RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 24/05/2010 - AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO
Senator MILNE» -At the global negotiations last year in Copenhagen, the Australian government sought to have some extreme weather events, which are referred to as ‘force majeure', excluded from Australia's emissions in terms of the negotiations. In relation to drought, what advice has there been, or what work has the government the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry done, in determining whether the climate emissions from drought can be factored out or at what level a drought changes from being a drought to a force majeure, for the purposes of calculating Australia's emissions?
Mr Gibbs -The level of detail in the data has been worked through by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. There are two separate issues here. There are large, major natural disturbances which are a preliminarily result of major bushfires, which were part of the negotiations to try and exclude those events. The second part is what is termed interannual variability, and Australia's position on that was to try and smooth out those interannual variabilities, of which drought would form part. But those negotiations and the figures that you may be looking for are really a question that should be put to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Within this department, we do not have figures and have not done an assessment on the impact of drought on emissions.
Senator «MILNE» -Going back to this issue, I am well aware of the bushfires one, but when it comes to drought are you arguing that the impact of the emissions on drought should be averaged over a period of time?
Mr Gibbs -Essentially, yes. There are a number of different ways that you can smooth out interannual variability. The principal reason why Australia took that position was that we felt that those events are due to natural occurrences, so it was very difficult for a farmer to manage for those emissions if it is a consequence of a natural occurrence.
Senator «MILNE» -The point I am making is: in a world with a changing climate, how are you going to differentiate between interannual variability and the impacts of climate change? When is a drought more than a drought? When is it a climate-related event?
Mr Gibbs -I think that is a very good question. That is part of the analysis the DCCEE undertake and part of the discussions which are wrapped up into the international negotiations which they lead.
Senator «MILNE» -That might be fine for the department of climate change, but you are the department of agriculture. Surely agriculture should have a big say in what constitutes drought in the context of these negotiations. It is going to have a big impact on what farmers have to account for.
Mr Gibbs -We obviously have definitions of ‘drought', but these are international negotiations. We are talking about large changes in emissions. Obviously, one definition of a drought in Australia may not be a natural occurrence in another country, and so it is wrapped up in international negotiations at the moment.
Senator «MILNE» -I am fully aware it is wrapped up in international negotiations. The point I am making is that, out there in rural Australia, people have to be given a sense of whether they are going to be accounting in the future for emissions as a result of drought, because I find it very hard to see how you are ever going to prove that a drought is not climate related. It should be the department of agriculture in there up to their necks, with the department of climate change, trying to clarify this very fast, I would have thought.
Mr Gibbs -I think the roles and responsibilities of the respective departments are that the department of climate change do measure emissions from the land-based sector at a national level and, over time, can show you spikes in the data, which may or may not be the result of the drought. That is why I am asking you to refer that question to the department of climate change. I do not have that data in front of me and the department has not collected that data in the past, to my knowledge.
Senator «MILNE» -Okay. I will move on in relation to these issues, then. Last year, in an agreement with the coalition, the government agreed to set up an expert committee that would meet to determine and develop the methodologies for accounting for carbon that is sequestered in the soil and a range of other issues. So the committee was to look at the methodologies for Kyoto-compliant variables and non-Kyoto-compliant variables like soil carbon. Shortly afterwards, the government declared, even though that legislation was defeated, that this was now government policy. Can you tell me when that expert committee was set up and who from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is on it.
Mr Gibbs -I assume that you are referring to the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee.
Senator «MILNE» -There were two committees.
Mr Gibbs -I am only aware of one at this stage: the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee. It was announced that that would be established to look at the methodologies for those emissions that you are referring to.
Senator «MILNE» -That is right.
Mr Gibbs -That committee has not been established yet. The process is underway to select members of that committee, which is being run by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and this department is assisting in that.
Senator «MILNE» -Six months later, we have no committee set up to even look at determining what the methodologies might be. Has there been an interim committee working on this, and who from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is on the interim committee?
Mr Gibbs -There has been no interim committee in the meantime. The voluntary market and the national carbon offset standard commence on 1 July 2010.
Senator «MILNE» -Okay. When do we expect this expert committee to be set up, and do we expect the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to be represented on it?
