may well be areas of improvement in the future. Prairie grass from the United States, which we call switchgrass, has the capacity to develop a very deep and fibrous root system. You cannot throw a blanket over all our soils because some of them will not sequester much carbon at all, and this is particularly the case in Australia, but switchgrass has the capacity to sequester carbon at depth. In that circumstance we may well end up with something that is a marketable commodity in some sort of carbon market. One of the initiatives that the Carbon Farming Initiative is actually trying to get to is not mentioned in so many words but it is drought proofing. It is about looking at ways in which we can encourage technologies that reduce the impact of drought—for instance, no-till farming in those black soils that I was talking about. That change in technology is measured by the impact of getting an additional six to eight inches of rainfall a year. In a 24-inch rainfall area, that is very significant. If that is not the greatest adaptation to potential climate change that you can have in the food production sector, I do not know what is. It is a simple change of technology, going from conventional farming through to no-till farming. All those other benefits that I talk about, which have a productivity effect—water quality, erosion, infiltration rates, soil structure, soil texture, increased yield, increased productivity in terms of income— are actually drought proofing. That is an important part of the capacity to farm carbon. Government policy at all levels has to encourage all those sorts of activities.
The other side of this debate concerns biodiversity issues. For instance, if we plant trees to sequester carbon we would probably be able to enter a market much more successfully, because the carbon is potentially held in the residue of the tree for far longer than in some of our soils. But if you look at the way in which that would occur and at the five cent target that the coalition currently has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions you will see that it would take about 20 million hectares of trees to achieve the five per cent reduction by 2020. We only have 26 million hectares of arable land in this country and many of those areas are marginal where the capacity to grow trees is significantly reduced. So relying on planting trees as a direct activity to sequester carbon—I am not against planting trees; I plant trees myself—will not achieve the outcome that members of the coalition are talking about.
If anybody took the time to look at the report of the Productivity Commission and some of the other documents that are currently out there, by far the cheapest way of achieving that outcome, if Australia determines that it wants to address that outcome—and I do not think we really have determined that yet—is through some sort of pricing mechanism, an emissions trading scheme preferably or through the so-called dreadful carbon tax with an entry period, with a flexible price, into an emissions trading scheme with international linkages. If we decide to go down that path, there is no other real choice. Under the cash-for-clunkers scheme that the government put in place, carbon abatement was $400 a tonne. Many people embraced that and said, 'That's good, it's encouraging people to get rid of their junk cars.' But it did very little to address the substantive issue.
The Productivity Commission looked at some of the other direct activities or policies, and I take issue with a couple of the areas in the report, particularly on the life cycle analysis of biomass and biofuels and also the sort of odd economic argument the commission has that the removal of a tax that does not exist is in fact a subsidy on that industry. I will not take the time to go into that.
There are a number of issues that are out there. It is very obvious to me that if Australia decides to go down this path—and I think this is where, in a sense, the member for Wentworth has been a leading light; it has been obvious to him from the word go—if we are serious, and I think a number of people are, and we can structure something correctly then the only way to achieve the outcome that we are really after is through some sort of pricing mechanism, whether that be entry into an emissions trading scheme through a carbon tax or directly into an emissions trading scheme, which would be my preferred option.
I would like to touch briefly on some other issues, including coal seam gas. I intend to introduce a private member's bill into this chamber. There is an enormous amount of evidence out there now that we do not know enough about the impact of coal seam gas exploration and mining activity on our soils, our landscape and our groundwater systems.
There was a lot of very positive engagement in relation to the report on the Murray-Darling Basin, but one of the red lights that was being waved at us, whether we were on the Darling Downs or Liverpool Plains or in other areas, was the lack of knowledge of the coal seam gas industry and, in particular, how it could relate to these very soils we are talking about that we want to use for long-term food production and how they relate to water quality and the broader basin issues that this parliament is also dealing with. When I introduce a private member's bill, I would encourage the parliament as a whole to take that issue seriously. It is a serious issue out there. The fact that the current Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities had to put 300 conditions on a coal seam gas proposal in Queensland means that there is something dreadfully wrong with the process. (Time expired)