1788 fire

Before Christmas I had the privilege of attending a wonderful lecture by historian Bill Gammage at the University of Melbourne called “1788 fire” – a reference to the fire regime at the time of the first European settlers.

Bill Gammage's book "The Biggest Estate on Earth"

Bill Gammage's book "The Biggest Estate on Earth"

Bill gave an intriguing talk about how Aboriginal people maintained a fire regime that was woven into every fabric of life to produce an abundant and predictable bounty from a harsh and unpredictable environment.

Central to Bill’s thesis are the frequency of historical descriptions of early  Australia as ‘parklike’ – such as “appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park”. When combined with constant references to Aboriginal fire in early records – “never known a serious bushfire caused by the blacks” – a picture emerges of a constant and universal management of the landscape by fire.

Bill described how this universal fire management was embedded in the law, in totems, and depended on a deep spiritual knowledge of the land. Aboriginal language records words for unburned green land, unburned land ready for burning, creeping fires, hot fires – English has no equivalents for these words. Bill explained the five key benefits of this regime: controlling fuel loads, maintaining diversity, maintaining balance, ensuring abundance and being able to locate resources conveniently and predictably.

It’s intriguing because it challenges our instinct about land clearance rates, stopping bushfires and promoting passive conservation in national parks. Where’s the balance?

And it’s interesting because we are now developing fire methodologies to reduce emissions from fire into the atmosphere – essentially trying to move back towards a 1788 fire regime, which Bill promotes. The savanna burning methodology a patchwork of small early season fires rather than a few big hot destructive fires. Market meets tradition?

What’s clear is that increasing our knowledge of 1788 fire will help us to understand current conditions of invasive people, plants and animals and losses of topsoil, native grasses and species. As Bill suggests, maybe then we will be able reconcile more frequent fire with species protection.

I’ve got Bill's book. Need to read more. More to follow.


Anything coming from international COPs?

Today I attended a Sustainability Business Australia forum on the direction of international climate negotiations.

Are these negotiations doing anything?

So far there have been 18 conferences of the parties, or COPs, with mixed results (I remember writing a thesis on COP3 when I was at uni!) The COPs have led to Kyoto, an agreement to agree, a roadmap to comprehensive agreement, and other indifferent results.

So will COP19 in Poland be a good COP or a bad COP?

It is worth remembering that Australia was hailed last year after implementation of the carbon price. It probably won’t be the same this year as the mood of today’s meeting was certainly that Australia is swimming against the international tide of action. In fact, 75% of people on the planet are now covered by some kind of laws to reduce emissions and this fact will help rather than hinder negotiations.

But a little bit behind Australia’s adulation was a lower key event about savanna burning in the north of Australia. This event seems to have been quite a hit and has led to a project led by UN University and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) to internationalise the savanna burning methodology. African countries in particular are very interested as the work done to develop the Australian methodology overcame earlier work in Africa. The positive story of COPs perhaps rests with the innovation and ideas from these side events.

Our discussion suggested that COP18 last year managed to declutter the process towards a comprehensive agreement, but what will COP19 deliver? Maybe the groundbreaking CFI will get a run in the margins. Hopefully Australia won’t be announced as the first country to introduce then remove a carbon price.

Australia’s negotiating position is due to be announced next week.



What's going on in the NT?

The NT Primary Industries Minister put the breaks on carbon farming on Friday when he suggested that a permit was required for carbon farming on pastoral leases.

What is going on? 

Well, the Minister's comments arose in the context of Henbury Station, near Alice Springs, coming up for sale this week. Henbury was previously sold to R.M. Williams who wanted to destock the property and manage it for conservation and carbon. The company went broke.

The Minister said he wanted the property returned to pastoral production and that carbon farming was "off the table" until he saw value for the pastoral sector.

Everyone watching the pastoral sector in the NT knows that the industry is slow. Many stations are up for sale. Before R.M. Williams bought it, Henbury was on the market for a couple of years. No one bought it.

As early as 2002, the Productivity Commission recognised problems for the sector and recommended changes to broaden the use of pastoral land. Pastoral administration tended to discourage rather than promote diversified land use. 