Mr Gibbs -My understanding is that the applications for that committee have now closed and they are now being assessed by members from the department of climate change and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. My understanding is that there will not be an official from the department of agriculture on that committee. There will be experts in the sense of research, and they may include a representative from CSIRO, but the actual make-up of that committee is determined by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.
Senator «MILNE» -Okay. In the budget papers under ‘Climate Change Research Program', there is a statement:
The Climate Change Research Program is helping primary producers adapt to climate change, particularly in the areas of soil carbon, biochar, nitrous oxide and livestock emissions; and on-farm demonstrations to the farming community of research outputs.
Could you describe to me what you have already done on soil carbon and where it is being implemented.
Mr Gibbs -On soil carbon, that falls under the Climate Change Research Program. That has been underway for a couple of years now. We have undertaken just under 900 sites of sampling across Australia, and that is being analysed at present and we expect about 20 per cent of those samples to be analysed by the third quarter of this year.
The information from the soil carbon program-and this is important-goes to a tool which DCC are currently preparing which will allow farmers to assess whether soil carbon is increasing on their farm as a matter of a change in management practice. That tool takes into consideration weather events, the soil quality, the fractions of carbon within the soil. In short, the information that comes from our research goes to the Department of Climate Change to a tool which involves a lot of complex statistical analysis and modelling which is then presented to farmers.
Senator «MILNE» -At the moment we are in the data collection phase and there has been not really anything happening on the ground. Obviously, the research stage, sorry, has been happening on the ground.
Mr Gibbs -Correct.
Senator «MILNE» -But in terms of outputs, we are still into the data collection phase.
Mr Gibbs -There is work going on in DCC in terms of preparing a model to take on the data. It is the same model which has been used in the past for forestry. It is now about building that model to include soil carbon in it, but the research program which DAFF is responsible for is doing on the ground work and collecting data at present.
Senator «MILNE» -Okay. We are collecting data in soil carbon. What about biochar?
Mr Gibbs -Biochar, we have a program which started towards the end of last year. It is about $1.4 million. We have analysed 70 different types of biochar at the moment. That is a reflection that not all biochars are the same. It actually matters where you get it from. In some of those trails we have actually found that there are issues about toxicity of biochar, depending on where you get it from, so you have got to be careful about where you put it in a farming system.
We have also found that some of the waste streams actually generate better productivity benefits, such as manure compared to more woody waste streams. That is where we are up to with that part of the program at the moment. That program also will do a lifecycle analysis to look at the whole process of generating biochar and the emissions that come from that.
Senator «MILNE» -And what about nitrous oxide?
Mr Gibbs -At the moment we have a program which is going on around Australia led by GRDC. That has been doing sampling of nitrous oxide in different cropping systems. The sampling from that and the data collected from those trials for the first year have been completed, and now they are analysing the data from that as well.
Senator «MILNE» -What do we know as a result of that?
Mr Gibbs -We know a number of different things about crops and the rate of nitrous oxide coming from them in terms of applying fertiliser. We have had some early findings about inhibitors, the benefit that inhibitors may have for reducing nitrous oxide which would be useful in terms in forming methodologies in the future.
Senator «MILNE» -What about the livestock emissions?
Mr Gibbs -We have an $11 million program on livestock emissions with about 18 projects across Australia. That is predominantly looking at methane emissions. We have sampled a number of herds in New South Wales and we have also, with CSIRO, developed a better way of measuring emissions coming from cattle. There is also nitrous oxide emissions testing coming out of the waste streams as well.
Senator «MILNE» -How much of this research is actually getting out to the rural community? What program have you got to talk to people about what you are actually doing?
Mr Gibbs -We have a couple of ways of distributing the results, and we have to be careful; we do not want to get too far ahead of what the science is telling us in terms of getting those meaningful results out. The MLA are the coordinator of that project. They do a number of workshops talking to parts of the industry. We put out information through publications under Australian's Farming Future and attend conferences, et cetera.
Senator «MILNE» -Finally just in regard to the relationship between adaptation, mitigation and food security, I note that you have a food security program, but to what extent is there an interface in the department between the work on climate change and the work on food security?
