Today I was shocked, stunned and pleasantly (for a change) surprised. Australia has its first ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon farming project.
It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.
So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.
Another problem with restoration – and if you’ve ever been involved in any tree planting yourself, you’ll know what I mean – is that it’s incredibly expensive, time-consuming and slow. Wouldn’t it make more financial sense just to save forests instead of trying to rebuild them?
Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.
Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.
However, under the Carbon Farming Initiative (soon to be replaced with The Coalition’s joke of a climate-mitigation policy), we as a nation have our first example of a property owner being paid to protect a native forest for its carbon value.
Fantastic, you say? Yes, it is. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a very widely implemented tool. The problem is that niggly requirement of ‘additionality‘ that we previously identified as being one element of the unholy trinity of carbon farming impediments.
Under the current Carbon Farming Initiative legislation, a property owner is only eligible for carbon funding if the forest(s) that he/she owns were already slated to be cleared. In other words, they are paid to relinquish their permits to clear for (in this case) 100 years (the ‘permanence’ requirement within the unholy trinity).
As most know, after centuries of deforestation, Australia is back on the forest clearance bandwagon after we elected so many right-wing state and Commonwealth governments in recent years. It is not only a heart-breaking tragedy for biodiversity after decades of fighting to impose anti-clearing legislation, it seriously erodes carbon-financed incentives to preserve existing forests because governments are making it easier to clear.
The only logical conclusion then is to abandon, or seriously overhaul, the additionality requirement for existing forests on private land. If we could provide even a modest financial incentive for keeping existing forests ‘in perpetuity’, landowners would be far less likely to raze their forested land just to put on a few more hundred head of cattle or sheep on marginal pasture.
One can understand why additionality requirements were implemented in the first place – they ostensibly prevent landowners from rorting the carbon-trading scheme by getting paid to do what they had always intended to do (in the case of native forest, that would be ‘nothing’). This would inevitably lead to no net carbon benefits for a forest that for all intensive purposes, had never been earmarked for destruction.
However, the current state of play and the likely increasing pressures on forests from climate-change induced fire increases, human population density increases (and the subsequent rise in demand for agricultural or forestry-plantation land) and development, means the notion that forests not currently slated for destruction under existing permits are not of concern is patently bullshit.
All existing forests in Australia are threatened and there is absolutely no guarantee these days that they will be protected (even in National Parks!). As such, all primary forests should have a higher intrinsic value than any other sort of land-use type from biodiversity and carbon perspectives. We as a society need to pressure our administrators to allow for financial incentives to flow to private landholders regardless of their ‘intentions’. Think of it as investment in future ecosystem services for our grandchildren.