If the Nationals cared about farmers, they’d be concerned about land clearing

Oct 29, 2021
truck wilderness tasmania
(Image: Flickr/Steven Penton)

As the National Party focuses on opportunities to rort taxpayers, land clearing and global warming are costing farmers dearly.

The incoherent Nationals have descended to their lowest ebb as they seem unwilling to be part of responsible government and agreeing to a weak commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They plead that they are being “held hostage” by their fellow secretive, unaccountable Liberal Coalition colleagues. This is an Orwellian,180-degree inversion of the truth.

The recalcitrance by a handful of the Nationals could still be to gouge billions of taxpayer dollars to be diverted to their pet projects.

Being an economically populist, “user” political party, the Nationals are always on the lookout for new subsidies, compensations or “pork barrels” to reward their financial supporters, often ignoring the regional needs of people. New opportunities have opened up now that the Coalition has set the “gold standard” for rorting taxpayer funds for blatant political purposes (“if people vote for it, it is legitimate”!).

As an example of this — related to the question of global heating — is the issue of Australia’s land clearing.

There is now a claim that the farm sector was “dudded” by our signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, based on not clearing more land for grazing and agriculture. Australia was then granted a 8 per cent increase in emissions above the 1990 baseline being used. The calculations of the savings, to be made by non-clearing in the future, were made regardless of knowledge of their future actual impact on greenhouse gas emissions and were possibly overestimated by 50 per cent at the time and since. However, and even so, claims are being made by the Nationals, the National Farmers Federation and some in the grazing/cropping sector that compensation is due.

What is the evidence of the diminution of land clearing since the Kyoto Protocol was ratified in 2007? Before 2007 there were record levels of clearing in Queensland; for example, one calculation puts it at 470,000 hectares cleared in 2003-4.

For reasons of space, I will only concentrate on Queensland which is by far the major state for land clearing.

NSW cleared an average of 38,000 hectares a year between 2009 and 2017 — well below Queensland’s average by up to a factor of 10. NSW is now adopting more coherent standards and techniques and has committed to net zero by 2050, as are all the states and territories.

In this debate, it’s easy to create confusion and politically distort because there is no one nationally recognised, uniform standard or measurement of land clearing and its impact being used. There are many discrepancies. There are constant calls for a national monitoring system and as far as I know it has not been implemented. We have a National Forestry Inventory system, which is constantly updated, but it is concerned with forestry rather than emissions,

The quantity and quality of any land clearing has always been a matter for debate, and various moves by the Queensland and NSW governments to set criteria and limits to clearing have always been fiercely resisted on the basis of property rights.

There is a case for qualification.

If looked at spatially, there is a lot of difference between removing a handful trees in a large paddock used for cropping and the same acreage of remnant or untouched native vegetation. In NSW the hectares impacted by forestry operations exceed those cleared for agricultural purposes. However, trees grow back and re-growth takes place as well as the planting of plantation forests. There is also a difference between clear-fell and selective logging.

The bushfires of 2019–20 have probably slowed natural re-generation and involved the destruction of harvestable plantations. Another complication is that clearing for pasture is a necessary management tool because some types of vegetation grow back naturally, such as Mallee and Brigalow.

There is sense in the different approaches being taken. It depends on what is being measured and for what reason.

There are at least three systems being more generally used.

They are the National Greenhouse Accounts (GHA), State-wide Land Cover and Trees Study (SLATS) used in Queensland and NSW, and Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) used in Queensland.

The data being used by the states, and available for analysis, varies greatly in terms of time period and definitions including of forest type.

The measurements can include estimates of the rise in greenhouse gases and their implications.

To access carbon credits by not clearing, farmers have their soils measured for increases and decreases of carbon. (The Commonwealth government is also working on farm stewardship payments.)

Other measures are based on tree cover and a definition of the areas that should not be cleared, as well as the size of remnant clusters of vegetation.

One set of figures indicates that between 2001 and 2020 we lost 6 per cent of all tree cover in Australia.

One measure of land clearing categorises clearing on the basis of primary and re-clearing. Between 2010 and 2018, Queensland cleared 370,000 hectares (370 kha) primary and 2,075 kha re-clearing. NSW cleared 88.300 kha primary and 576.7 kha re-clearing. Another set of calculations finds that between 2001 and 2020 Queensland lost 651,000 kha of tree cover, implying a loss of 189m tonnes of CO2.

The current Queensland government published figures that said 395kha were cleared in 2015–2016, of which 138kha was remnant forest, 50 per cent was in reef catchment and that 93 per cent was for pasture.

For graziers, the tragedy in all this is that a large percentage of their, often leasehold, land is already regularly drought declared and is also subject to heat stress, floods and cyclones. The February 2019 flood killed at least 300,000–400,000 cattle.

Apparently the Nationals do not accept that global warming will mean more such events, heatwaves, fires, droughts, etc. Or are they now only concerned with the coal industry?

This is a government that says it makes policy and the public service carries it out. I wouldn’t want to be the public servant who has to determine compensation criteria for not clearing land since 1990 or 2007.

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