Mr Gibbs -There is a strong interface. We work regularly with the relevant area in the Agricultural Productivity Division. A part of the Climate Change Research Program also deals with adaptation as well. Again, that is a program where we look at what can we expect to happen to the climate over a long term using climate scenarios. We have workshops with farmers which talk about techniques that they are currently using to manage for climate and for productivity, and we also start to assess how well those practices are going to perform into the future.
Some of those projects are also dealing with the interplay between adapting to climate change itself and also the risks that that may pose to emissions. The whole program effectively targets the productivity angle; for example, reducing waste emissions to convert it to energy, looking at reducing fertiliser to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. It is about productivity and assists in improving or helping address the food security challenge.
Senator «MILNE» -How are you going to prove that changes to your production system were additional in terms of climate accounting if it can be demonstrated that they were also appropriate strategies for improving productivity or reducing soil erosion, for example? This was a point that came up last week at the Farm Institute, where the Americans have changed their farm practices in order to stop soil erosion. Having done that, they can hardly claim additionality by asking for a climate benefit, because they were already doing it for another purpose. How are you sorting this out in thinking about where it might go in terms of climate accounting?
Mr Gibbs -The point you raise is a good one. It is one of the issues raised under the National Carbon Offset Standard. In the past, Australia has looked at additionality from the point of view of the financial perspective. If there was a task or a practice change which had a cost where you needed an additional, say, price mechanism, or a subsidy or a grant program to operate, then that would classify as additional. But the implementation of the National Carbon Offset Standard and, indeed, the issues of additionality or permits coming through the Agricultural Research Program is something that will need to be assessed by the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee as we go.
Senator «MILNE» -When do you expect the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee will have anything to say on these issues?
Mr Gibbs -I think it will take some time for agriculture methodologies to be sorted through. It is probably one of the hardest sectors to look at emissions and quantify them. My understanding is that the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee will be looking at not just agriculture emissions but a couple of other sources which they may have earlier findings on. There is also potentially an opportunity to look at methane reductions from projects which reduce waste and capture the methane gas and burn that, which could be an early win, if you like, or an early methodology. That is something which has been used through CDM projects across the world today.
Senator «MILNE» -Given that the National Offsets Integrity Commission has not met, has not started doing anything yet, a claim that you could get an emission reduction in the next short while by reducing agricultural emissions through biochar, et cetera, is wildly optimistic, wouldn't you agree, if you have not even met, let alone have the methodology?
Mr Gibbs -It would certainly be the case for biochar, because it is difficult to see how biochar comes into our national accounts at present.
Senator «MILNE» -It does not.
Mr Gibbs -Exactly.
Senator «MILNE» -Neither does soil carbon. That is why I am asking the question. Soil carbon is not there either under Kyoto. There is no guarantee it is going to be there at all. So we have no methodology for reducing our emissions by achieving 60 per cent of the five per cent through soil carbon at this point?
Mr Gibbs -I would say that soil carbon poses a number of difficulties. It is not a golden solution. Science has to actually inform us about the extent to which we can capture carbon and keep it there as well. I do not think it is a silver bullet, but it is probably one important part of the agriculture contribution to this debate.
Senator «MILNE» -I agree that it is not a silver bullet and it is a contribution. What I am trying to establish is whether, at this stage, in the absence of a methodology, you can actually claim a massive reduction in emissions, or any reduction in emissions?
Mr Gibbs -No, not from soil carbon, you could not.
Senator «MILNE» -Thank you.
Senator HEFFERNAN -You do not really think that farmers are going to cop that, do you?
Mr Gibbs -I am not quite sure if I understand your question, sorry.
Senator HEFFERNAN -If we are going to go into a carbon-trading operation where we are in on the debit side-and the government said we are going to be out on the debit side, excluded-and you are out the back of Booligal and you have got lignum and you are in drought, if a storm goes across my place but not across yours and lights up the lignum and the annual saltbush and not the perennial saltbush because it is creeping saltbush or something, you do not really think you are going to have a system where you can calculate that I get a credit and you get a bill?
Dr O'Connell -Mr Gibbs was pointing to the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee as being where that will be decided or not.
