Workshops explain agriculture's role

Claire TyrrellCountryman
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Agriculture's role in Australia's carbon economy is being widely discussed this month as the Federal Government's carbon tax comes into effect this Sunday.

A series of workshops across the Wheatbelt has drawn massive interest from landholders in recent weeks.

The first Get the Dirt on Carbon event held in Northam on Friday attracted about 70 industry representatives and growers.

Keynote speaker Mick Keogh provided a valuable insight into the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI).

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The Australian Farm Institute executive director spoke about how the industry could help Australia reach its greenhouse gas emissions targets and how it would be affected by a price on carbon.

He said the Federal Government's Clean Energy Futures Act was modelled on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through either mitigation (being less energy intensive) or sequestration (storing carbon in the ground).

"There are two sides to the cycle and farmers can work on both sides of that to change the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere," he said.

"The Clean Energy Futures legislation aims to reduce emissions by requiring large emitters to pay for emissions permits. The CFI is designed to create incentives for farmers to undertake projects that earn emissions permits."

Mr Keogh outlined some of the methodologies approved under the CFI, which include environmental plantings, landfill gas combustion, destruction of methane from pig manure and savannah burning.

He said carbon credits generated under the CFI would account for one aspect of large emitters' credits, with internationally produced and government issued credits accounting for additional credits.

Companies subjected to the carbon tax are looking to source 52 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent tonnes in the first three years of the carbon tax.

During this period the Government is setting a fixed price on carbon, starting at $23 a tonne, and companies can only purchase 5 per cent of their liabilities through the CFI.

The international carbon credit market will come into play after the fixed price period, when restrictions on where large emitters source their permits from are lifted.

Mr Keogh said the most common way farmers took part in the CFI was via aggregated or pooled models offered by carbon sequestration companies.

He said in the infant stages of the carbon pricing mechanism, many growers interested in generating credits would opt to lease or even sell their land to such groups.

He added that while the CFI could be seen as a legitimate alternative income stream, it involved significant risks and heavy administrative burdens.

A considerable risk touched upon at the carbon meeting was the political uncertainty around the market, given the Federal Coalition's view on it.

Mr Keogh said this could cause significant price fluctuations in the future but the CFI would ultimately play a role in Australia's carbon economy regardless of who was in power.

He spoke about the cost burden the carbon price would impose on primary producers, which would mainly be incurred through passed on costs.

"Agriculture makes up 16 per cent of the national greenhouse gas inventory, but agriculture's emissions are excluded from the scheme," he said.

"At a farm level, the impacts are quite small, between a quarter to half a per cent rise in farm costs, except for the dairy and rice industries, which have a lot of processing costs."

He said that after 2015, when transport was added to the carbon tax, the impacts would be much greater on farmers.

The event, which is part of a series being presented across the Wheatbelt this month, also provided information about research into carbon sequestration and emissions in WA over the past few years.

UWA soil scientist Louise Barton spoke about the nitrous oxide emissions from cropped soils in WA and the carbon footprint of wheat production.

She said nitrous oxide, released from the soil as a result of applying nitrogen fertilisers, was 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Trial work in Cunderdin and Wongan Hills found that synthetic fertilisers significantly increased nitrous oxide emissions and incorporating legumes into rotations reduced nitrous oxide emissions.

UWA soil science chairman Dan Murphy spoke about the impact of biochar on greenhouse gas emissions.

He said because biochar was such a stable organic compound it could lock up carbon in the soil for at least 100 years.

"Biochar can be seen as a carbon negative production process, which is why the government has shown so much interest in it," he said.

Dr Murphy compared trial results at Wongan Hills to those conducted in NSW, and found that biochar did not have a significant impact on greenhouse gas reduction in WA as it did in the eastern states.

Since 2008, the Federal Government has invested $46.2 million into Australia's Farming Future Initiative, which supports research projects into carbon farming.

Soil carbon research was also a hot topic at the meeting and UWA's Andrew Wherrett discussed his work in the field.

Another Get the Dirt on Carbon workshop was held in Mt Barker yesterday, and CFI workshops were held in Bunbury, Narrogin, Boyup Brook and Manjimup.

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