In 2011, the previous NT Government released a paper on amendments to Pastoral Land Act for the "economic viability" of the industry. Amendments are now in the Parliament. At heart they propose that the Pastoral Board may grant a permit for a "non-pastoral purpose" for up to 30 years, with provision for extensions. There is no ban on carbon farming, but the Board must take into account "current Government policy". Not much change really, but the extension of time from 5 years is important for long term projects.

Despite the Minister's comments, carbon farming has already been taken up in the NT with 11 savanna burning projects already approved on pastoral land - clearly, the NT Government thinks this is an okay use of pastoral land, without a permit.

But carbon storage projects, like previously proposed on Henbury, are perhaps another story as they require the carbon rights to be held and the project carried out over the long term. Savanna burning, on the other hand, is an emissions reduction project with no requirement to hold the carbon. Henbury ran into the problem of having to change the lease, or have the carbon rights granted, or both. And all without any carbon rights legislation in the NT. It's not clear what exactly happened.

So we will be interested to see how things develop. But I would be surprised if the Government got in the way of a struggling pastoralist who wanted to run a rangelands carbon project alongside their cattle operation. Or traditional owners who want to do the same.

As the savanna projects show, permits are not always required and carbon farming looks alive and well in the NT. 


CFI 18 month report card

The Australian Government has issued its 18 month report card on the CFI and the picture is upbeat: 70 projects, 20 methodologies, and a host of methodologies to roll out over the next year or so.

 CFI projects to date.  Source: Australian Government

A market emerging? Maybe. But we need to be realistic about the scheme's heavy reliance on landfill projects to this point - these projects mostly centre around capturing methane gas from waste sites. So far there are 46 landfill projects that have delivered 97 per cent of the credits.  This is not bad, just that it is easier for these projects to get going. But only 3 other projects have received credits so far.

How many Indigenous projects are there? One - Fish River, a savanna project, which has been issued credits (the project is held by the Indigenous Land Corporation, but all proceeds go towards managing the property and employing traditional owners). There are many other would be Indigenous projects in various stages of planning and implementation, mostly around savanna. While there are 10 other savanna projects, these all relate to one property which is not Indigenous owned.

We would like to focus on broadening the tools available for Indigenous landowners to include rangeland restoration and enrichment (bush foods). More suitable tools will mean more projects. The Government estimates a rangelands methodology may be available by the end of the year but there is no estimate for enrichment. A low rainfall savanna methodology may be available in early 2014.


Savanna meth 1.1 approved

second version of the savanna methodology was made in June 2013.

The second version tidies things up a bit and importantly updates the values in the burning efficiency table - the values are a little higher which means a few more credits may be achieved - definitely use 1.1 if you are going ahead! The new version also makes other adjustments including when the late dry season may be declared to start and updating the reporting requirements. This document compares the first version (1.0) with the second version (1.1).

Further work is ongoing for new savanna methodologies for lower rainfall and carbon storage - but these new meths are likely to take a couple of years or so to hit the books.

More information on savanna story is at savanna explained.



First savanna sale!

Caltex has bought the first carbon credits from a savanna project - around $0.5m for 28,000 credits from the Fish River Fire Project in the NT - this SBS story brings it to life. The Clean Energy Regulator previously issued the first carbon credits for savanna burning in May.

This is great news for savanna burning and Indigenous projects - it can be done! The Fish River Project has now achieved registration, reporting, auditing, crediting and sale under the CFI, not to mention a whole lot of work on the ground - well done traditional owners and Indigenous Land Corporation!


Native Title Conference 2013

Rowan and I attended the Native Title Conference this week. In addition to a very warm welcome and a taste of the incredible dirtsong, the conference continued the series of carbon panels it started in 2011.  

This year, Emily Gerrard from Allens and the National Indigenous Climate Change Project hosted, with presentations from Shaun Ansell from the Indigenous Land Corporation on Fish River, Tom Holyoake on developments in the Kimberley and our own Rowan Foley talking about carbon as a business that needs long term relationships.

Impressive to the Indigenous Land Corporation leading the way and showing it can be done - Shaun gave a nice presentation identifying all the steps from purchase of the property in 2010 to selling their credits. Shaun emphasised the lesson from all of this: be conservative in your assessments.

Hopefully others can now follow the path and add carbon to their business. 


Arrernte dancers at the warm welcome

Arrernte dancers at the warm welcome