Top 15 Questions about the Carbon Farming Initiative

April 26, 2012 Louisa Kiely

Many farmers interested in the CFI are now asking the following questions:

Q. What is happening on 1 July, 2012? What do I have to do?

A. Nothing. On 1 July, 2012 the Clean Energy Future program starts. The top 500 emitters of Greenhouse Gas will be required to pay a price on the carbon they emit. This will increase some input costs for farmers as those companies forced to pay the price on carbon pass on some of the increase to their customers. Eg. power costs.  But the huge increases in power bills in recent times have nothing to do with the price on carbon because that won’t start until 1 July, 2012. The dramatic price hikes predicted to be inflicted by the ‘carbon tax’ were based on worst case scenarios used in the political campaign against the price on carbon. As well, companies like Fontera have said they would avoid passing on increased power costs to its farmers. Farmers do not have to pay for their emissions on farm, despite the fact that Australian Agriculture emits more than the transport industry.  Instead the  plan is that farmers will be paid to increase the carbon in the landscape and reduce their emissions of methane from animals and nitrous oxide from fertiliser and other sources.

Q. How do we get paid to reduce our emissions?

A. The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) is  a government program that enables farmers to earn carbon credits which they can sell on the carbon market. The credits can be bought by companies that need to or want to offset their emissions. This is why they are called an “offset” – they allow emitters to bridge the gap while they invest in the changes they must make to be part of a low carbon economy. Offsets earned in Agriculture are known as “Australian Carbon Credit Units” (ACCUs).

Q. What do we have to do to earn ACCUs?

A. A wide range of activities may be used to earn ACCUs. They include reforestation and revegetation and surrender of permits to clear, reduced methane emissions from livestock – eg., using tannins as a feed supplement for ruminants, incorporating Eremophila (emu grass) into feed for ruminant livestock, and manipulation of gut flora in ruminant livestock – reduced fertilizer emissions, manure management, reduced  emissions of nitrous oxide – including application of urea inhibitors to manure, application of urea inhibitors to fertiliser – and increased sequestration of carbon in agricultural soils. The types of projects that may be permitted include planting native vegetation, restoring drained wetlands, applying biochar to soil, and flaring methane from livestock manure.

Q. How much can we make from the CFI?

A. Nobody knows. The Government has set a fixed price for carbon of $23/tonne for the “Compliance” market (the market made up of those companies listed in the top 500 emitters). This will rise by 2.5% each year until 2015 when the price will float.  Not all CFI ACCUs will be eligible for purchase on the Compliance market. Non-Kyoto-compliant CFI ACCUs are restricted to the “Voluntary” market (the market made up of those companies and individuals who want to go carbon neutral to reduce emissions) which is expected to attract lower prices. The Government has put aside $250 million to buy Voluntary ACCUs to support the market. The prices are hard to predict. However, ACCUs are bankable, so farmers can wait for the right price before selling.

Q. Do some activities pay more than others?

A. Yes. For every tonne of methane you can avoid emitting (eg., by changing the diet of your cattle or sheep) you may earn 24 tonne of CO2-e.  For every tonne of nitrous oxide you can avoid emitting (eg., by changing the method and the amount of fertliser you apply) you may earn close to 300 tonne of CO2-e. (We are waiting for a Methodology to be approved for both Greenhouse Gases.)

Q. Why do scientists say soil carbon can make only a modest contribution to the efforts to reduce Global Warming?

A. Not all scientists say that. The world’s leading soil scientist Dr Rattan Lal believes the world’s farmers control the largest installation of a biological technology (photosynthesis in vegetation across 5 billion hectares worldwide) that can extract billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, interrupting the rapid rise of Global Warming. He says farmers can draw down the equivalent of 50ppm (parts per million of CO2-e) from the atmosphere for 50 years. It just so happens that it will take only another 50ppm to the atmosphere before we reach 450ppm (which will increase Global temperature by 2°C).  We need to buy time for low-emissions renewable energy to reach critical mass. Change land management to turn agricultural soils and vegetation into a vast global carbon sink .  Soil is fully deployed, has critical mass, and massive capacity. Let’s get on with it.

Q. How do we get started? Who do we talk to?

A. The CFI is in the start-up phase. One by one, the long list of offset activities is coming on stream as “methodologies” are written for them. A methodology is a set of rules that enables someone to take it off the shelf and follow it like a recipe to conduct the activity and earn offsets in a way that is genuine and reassures buyers that they are getting what they are paying for. There are only 4 ‘meths’ available at this time: environmental plantings of native trees would be most relevant to the majority of farmers; flaring methane from manure ponds in piggeries; managing methane emissions from landfill; and reducing emissions from savanna burning.

Q. Can we cut out the Middleman?

A. The Government believes that farmers should be able to manage the process themselves. However, they will need the services of some third party because offsets are typically sold in bundles of thousands of tonnes, orders that few landholders will be able to fill. An ‘ aggregator ’ s responsibilities can include parcelling orders, pool management, registry maintenance, measurement, trading, and educating. As much as farmers love to cut out the “Middleman”,  direct trading makes up a small fraction of produce sold. Experience in markets overseas tells us that landholders will have choice of aggregation services from their farmers’ association, natural resource management bodies such as CMAs, suppliers such banks, agents or agronomy services, and dedicated aggregation services. The role of aggregator is difficult and requires substantial database management capabilities. Based on overseas experience, the cost of aggregation, insurances, etc. varied between 10% and 30%. Landholders will most likely choose to aggregate with the best price/lowest risk provider. (E., A farmers’ group could choose to form a cooperative to engage an aggregator.)

