One of the criticisms of the current Vegetation Management Act framework is that it is focussed on the retention of trees rather than the achievement of broader environmental outcomes, let alone a balance between environmental outcomes and agricultural productivity.
It is glaringly carbon-centric – aiming to preserve remnant vegetation that stores carbon and protect regrowth that sequesters carbon as it grows. Certain management activities that could have greater overall environmental benefits, for example clearing to restore grass cover and avoid run off, are unlawful.
Further, because the carbon market only pays landholders for abatement above and beyond the status quo, landholders are effectively robbed of the rewards of the involuntary carbon farming they are undertaking on behalf of the State through compliance with the legislation.
It is time for an entirely new legislative framework for vegetation management.
This may become obvious to the Queensland Government as it collects information from projects funded in the pilot phase of its $500 million Land Restoration Fund.
In March 2018, a project office for the Fund was established within the Department of Environment and Science. The Government’s stated objectives for the Fund include “leveraging emerging carbon markets to supply high quality offsets and delivering important environmental, economic and social benefits.” Minister Leeanne Enoch indicated these “co-benefits could include establishing new and expanded koala habitats, protection of threatened species, rehabilitating and restoring wetlands and waterways, and helping to drive greater agricultural productivity.”
In October, the Government announced the availability of $5 million in first round funding (just 1% of the total committed to the Fund). It targeted two types of projects: $1 million for research projects that identify opportunities for future projects and $4 million for “on ground” projects that demonstrate how environmental, social and economic co-benefits can be achieved alongside carbon abatement.
Reading between the lines, it seems the Fund could deliver top-up payments to landholders for projects that generate saleable carbon credits and ultimately other desirable benefits for the State, for which there is currently no market. Perhaps the hope is for the Fund to generate interest in the development of carbon projects that might currently seem marginal (in the sense that the carbon price may or may not cover the corresponding sacrifice of agricultural production) if those projects promise environmental benefits beyond just carbon abatement. In that scenario, the Government could achieve those benefits with the carbon market funding the bulk of the project and the Fund paying just the top-up required to make the project feasible.
The types of projects of interest to the Government include those preventing soil erosion and run off, enhancing water quality and protecting the Great Barrier Reef, or supporting Traditional Owner land management techniques to reduce fire risk.
Applications for the pilot program funding closed on 23 November, but if the Government delivers on its March announcement, there is another $495 million to come.
In the meantime, the Government might learn from the pilot projects that its own vegetation management legislation is precluding landholder participation in any number of carbon projects and forfeiting the environmental, economic and social co-benefits that might accompany them.