COMMENT: What do the latest revelations about Australia’s land clearing mean for post-Paris carbon accounting?

Published 08:41 on March 14, 2016  /  Last updated at 13:15 on July 5, 2017  /  Asia Pacific, Australia, Conversations, International, REDD, Views  /  No Comments

With Queensland carbon emissions ballooning after the recent land clearing boom it appears as though the Australian government, which was at the forefront of the negotiation of the Paris Agreement and seen as an international leader in land-based carbon techniques, has created a huge headache for itself.

By Declan Kuch and Matthew Kearnes, University of New South Wales

Much of the analysis of COP-21 has been consumed with the headline shifts in carbon reporting mechanisms that break down the pillars between the Annexes to the UNFCCC and shift the burden of reporting to Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). However, an arguably more significant dimension of the Paris Agreement is the change in emphasis from “stabilizing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere” through “deep cuts in global emissions” to achieving “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (Article 4.1).

What this appears to mean is that in place of the relatively unitary focus on emission reductions (of course with some nods to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) the Paris Agreement more openly acknowledges that to limit global mean temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels will require both deploying and scaling up a range of land-based sequestration and negative emission techniques that go far beyond more money for REDD+.

CARBON COUNTING DILEMMA

This call for serious, systematic analysis of negative emission and land-based carbon sequestration techniques is of course laudable. However, to date, much of the scholarly and policy commentary has centred on two key issues: ‘feasibility’ and ‘scale’. What this framing obscures is the fact that there are few areas of climate policy as messy, fraught and important as land-use accounting.

Civil society organisations have been frustrated with the ways LULUCF accounting strategies are conflated with fossil fuel emissions accounts from the earliest COPs. Climate scientists repeatedly warn of the incommensurability of treating a tonne of soil and tree carbon as a ‘balance’ for a tonne of emitted carbon from fossilised oil or coal. Thus, leading European NGO Carbon Market Watch warns of a potential dilution of the EU’s target from 40% to 35% unless LULUCF is addressed in a separate pillar so that efforts in the land use sector are done in addition to the efforts to phase out fossil fuels.

The issues of data uncertainty and incomplete accounting highlighted by Carbon Market Watch only intensify when moving away from the landscapes highly modified by agriculture to the vast forests of countries like Brazil or Australia. Indeed, Australia has become something of a poster child for the clever use of land-use change accounting in the international arena. Climate Action Tracker’s independent comparative analysis of INDCs points to Australia in warning that “the Kyoto LULUCF accounting rules can allow a country to continue to increase its fossil fuel emissions through the way in which it is allowed to credit LULUCF activities.”

AUSTRALIAN LAND SECTOR CARBON: PLUS ÇA CHANGE?

Recent commentary on land clearance and deforestation in Queensland, in part prompted by an intervention by the Wilderness Society and an attempt by the Queensland government to claim funds from the Australian ERF to reverse land clearance trends, is perhaps a sign of things to come.

The report sponsored by the Wilderness Society points to an uncomfortable irony; that while land-use change has been central to the Australian government’s climate policy for years, and some landholders currently claim Australian Carbon Credit Units for avoided deforestation, across the Australian landscape land clearance continues at a worrying rate.

Whilst it was Queensland, a state two and half times larger than Texas, that made headlines, the technical data showed a national trend: that in the decade from 2004-2013 over 3.5 million hectares of forest within Australia was subject to conversion, or reclearing, and that deforestation related emissions totalled more than 637 million tonnes of CO2e.

The report’s modestly stated conclusion emphasised that “there is a conflict between the emissions reduction objectives of the Australian Government (and the policy framework established to address these) and the recent trend for State and Territory level regulatory reform that has, in a number of cases, reduced barriers to vegetation clearing”.

COMPLICATIONS

Three aspects of the ways in which deforestation is handled in the Emissions Reduction Fund point to the likely complications with scaling up land-based carbon projects.

1. The ERF’s first auction primarily awarded contracts to the surrender of land-clearing permits in New South Wales, so the national increase in emissions from the land sector wipes out these claimed reductions directly.

2. The wide disparities between national claims about emissions reductions and commitments on one hand, and state-based LULUCF figures is nothing new. Satellite data, as the SLATS staff make explicit, must ground-truth their satellite data, however federal carbon accounts have often not been able to do this. Lyndon Schneiders of the Wilderness Society expresses this as deceitful: “… the state governments, particularly in Queensland and also in NSW, are handing out tree clearing permits like confetti… We are making commitments as 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.”

3. It is worth noting that the push by states to weaken land-clearing regulations is part of a wider anti-environmental movement by conservative state governments. The NSW State Liberal Party recently defeated a motion at its state conference, supported by 70% of members, for an inquiry into whether climate change is even happening. The party, which governs the state with a considerable majority, has recently passed laws reducing fines on mining companies to paltry figures, while legislating a paradigm shift in the policing of protest. Similar moves in Western Australia have sparked serious concern from the legal profession. Meanwhile, the door remains open to constitutional challenges to the Emissions Reduction Fund under spending powers.

Considering most Australian farmers have not been comfortable with the concept of ‘climate change’, instead preferring the concept of ‘climate variability’, it’s conceivable that a suitably disgruntled coalition of anti-environmental farmers with a libertarian streak (who happen to be on the wrong side of both ERF largesse and state government reviews of land clearing) could seek this avenue.

HEADACHE

The Wilderness Society report concludes by suggesting “if annual deforestation emissions could be reduced by 25% compared with the Australian government’s most-recent forward projections, emissions reductions of 92mt CO2e could be delivered in a little over eight years, this being equivalent to the amount and timing for delivery of all ACCUs purchased through ERF auctions to date at an expenditure of $1.217 billion”.

This underlines the inevitable complications of justifying conservation projects in climate change terms, and the fragility of alliances supporting the kind of land-based policies now front and centre in international efforts to restrain climate change following Paris.

While negative emissions are commonly presented as “third way” climate solutions, on the ground it appears as though the Australian government, which was at the forefront of the negotiation of the Paris Agreement and seen as an international leader in land-based carbon techniques, has created a huge headache for itself.

Not yet signed up to CP Daily? Subscribe to our free newsletter here

Comment