Q. Do we have to take land out of production in order to raise carbon levels in our soils?

A. No. The best process for increasing soil carbon levels involves active farming. Carbon farming includes all forms of grazing management, biological and biodynamic farming, composting, pasture cropping, soil inoculants, etc. And agroforestry and integrated use of trees can have a significant impact on production. Seasoned carbon farmers have discovered that they can plant 20% of their land to trees and maintain production while gaining many benefits, including increased biodiversity, landscape resilience, and lower levels of evaporation.

Q. Will they ask for the money back if we earn credits for increasing carbon in our soils or trees and subsequently lose it?

A. No. If you lose soil or tree carbon due to bushfire or drought or any other reason beyond your control, you will not be asked to pay the money back. The Program automatically puts 5% of the value of every sale into a ‘buffer account’ – called a Risk of Reversal Buffer – which covers the losses. You will be expected, however, to restore the carbon levels in soils or trees for which you had earned ACCUs. If you refuse to restore the carbon, the Program Regulator can request that you ‘relinquish’ (or hand back) the ACCUs you were paid in the first place. Your ‘carbon maintenance obligation’ sounds like a burden, but it means that you simply commit to continuing the land management practices that had led to the soil carbon levels previously achieved.

Q. If we plant trees today under the Environmental Plantings methodology, how soon can we be paid for it?

A. Theoretically, you can be ‘paid’ at the end of the first year. Practically, you would be likely to wait until there has been enough carbon captured to make it worthwhile to submit an audit report. You can claim ACCUs only after a reporting period closes. You can choose the ‘reporting period’ from 12 months at the minimum or any time up to 5 Years after commencement of the project. Each subsequent reporting period begins immediately after the last reporting period.

Q. How long can we expect the income from Environmental Plantings to continue?

A. The CFI law sets out the length of time that different activities can generate credits using an approved CFI methodology. This is known as a ‘crediting period’. Most projects have a 7 year crediting period. Reforestation will have a 15 year crediting period and native forest protection projects have a 20 year crediting period. The end of the crediting period does not mean the end of the project’s earning capacity. Projects can be approved for a further crediting period so long as the project activity remains eligible. (This sounds like enough time for someone to shift the goal posts. If you are signing contracts for a project like this, insist that the factors that will make activities eligible or ineligible are spelled out in the contract.)

Q. The prices that carbon credits are fetching now are too low to make it worth my while, according to many experts. Why should I bother?

A. No one has any knowledge of how the market for ACCUs will operate. Any opinion about the future is mere speculation, especially if it is based of misunderstandings. Eg. the price on international markets has plummeted in Europe for no other reason than the Global Financial Crisis forced companies with carbon offsets on their books liquidate these assets for cash flow. The rush to offload units depressed prices.  In the USA the year before, the Chicago Climate Exchange’s agricultural offsets price collapsed after President Obama failed to convince his Congress to pass an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) into law. The companies buying CCX units were doing so to prepare for the ETS which did not arrive. Unlike the USA, Australia is getting an ETS.  The CCX scheme also had problems with Additionality which the CFI solves. Another ‘fact’ experts quote is that Voluntary market units inevitably sell for less than Compliance market units. But, in Europe, voluntary units have sold for close to 10 times the price of Kyoto compliance units. So you see, speculation is useful only if it is based on facts, such as: 1. You can ‘bank’ your ACCUs and sit on them until the market price suits you. 2. No Australian farmer is likely to have enough sequestered carbon to sell until at least 5 years in to the project’s life. A lot has happened in the last 5 years and a lot can happen in the next 5 years. 3. Within that period, our major trading partner China has announced that it will have a nation-wide Carbon Trading system by 2015. It has started a  three-year trial in 5 provinces using a $10/tonne Carbon price.

Q. No farmer I know would sign a contract for 100 years, especially as many of them are close to retirement. The experts always mention the 100 years rule as a problem. What do you say to that?

A. While it is natural to imagine the worst thing that could happen, the facts are these: 1. Between 2001 and 2005, only 2.5% of Australia’s forests were impacted by wildfire each year. The odds are 37 to 1 of a fire event. The vast majority of wildfires do not kill the trees. The CFI requires that dead trees be replanted. 2. The Soil Carbon Methodology submitted to the Government’s expert panel by the Bridge Consortium (Carbon Farmers of Australia is a member)  offers an ‘self-insurance’/’mutual insurance’-type system that spreads the risk over pooled and stored units and over a number of farmers across climate zones. 3. “100 years liability” sounds worse than “100 years of healthy soils”.  But how hard could it be to continue treating the soil with respect and enjoying the benefits of soil structure, water efficiency, increased microbiological activity, more available nutrients, buffering against drought, greater resilience against disease, etc.? 4. If those “experts” are right and prices of soil carbon offsets never amount to much, your Permanence liability will never amount to much either. 5. 100 Years might seem to be set in stone, but there is no scientific reason for that period. It is not the amount of time in which a molecule of CO2 is held in the atmosphere. The CFI Legislation allows the Minister to set any other period. Carbon Farmers of Australia is seeking to have the 100 Year Principle reconsidered.

Q. Who can I call for information I can trust about carbon farming and trading?

A. The CFI requires that the only individuals who can advise you must have a Financial Services Licence because the Government has defined carbon credits as financial instruments and any advice about them is financial advice. Carbon Farmers of Australia provides information of a general nature.  But you should consult your professional adviser for more specific advice. If your adviser is ignorant of carbon farming and trading you might invite them to consider attending the Regional Carbon Market Summit on 25th – 26th July, 2012 in Dubbo NSW, which includes workshops for legal and financial advisers as well as other regional businesses. ( www.regionalcarbonsummit.com.au)

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