Senator HEFFERNAN -We might as well get it on the record here now. This is proposing that agriculture is going to be in on both sides of the equation-if you want farmers continue to farm, that is. You may not. You may decide you can eat the bloody leaves off the trees or something.
Dr O'Connell -Can I clarify a point? I think the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee is dealing with voluntary offsets. Mr Gibbs could confirm that.
Mr Gibbs -I think that is the point: it is voluntary action. So if farmers do not want to participate then they will not.
Senator HEFFERNAN -I am aware of the voluntary action. But my point is: you cannot calculate it. Come for a drive with me and I will tell you what I am talking about. You might have all sorts of bushes struck up in a storm in a drought, and your proposition is that, in a drought, the farmer gets a bill. If you are in the scheme and you denude your property and it is not, as Senator «Milne» says, some sort of natural catastrophe but a calculable denuding, then in theory, if you are in on the debit side, you would get a bill. Could we have the details of the animal emission sites that you say the MLA are supervising?
Mr Gibbs -Yes, I can organise that for you.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Do you actually know what they are doing? Are they going out and saying, ‘That cow is eating loose and that one is eating straw,' or, ‘That one is eating some sort of woody wheat out the back of Bourke.' Do they do that sort of detail?
Mr Gibbs -I think it is worthwhile to point out that there is a mixture of on-farm and off-farm testing that is going on under the livestock program. Off-farming laboratories is where I would say a lot of the work is actually going on. That is where we test different food types.
Senator HEFFERNAN -What they eat, yes, but if I have got Bullo Bullo Station out the back of bloody Yuendumu and it is 2½ million acres and a storm goes across-Senator Back will know all about this-and it misses a bit, you do not really think that you can accurately work out what the cow is eating, do you?
Mr Gibbs -I think it goes back to a point that I was making before.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Are you going to walk around and try and tell the farmer that, ‘Your cows on your farm through this period made these emissions,' when there are 50 different versions of what they could eat?
Mr Gibbs -It is difficult. I made that point to Senator «Milne». It is particularly difficult in extensive farming systems. It is easier down south that to control or measure emissions than it is up north, where you have less contact with the animals.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Let us go with down south now. I accept that, if it was a feed lot, you could manage it. I agree to that. You could do it in a feed lot. But if you are down south and you have a lucerne paddock that has not flowered, it is going to be a completely different emission to the one that has flowered, and that happens all over a period of six weeks. How do you work that out?
Dr O'Connell -Just to bring us back to the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee-
Senator HEFFERNAN -Yes, but this is going to be fed into this so-called voluntary system.
CHAIR -Senator Heffernan, I remind you just to allow the officer to answer your question.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Yes. All right.
Dr O'Connell -Mr Gibbs was pointing to the committee as being the forum where these issues will be dealt with.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Can we be part of the forum?
Dr O'Connell -That was an open question, I think.
Senator HEFFERNAN -It is great to come up with theories. There are plenty of great theories that failed in practice. You can calculate what is happening at the Rockdale feedlot, especially if JBS Swift gets a hold of it. They will have 350,000 cattle on feed-
CHAIR -Senator, I would urge you to ask a question. You did cut in on Senator «Milne» and she has one more question.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Can we part of that?
CHAIR -The only answers are ‘yes', ‘no' or that you will come back to him, because Senator «Milne» is waiting.
Senator HEFFERNAN -Can you provide-
Senator Sherry -I think we should let Senator «Milne» finish her questions. You will be here this afternoon.
CHAIR -That is exactly right. Thank you, Minister. I appreciate that. Senator «Milne», you have two minutes left. Senator Heffernan, you are finished.
Senator «MILNE» -I understand that, in the negotiations with the coalition, $20 million was to be set aside for this Domestic Offsets Integrity Commission and its work. It is now six months and it has not been set up, so I presume none of that money has been spent.
Dr O'Connell -That is under the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.
Senator «MILNE» -None of that money is in your budget?
Dr O'Connell -I do not think that was in our budget. That will be the Department of Climate Change of Energy Efficiency.
Senator «MILNE» -I will be very interested to know what they are going to spend that $20 million on in the next six months. I will ask them. Thank you.