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Burke reveals ignorance of land management report.

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Yesterday in Parliament, Agriculture Minister Tony Burke showed he was incapable of understanding an important recent report on forestry produced by leading CSIRO scientists led by Dr Phil Polglase.

In the report Dr Polglase demonstrated the wide range of opportunities for forestry in Australia - including forestry for saw log and other production and for carbon sinks.

As one scenario (out of an infinite possible range of scenarios) he showed how with a carbon price of $20 per tonne of C02e, plantings on 9 million hectares would abate each year about a quarter of Australia’s emissions (143 million tonnes).

I referred to his paper and to this scenario in my recent speech on climate change (24 January) as one of a number of examples of where biocarbon or “green carbon” strategies can be used to materially reduce Australia’s net CO2 emissions.

Mr Burke either wilfully misrepresented the report or was incapable of understanding it.

First, he said that the scenario (referred to on p. 80 of Dr Polglase’s paper) would involve carbon plantings on sugar cane land in North Queensland.

That is false. The scenario screened out all sugar cane land - indeed it screened out all high rainfall land - which is why on the East Coast almost all the land referred to in the scenario is west of the Great Divide. It appears that Mr Burke was referring to the wrong map in the report - but that is for him to explain.

Second, he suggested that the scenario involved removing prime agricultural land from food production. This is also not correct, because the scenario assumes that the carbon plantings with a $20 per tonne carbon price would be at least $150 per hectare per annum more profitable than the pre-existing agricultural operations. In other words, the land referred to is assumed to be of modest economic productivity.

Third, the Minister seems to be in complete ignorance of what is actually going on in rural Australia. He complains that tree planting could occur “between Launceston and Hobart”. He only needs to drive between those two cities with his eyes open to see that there is thriving forestry industry there now.

Fourth, he complains that the scenario models potential for carbon forestry in the Western Australian wheat belt. He should know that environmental plantings are occurring there now and that they deliver considerable additional benefits including reducing rising saline water tables.

Finally, and this perhaps is the most disappointing part of Tony Burke’s comic routine, he shows a complete and utter ignorance of land management in rural Australia. Most tree plantings in rural Australia, and most plantings for carbon sinks, will be done as part of an integrated land management strategy by land owners who will plant tree lots in positions where they offer stock and pastures shelter from the wind, add to bio diversity and, in many places, offset rising water tables and salinity.

As I said in my speech on 24 January, a Green Carbon strategy will allow Australia to materially reduce its CO2 emissions at a relatively low cost, deliver significant additional environmental benefits and enhance, not reduce, agricultural productivity and food security.

27 February 2009