Land-clearing wipes out $1bn taxpayer-funded emissions gains

Emissions projections data estimates more than 60.3m tonnes will be emitted this year – equivalent to more than 10% of national emissions.

Official data shows forest-clearing released 160m tonnes of carbon dioxide since 2015

More than $1bn of public money being spent on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees and restoring habitat under the Coalition’s Direct Action climate policy will have effectively been wiped out by little more than two years of forest-clearing elsewhere in the country, official government data suggests.

The $2.55bn emissions reduction fund pays landowners and companies to avoid emissions or store carbon dioxide using a reverse auction – the cheapest credible bids win. The government says it has signed contracts to prevent 124m tonnes of emissions through vegetation projects – mostly repairing degraded habitat, planting trees and ensuring existing forest on private land is not cleared.

Based on the average price paid by the government for a tonne of carbon dioxide, the projects will receive about $1.48bn from taxpayers as they deliver their cuts over the next decade.

Meanwhile, forest-clearing elsewhere in the country has released more than 160m tonnes of carbon dioxide since the emissions reduction fund began in 2015. Emissions projections data estimates another 60.3m tonnes will be emitted this year – equivalent to more than 10% of national emissions.

An analysis by the Wilderness Society suggests the official figures underestimate the rate of land-clearing, and in reality the projects paid for from the Direct Action emissions reductions fund would have had their work nullified in even less time.

The Wilderness Society climate campaign manager, Glenn Walker, said other data sources suggested the projections data was almost certainly an underestimate.

He said the government’s forest-clearing emissions counted areas felled for farming, mining and other industry, but not those from native forest logging for timber, which are absorbed into another category. Australian National University scientists have estimated native forest logging may contribute another 38m tonnes a year.

Walker said the official forest-clearing figures also underplayed the amount of mostly agricultural land-clearing in Queensland. State data showed that 395,000 hectares were felled in 2015-16, releasing 45m tonnes of emissions from that state alone.

The Wilderness Society estimates suggest 600,000ha of land were cleared across the country in 2016, an area equivalent to about half of greater suburban Sydney, and the most in a decade.

Walker said the government had shown it wanted mass land-clearing to continue, pointing to evidence that federal environment department notices asking Queensland landholders to explain suspected illegal clear-felling on their land had been withdrawn after lobbying by Liberal National MPs and senators.

“It’s a disgrace that there is a massive public investment going into tree planting while the government sits back and not only watches but encourages the mass destruction of forests,” Walker said.

The environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, did not directly respond to questions about how the rate of land-clearing squared with the government’s emissions goals. He said a departmental review of climate policies last year confirmed that Australia had a comprehensive set of emissions reduction policies, and that the emissions reduction fund was internationally recognised as one of the world’s largest domestic carbon offset markets.

Land-clearing spiked in Queensland after the former Liberal National premier Campbell Newman relaxed laws preventing mass deforestation. The Palaszczuk Labor government has repealed the changes to restore earlier protections but legacy clearing permits remain for about 115,000ha.

The federal government is resisting calls that it should use national environmental laws to stop land-clearing that threatens endangered species, saying it is a state responsibility. Frydenberg is currently considering a draft department of environment recommendation that a Queensland farmer be allowed to clear most of a 2000ha block of Cape York forest that is home to endangered species. Scientific advice suggests allowing it would likely increase sediment runoff on to the Great Barrier Reef.

The government is also facing calls that it make changes to the emissions fund. It has committed $2.28bn on what it says is 191m tonnes of abatement, but questions remain over whether some types of projects backed by the fund – such as capturing methane from decomposing rubbish at landfill sites to convert into electricity – are actually limiting emissions or just being rewarded for what they would have done anyway. “Avoided deforestation” projects – paying farmers to not clear land – are also contentious.

Habitat restoration and tree-planting projects have broader support. In a recent paper in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, University of Queensland research fellow Dr Megan Evans found that well-designed incentives could encourage landowners to back reforestation on otherwise agricultural land, with broad benefits for the environment and community.

But she found that Australia’s reforestation program was being undermined by land-clearing elsewhere on the continent.

She said people were likely being held back from signing up for reforestation projects by inconsistent messages from government.

“If, as a society, we have a goal to reduce emissions, we need to ideally point all the policy messages towards that goal,” she said. “Unfortunately this hasn’t been happening.”

Australia’s total national emissions continue to rise. The most recent national greenhouse accounts showed a 1.5% increase last year. The government has pledged to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Emissions from what is known as “land use, land use change and forestry” – a vast category that takes in forest-clearing, native logging, tree planting and the natural impact of and recovery from disasters such as fire, flood and drought – rose by 0.5%. The 60m tonnes from forest-clearing cancelled out what would have otherwise been an emissions sink.

The next emissions reduction fund auction is scheduled for 6 and 7 June.


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