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Carbon Country Update -

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Narration

It's soon after the wet season in western Arnhem land, and flames are trickling around our feet.
These Aboriginal rangers are pioneering the first carbon trading project of its kind in the world.

Mark Horstman

Why are you burning now?

Nigel Gellar

We're trying to make a firebreak, cos we don't want any wildfire coming through. In the afternoon,
you make a fire and it travels very slowly.

Mark Horstman

A beautiful day to burn?

Nigel Gellar

Yep.

Narration

But for early burning to build firebreaks that can protect a region as vast as Arnhem land, you
need helicopters...and exploding ping pong balls. It's a massive challenge. Right across northern
Australia, uncontrolled wildfires (seen here in red) incinerate an area bigger than Victoria every
year. And that's a greenhouse problem too. This annual firestorm emits more carbon dioxide than all
of Australia's coal-fired power stations combined. In 2006, Catalyst first brought you the story of
Aboriginal people and scientists measuring what savannah burning puts into the atmosphere. Their
joint research revealed that a hectare burnt in May releases half the greenhouse emissions of a
hectare burnt in a hot November wildfire.

Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith

It's much better doing it early in the year when there is still a lot of moisture in the ground and
moisture in the biomass, you're still going to retain a lot of the carbon in the system.

Mark Horstman And if there's more in the ground, there's less in the air.

Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith Absolutely.

Narration

In fact, in just one year, if they reduce the area burned in wildfires by only 7 percent, they
create at least 100,000 tonnes of savings from greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide.

Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith

The gases that are also produced as part of savannah burning include carbon dioxide and were we
allowed to account for those then they would be about 30-40% of the national emissions.

Narration

The fire managers believe they create a valuable commodity for industries needing to offset their
pollution. And right now in 2009, Parliament is debating a national scheme to do just that. To find
out how that fire management fits in with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, I've come to where
it's being designed - the Department of Climate Change in Canberra. But when it comes to reducing
emissions by changing land management, not all greenhouse gases are taken into account.

Dr Martin Parkinson

The carbon dioxide from savanna burning isn't, because there's an assumption in the way in which
the Kyoto Protocol applies to Australia that the biomass that burns is offset by regrowth. To bring
it into the CPRS, we have to address the scientific questions, and need to address issues of
confidence. So people need confidence that land management actually leads to a real reduction in
emissions.

Narration

Back in Kabulwarnamyo, the regional fire station for western Arnhem land, that's exactly what
they're setting out to prove.

Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith What we finally need to do is understand better the amount of methane and
nitrous oxide, the greenhouse gases we're allowed to account for, are produced in similar sorts of
proportions by fires early in the year, compared with fires later in the year.

Narration

To help answer these questions, Kabulwarnamyo hosted an international scientific team earlier this
year, to measure in detail what happens when half a hectare of woodland is burned just after the
rains. They surveyed the vegetation; measured the radiation; sampled the particles and gases; even
took thermal images from the air. The experiment will be repeated late in the dry season. But at
this stage, the government has decided it needs more information before permitting the fire
managers to be part of the CPRS.

Dr Martin Parkinson

You need a baseline. Because if you're going to credit people for the impact of fire management
practices, you need to know what the emissions would have been before the fire management
practices. And that's going to be a key challenge.

Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith

The rules are not particularly in our favour at the present time. If you forget the rules component
and just think about the bigger implications on climate change, savanna burning needs to be
addressed and taken seriously.

Narration

On the ground in Kabulwarnamyo, the elders remain patiently optimistic that their time as official
carbon traders will come.

Peter Biless Nabalambarl

When we three old men and the whitefellas here who helped to start this have all gone, it will
sustain our young people into the future as they inherit this land and make a living from it.

Related Info

Catalyst: Carbon Country (19/10/2006)

North Australian Fire Information - real-time mapping of fire hotspots

Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS)

North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA)

West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project (WALFA)

Kyoto Protocol rules regarding land-use and land-use change, Climate Action Network Australia

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