Thursday, 16 June 2011
Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011; Second Reading
I rise to support the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 and cognate bills and to oppose the three amendments that are on the table. I start by saying that this is important work for those who do believe in land and place within Australian public policy. It is by no means the entire answer, but it is certainly one part, one chapter, one step along the journey to more productive land, both on-farm with food productivity and off-farm with biodiversity outcomes. For those in this chamber who value food production, who value Australia's unique ecosystem and who recognise the opportunities for co-benefits from legislation such as this and the overall push to see a price on carbon, this is an important step in telling the story—through this chamber—that land and Australia are important in policy development.
We are living at a time when all around the world there is a grappling with a science question, which is also an economic question. The economic question which hangs off the back of the much talked about science is the economic shift from labour productivity to resource productivity and how we move to an era, begrudgingly or otherwise, of maximising in a sustainable way productive outcomes from the resources. It is an era that will be about driving better environmental outcomes to achieve better economic outcomes. It is not about killing growth, it is not about killing economies and it is not about killing all the flow-on social benefits that come as a consequence of economic growth. It is about trying to grapple with the challenge that is before us as to how to maximise environmental outcomes in a sustainable way with the resources that we have to achieve that economic growth and the whole range of social benefits that come as a consequence.
As for this legislation in particular, I think Australia has a really valuable contribution to make in regard to the challenges and those economic questions that are before us as to how land, land mass, biodiversity and the storage of carbon in all its various forms, in a biological sense, can play a role in contributing to an overall response to both the economic question and the science question that are being put to every single country in the world. I think that, as Australia has a large land mass with degraded soils and older soils, this is an area in which Australia can lead and should not be afraid of leading, so making this the Australian contribution to the questions that are being put before all of us.
I have just had the opportunity to go and look at New Zealand 12 months into their emissions trading scheme with a large agriculture based economy. I expected to get some assistance in this area from them but what I found was that their gift to the global economic challenge has nothing to do with agriculture at all. It is about accrual accounting techniques and actually having their emissions trading scheme and the fiscal responsibilities that go with it on a budget so that everyone in the New Zealand community is very aware that one way or the other there will be a cost by not taking appropriate environmental action. Either you pay for it through an emissions trading scheme, with some sensible policy development in that area and some behaviour change amongst the heavier polluting industries, or that becomes a budget item and everyone gets whacked through their taxes. That is a sensible contribution to the economic and science questions that are being put before us. It is not what I expected to find.
What Australia's contribution really can be is in this land sector, particularly in the area of soil carbon. This is one possible contribution to that overall story from Australia. I do think we are progressing significantly in both the understanding of soil science and the accounting of soil science. There is definitely more work to be done but we are very close to not only the science being in but the accounting being in as well. These are potentially very exciting days if that work can progress well. But that should not necessarily shape policy now. I think this piece of legislation ticks the boxes. It is sound on the science, it is open to being sound on the questions of additionality and permanence; it certainly does not challenge those and it is certainly a transparent model, one with integrity. If we are looking to build a framework for the potential outcomes that we are looking for, a transparent accounting tool with integrity that deals well with the science and is very aware of and not challenging those two key questions around additionality and permanence, then I think we are building something that is a contribution to better policy for this country and for this topic.
I really do think it is in the soil and the land sector that we in Australia have a great opportunity, and it is for that reason that over the last six months I have been personally holding land use forums in this parliament and talking to a whole range of people who have been wanting to contribute to those discussions. It has been incredibly valuable for me and for policy development and, hopefully, for the debate that is currently unfolding before us. I would like to thank some of the participants in those forums. I will list some of them just to highlight the fact that there are a lot of people from a diverse range of community and business sectors who are really wanting to see this place deal with this issue in a sensible, strategic and efficient way. I refer to people such as Arek Sinanian from Parsons Brinckerhoff, who has been a champion on this topic for over 30 years. I have been in this chamber since 2008 and feel like I have been spilling blood all over the place on this topic for three years. I know there are others who have been fighting this for five years to 10 years, but people such as Arek have been hot on this topic for over 30 years. We need to at least listen to the valuable contribution that people such as Arek have to make. I refer also to Molly Harriss Olson, who is, I think, on the business roundtable that government has set up as part of pricing carbon. She has been an excellent contributor to policy outcomes in this area. The advice has been of great value. There is also Andrea Koch from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Her work in soil science has been world leading in the way that she has pulled together soil science conferences, the latest one having been in February, I think, this year. So world-leading advice is now coming from the University of Sydney in the area of soil science. I thank her for her advice as well. There are two more significant people that I would like to mention. One is Vincent Lange from Centrefarm Aboriginal Horticulture. I strongly urge those who believe in economic development on Aboriginal lands to have a look at the work that Centrefarm is doing just near Alice Springs. It is the regional development we all talk about in action. They are very strong in wanting to see some policy outcomes, not only through the Carbon Farming Initiative but through a suite of land use packages that can really start to value-add to the work that they are doing in a credible way right now.
The other person I would like to mention is Major General Michael Jeffery, along with the Wentworth group and Outcomes Australia. They have been very hot over a long period of time in identifying the importance and benefits for Australia of our developing policy in the area of land and soil science. I want to thank Major General Michael Jeffery, the Wentworth group and Outcomes Australia for their support and contribution as well.
So there are plenty of advocates in the field wanting us to do something strategic, efficient, smart and logical. This is the start of the journey. It is time for us all to have that bit of a wake-up call. I think the coalition's direct action policy is an attempt to identify this as an important area for Australia. I appreciate that. I therefore am a tad surprised that there is this want to oppose this legislation. I would have thought this legislation is complementary to the direction that the coalition policy conceptually wants to go in. I hope there will be some consideration about that. This is an opportunity for them to actually value-add rather than divide on the issue of the importance of soil science, land use and land management in Australia.
This is the start of the wake-up call. This is a recognition that soil does underpin life on planet Earth. It is a reality that we can quite often forget. We have all heard about peak oil. The term 'peak soil' is now entering the public policy debate. The soil science suggests that 100 years is what we have before topsoil is gone or threatened. With food production as one of the key issues globally, this is therefore an issue of great importance, for a number of different reasons. The five major issues that humanity faces are energy security, water, food, the environment and poverty. All five of those are directly or indirectly connected to the importance of soil. I hope that this is the start of Australia understanding that and starting to place a public policy benefit on that.
With the figure of about 40 per cent of global agricultural land seriously degraded, and with land degradation costing Australia alone probably about $3 billion per annum, we need to do some public policy push-back. Again, I hope that this is the start of the journey. The science can now predict soil carbon sequestration and stabilisation. There are recent advances in mathematical models that give reliable estimates. The interactions between the microbial communities in soil with carbon and the impacts on soil carbon pools are now being much better understood. The partitioning between the stable carbons of 100 to 10,000 years and those that will leach within 10 years is now being better understood, and the accounting tools are now in.
I re-emphasise the point that we can do this. The model is there, the science is certainly there and the mathematical and accounting tools are there. This is by no means the magic bullet. As I said at the start, this is one step, only one part of what I hope to be a suite of measures that is now starting to, in a public policy sense, recognise the shift of labour productivity to resource productivity that is the challenge before all economies, including ours.
For those that do believe that Australia matters, that land matters, this is the start of the opportunity to address that and place a value on that. I look forward to seeing more legislation of a similar nature pass through this parliament soon.