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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4605

Ms MARINO (ForrestOpposition Whip) (17:03): As I was saying earlier today, the example of blue gum plantations throughout southern Australia taking up volumes of groundwater and driving down water tables serves as a warning to all of us. The cumulative impacts of plantations on the environment, agriculture, current and future food production must be considered. These include water usage and fire management issues.

The second form of biosequestration covered in this bill is soil carbon. There are an estimated 2,700 billion tonnes of carbon in the world's soils, most of it in the top 30 centimetres. This compares with the 800 billion tonnes in the world's atmosphere and the 900 billion stored in biomass, which of course includes trees. Australian soils vary in natural organic carbon levels from one to five per cent, with more than 75 per cent of Australian farming soils having organic carbon content of less than 1.75 per cent. Much of my home state of Western Australia has sandy soils, which sit at the one to two per cent carbon level. We should also note that soil carbon levels in Australia have declined 10 to 60 per cent over the last 80 years. This alone tells us that we have an opportunity to put a lot of carbon into our soils, which certainly will give us healthier and more productive soil.

Land use plays a significant role in the soil carbon cycle, and good management can raise levels above the natural average. However, members should be warned against assuming that only trees can raise soil carbon levels. Pastures are an important tool, because organic matter concentrations tend to be much higher under grass, with recorded levels of up to seven per cent of soil carbon under well managed pastures.

Observations of the world's ecosystems show that organic carbon concentrations in soils, to a depth of one metre, under various land uses were: 122.7 tonnes per hectare for tropical forests, 117.3 tonnes for tropical savannas, 96.2 tonnes for temperate forests, 80 tonnes for croplands and 236 tonnes for temperate grasslands. By this we can see that well-managed pastures that are not overgrazed can add significantly to soil carbon levels. The rewards are high, and Australia would be greatly advantaged if we were able to raise our soil carbon by even one per cent across the nation.

However, the use of soil carbon as a mitigating offset is made difficult by the lack of certainty around the measurement of soil carbon and its permanency. Soil carbon is increased by the addition of carbon such as vegetation or biochar or by the reduction of carbon use or loss. In the natural cycle, soil carbon rises as a result of all the living, dead and decomposing plants, animals and microbes in the soil, along with organic residues and humic substances that they release. The classic example is the floor litter of forests, which breaks down and is absorbed into the soil structure. We must remember though the great importance of the smallest player, the micro-organisms. Soil health and its ability to hold onto and use carbon are directly related to the microbial balance of soil. This balance is something we know far too little about, although we do know how important it is. It is, however, difficult to measure in the short term how much added carbon has been absorbed into the soil structure and how long it will remain there. This makes this form of biosequestration difficult to measure and cost.

There are a number of issues the government must address in the development of carbon farming and the market that would go with it. The shadow minister has clearly articulated many of these; however, as a farmer, there are a number of issues that I would like to see addressed. We certainly need to know who owns the land on which carbon farming is occurring and will occur; how much land is involved; where that land is located; and, more importantly, who owns the credit for the carbon that will be stored there. I would like to see a publicly available national carbon farming register so that the process is an open and accountable one. This should include programs of carbon farming owned by foreign entities on Australian soil. This is important because, given that Australian farmers currently manage 61 per cent of Australia's landmass, in my view Australian landowners should be the principal beneficiaries of carbon farming activities here. Under the coalition's direct action proposal, farmers will be able to tender for carbon sequestration. We need to avoid the situation where our landholders are locked out of potential overseas markets that might be available to foreign entities.

The parliament should also consider the intellectual property rights of carbon technology. I have absolutely no doubt that Australian farmers can lead the way, given the opportunity. Even though cropping would appear to be poorly suited to carbon storage, Australian work indicates that good cropping management can be used to minimise soil carbon loss. According to the CSIRO, improved management of crop land—be it enhanced rotation, adoption of no-till, which we have seen a lot of in Western Australia, or stubble retention—has resulted in better retention of carbon in soils. This type of technology, developed in Australia, should be exported around the world once adequate IP protocols have been put in place.

The complexity of measuring and attributing carbon storage is the most difficult issue facing carbon farming. The Kyoto protocol's rules have always been slanted to assist nations that are geographically small but have a large population, and to this end the rules have failed to recognise the need to manage carbon sinks rather than just to observe them. An Australian system of carbon farming will need to be simple and effective and to relate directly to our specific set of parameters and common practice. The last thing we want to do is generate a layer of carbon bureaucracy and perhaps have an explosion of carbon middlemen to give another blank cheque to or have another scheme mismanaged by this government. Carbon farming should be an opportunity for landholders to enter a new marketplace, not just an opportunity for carbon agents. How the regulations manage this process will be critical, and we have not seen that yet.

The impact of this bill on the agricultural landscape of Australia is also of paramount importance. Pricing carbon provides an incentive to shift from food to carbon production. On some areas of marginal land this is not automatically a negative, but food production is critically important in a world in which the human population will rise from 7 billion to over 9 billion—recently I heard some information at a conference that Australian farmers by default feed 60 million people in the world now—especially here in Australia, where our food producers and their viability are constantly undermined by supermarkets and, unfortunately, by some of the decisions that have been made by this government.

How we ensure that our food-producing farmers maintain commercial and viable returns is a real issue for us in this nation. Australia's, and global, interests are not best served if our farmers stop producing food here in Australia. I acknowledge, as you would, Mr Deputy Speaker, that our farmers in Australia are some of the most efficient producers in the world. They produce some of the best quality food and fibre that the world sees, which is not something that is necessarily recognised or valued in the way that it should be. I hear the members at the table, who are perhaps discussing this issue. I hope they are, because we do produce some of the best food and fibre in the world. The choice to keep producing food must be available, and the rewards for doing so should go to those producing that food and fibre.

I am very concerned about the practical matters in this legislation and, unfortunately, I am concerned that putting this government in charge of anything to do with farmers and growers is probably a bit like letting the fox into the hen house, which is something that we understand very well. The practical nature of farmers means that we will need some very good ways for them to tender for and be engaged in the soil carbon market, as they could through the coalition's process. I will be very interested to see the findings of the Senate report and to see how the range of issues that I and so many others have raised in this respect are dealt with.