Newman lets land-clearing cowboys loose

Queensland's land clearing laws represent the biggest emission reduction measure in Australia's history. Their roll-back represents a major risk for Australia's emissions and taxpayers under the Direct Action policy.

A few days ago Climate Spectator ran an aritcle by Geoff Russell putting the milestone of one million solar roofs into a rather depressing context. Essentially the emissions reductions being achieved by those million solar roofs would take 67 years to offset the emissions associated with just two years of land clearing in Queensland over 2005 and 2006.

Thankfully, land clearing has declined dramatically since that point thanks to laws that came into effect in 2007.

But yesterday the Queensland parliament passed amendments that noticeably weaken those laws. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s chief executive Dermot O’Gorman, Premier Campbell Newman’s election promise to retain the current level of statutory vegetation protection has “counted for nothing”.

The chart below, and Climate Spectator’s chart of the week, helps to put into context the extent of Queensland’s land clearing prior to the 2007 ban. Queensland’s level of land clearing (illustrated in dark green) overwhelms that of the rest of the country. Indeed, WWF notes that Queensland had been clearing its remaining bushland in percentage terms at a rate equivalent to that occurring in the Amazon basin. 

Graph for Newman lets land-clearing cowboys loose

Source: Martin Taylor – World Wildlife Fund (2013) Bushland at Risk of Renewed Land Clearing in Queensland

Back in 2004 when I was working for the Howard government’s Greenhouse Office, I distinctly recall when Queensland introduced its land clearing restrictions. That’s because this single decision ensured Australia would achieve its 108 per cent Kyoto Target with the Howard government barely having to lift a finger. It remains the most significant Australian emissions abatement measure introduced by any government to date, saving an estimated 24 megatonnes of CO2 per annum.

There are four major changes affecting land clearing that have been introduced by the Newman government. The amendments to the Vegetation Management Act would:

1. Remove restrictions on clearing of bushland that was cleared post December 31, 1989 (counts towards compliance with Kyoto Protocol) and is now regrowing;

2. Allow a new type of broad-scale clearing of mature bushland for ‘high value agriculture’;

3. Alter provisions to make it harder to enforce restrictions on illegal clearing, for example allowing the defence of ‘mistaken belief’ or that a person other than the defendant was responsible for the clearing.

Also recently enacted are changes to the Water Act 8 that involve:

4. Removal of requirement for permits to clear native vegetation in watercourses.

The WWF, in its report Bushland at Risk of Renewed Land Clearing in Queensland, estimates that the change under point 1 allows for clearing of land that that holds a stock of about 46 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. If allowed to regrow to maturity, this would absorb an additional 139 million tonnes. The changes under point 2 open up an area of land containing a potential stock of about 184 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

These are big numbers in the scheme of Australia’s overall annual emissions of roughly 550 million tonnes. While it is far from given that farmers would want to clear a large proportion of this land, past history indicates large amounts of land clearing are conceivable. These changes to the law therefore impose notable risks on the rest of the community in order to comply with our Kyoto Mk II international obligations. Importantly, these Kyoto Mk II commitments carry the unambiguous support of the federal Coalition.

One has to wonder how these changes to Queensland law might be treated under the Coalition’s Direct Action policy. Does this now mean that landholders who previously weren’t allowed to clear land can now ask for taxpayers’ money to not clear it?