Offsetting agricultural emissions through reforestation would cost 15-per-cent of farm profits, new research suggests.
- Offsetting agricultural emissions through reforestation would cost WA farms 15pc of their profits according to UWA research
- Farmers’ opposition would be a major obstacle
- The study author said other strategies are more cost-effective than reforestation, particularly in pastoral areas
In research published this week, University of Western Australia professor Ross Kingwell studied the obstacles and effectiveness of reforesting Western Australian farmland.
He found that offsetting the entire sector’s carbon emissions would cut farm profits by an average of 15-per-cent and require between 8 and 11-per-cent of farmland to be forested.
“Of course, that varies,” he said.
“For a livestock business it’s much more difficult to offset those emissions because livestock produce a lot more.”
Farmers have questions
Unlike previous studies, Professor Kingwell accounted for regional communities’ opposition to reforestation in his estimates of the cost and distribution of land needed to achieve carbon neutrality.
“Switching land away from farming into storing carbon tends to be opposed,” he said.
“There is likely to be a limit on how much land can be transferred [from any one shire or locality].”
For that reason, Professor Kingwell proposed reforestation would be most effective if undertaken across a wide area of the grain-growing region, away from the most productive or expensive areas.
“What you’re after is land that is as cheap as possible, but it also needs to be of reasonable quality so carbon could be stored in vegetation,” he said.
Many WA farmers have been soured on reforestation after years of watching mismanaged plantation projects go to waste.
“The amount of energy to fix all the schemes that came up before … it was a huge amount of effort,” Western Australian farmer Michael Swain said.
“$600, $700, probably $1,000 of energy a hectare was spent clearing trees [in Cranbrook],” he said.
‘Who should be paying?’
The Commonwealth’s Clean Energy Regulator has offered a carbon credit scheme for reforestation projects on Australian farmland but in 2021 its value to farmers was significantly less than cropping or livestock.
“We only have to look at recent crop prices to see how profitable agriculture can be,” Professor Kingwell said.
“The carbon price at the moment makes it a poor investment but in a few years time, if the carbon price rises you might get competition.”
Carbon credits are not the only benefit that comes with biodiverse reforestation of farmland.
“Those benefits include improved water catchments, shade for animals, introducing wildlife corridors,” Professor Kingwell said.
“But the issue is: who should be paying for those benefits?
Energy giant Woodside has bought more than 10,000 ha of WA farmland for reforestation to help offset its own emissions since 2019, and reportedly plans to double its holdings in 2022.
For much of the last decade, obtaining carbon credits through the Commonwealth’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) was the only government incentive offered for Australian farmers to reforest their land.
However, earlier this year, a pilot scheme was introduced to promote biodiverse plantings in select regions in every state.
The program is now closed and, like the ERF, it required reforested land to be maintained for at least 25 years.
Reforestation not enough
After extensive research, Professor Kingwell has concluded that reforestation alone is not the most cost-effective path to decarbonising Australian agriculture.
“There are sequestration opportunities in pastoral regions, which are much more cost-effective than switching productive ag land into trees,” he said.
“That may involve greenhouse gas-reducing compounds in feed [and] technologies that produce fewer emissions.”
He also noted that farmland in much of the eastern states’ agricultural regions was more expensive than in WA, meaning reforestation projects there may be even more commercially disadvantaged.
“Whatever the activity that generates emissions, there needs to be innovative ways of reducing those emissions,” he said.
Agricultural scientists have done a great job of increasing crop yields and making animals more efficient, but we’re yet to tackle the issue of making sure agricultural production is still profitable while being able to reduce its emissions.”
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