By Peter Clifton, Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitator. This article was originally published in Countryman, 15 July 2021.
It’s fair to say that many farmers in South West WA are struggling to keep up with the rate of movement in the carbon farming sector and how best to engage with this emerging industry.
The last 12 months have seen an unprecedented flurry of activity and an increasing recognition that carbon farming should not be a standalone activity, locking up areas of land exclusively for carbon benefits. Carbon farming can instead be integrated into your land management goals to enhance your agricultural business by, for example, building soil productivity, providing shelter and shade, reducing soil erosion and improving water permeation.
In recognition of the importance of these ‘co-benefits’, the Federal Government are piloting a new Carbon + Biodiversity program in the region, which pays a premium for carbon credits from biodiverse shelter blocks. The State Government have launched their own Carbon Farming and Land Restoration Program which pays for co-benefits such as biodiversity, increased productivity, aboriginal opportunities, soil health and salinity mitigation. It will also develop and test new carbon farming methods suitable for WA’s unique landscapes, which has been identified as a priority by South West farmers.
Discussions with interested farmers over the past few months suggest that market access is also emerging as a significant motivator. Driven by consumer preference for low carbon produce and fuelled by mounting industry concern, more farmers are beginning to acknowledge that, in at least some markets, produce will soon be more marketable if it is carbon neutral. Earning and then retiring carbon credits to offset farm emissions and demonstrate neutrality is therefore becoming a greater priority for some.
However, several issues have been highlighted by farmers in the South West. There is considerable complexity and knowledge requirement which busy farmers simply do not have time to attend to. This is where engaging with a Carbon Service Provider can help. They can set up and manage your project in exchange for a share of the carbon credits produced, or provide fee-for-service advice and support to get your project off the ground. Engaging providers who have signed up to the Carbon Market Institute’s Code of Conduct can provide a level of confidence that you are dealing with a reputable organisation.
Cost can also be a barrier to participation. Farmers make the point that land is expensive, and trees do not provide adequate return on investment at current carbon credit prices. However, prices are projected to rise over coming years as corporations commit to increasingly ambitious voluntary climate change goals in lieu of Australian Government policy.
Smaller landholders have found the cost of auditing to be a barrier. The Clean Energy Regulator, which delivers the Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, have recently removed the audit requirement for environmental planting projects under 200 hectares, which will hopefully open up this opportunity for interested parties.
South West WA’s first soil carbon project has recently been registered by Cullen Wines, in partnership with Carbon West, and promises to provide useful data on potential rewards for building soil carbon. Soil carbon sequestration is notoriously difficult to model and therefore requires direct measurement at significant cost. Measurements must be randomised and conducted by independent third parties to at least 30 cm. Several farmers have raised the idea of doing baseline soil testing and seeing if they can increase carbon before registering a project. Unfortunately, projects need to be registered before baseline tests can be taken.
Not only are costs significant, the rewards for soil carbon can be uncertain given the limited research undertaken to date. Trial-ability is difficult due to the time that soil carbon typically takes to build up, and the level of variation in soil limits the value of case studies. There is also the need to mitigate the risk of events that may cause a reduction in soil carbon throughout the project.
Most farmers in the South West who acknowledge the need for carbon farming are in the “wait and see” camp, waiting for industry groups or others to lay solid foundations with research and development. Clear, simple guidance and support from trusted parties is vital for carbon farming to become more mainstream. It is hoped that the new government programs will build a knowledge base to overcome fear of the unknown and that, through working with those landholders willing and able to invest in carbon farming innovation, a clear pathway for adoption will be established to provide other landholders with the confidence to enter the market.