A guide to Carbon Farming for ecological planting on the Atherton Tablelands
Final report from the Freeman's Forest pilot project, May 2019
Prepared for Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (TREAT) by:
Cath Moran, David Hudson and David Skelton
This project investigates opportunities for ecological tree planting works in the Atherton Tablelands region of far north Queensland (the Tablelands) to deliver income via registration as carbon farming projects. This work specifically looks at plantings that are done primarily to rapidly increase biodiversity values (ecological plantings) and which typically contain a high diversity of plant species and are established using particular methods intended to achieve canopy closure within 2-4 years and to promote natural seed dispersal and forest regeneration processes (Goosem and Tucker 1995, 2013; Moran et al. 2017). On the Tablelands, the biodiversity values of ecological plantings are higher than for plantings that are undertaken to maximise specific ecosystem services such as timber production, at least in the first few decades after planting (Kanowski et al., 2003; Catterall et al., 2004). This rapid provision of biodiversity habitat is important considering the immediate need for more habitat by many taxa that struggle to maintain populations in the current landscape, as a result of habitat loss and degradation, as well as climate change. However, the costs of ecological plantings are also substantially higher than for other plantings because of the methods used to establish cover rapidly (e.g. dense stem spacing) and to promote ongoing ecological processes (high diversity of plant species). In the Tablelands region, costs of ecological plantings are usually at least partly covered by grants obtained by individual landholders, community groups (e.g. TREAT, Landcare and catchment care groups), private contractors, the Tablelands Regional Council, or Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Funding is always limited and variable from year-to-year and the ongoing availability of public funding for tree planting is uncertain.
In addition to the direct benefits of increasing biodiversity value, ecological tree plantings sequester carbon, stabilise soil, shade waterways, and can function as windbreaks and promote native pollinator populations. This project examines how registering the co-benefit of carbon sequestration by ecological plantings could yield economic returns and, more specifically, whether or not these returns could be sufficient to offset some of the costs of ecological planting on the Tablelands. While this project was being implemented, work by Terrain and others progressed the development of market mechanisms to deliver economic returns for water quality benefits (e.g.https://www.reefcredit.org/) and biodiversity benefits; these should be included in future consideration of economic opportunities arising from tree planting in the region.
The Australian government has established a system of crediting the carbon that is sequestered by planted trees. In order to receive carbon credits to sell for money, planting works need to be formally registered as carbon farming projects. For ecological planting, this would not change what is done on the ground, but does requires a range of compliance and administrative tasks. Assuming that public grants and volunteer support (e.g., labour, land for tree planting) will continue to cover the costs associated with ecological planting, the payments received for carbon credits would only need to exceed the costs of carbon farming program compliance and administration to yield surplus income. This income could be used to maintain plantings, undertake ecological planting where funding isn't available, or provide economic return to landholders. The current report evaluates the feasibility of accessing this potential but largely untapped source of income for ecological planting on the Tablelands.
With funding support from Terrain NRM, TREAT implemented an on-ground trial to document the logistics, processes and costs involved in carbon farming. This work delivered understanding of the:
accounting systems used to calculate carbon credits and their application to ecological planting on the Tablelands
steps needed to register and participate in the carbon farming program
economic outcomes for ecological tree planting works in the Atherton Tablelands under different scenarios.
Three proposed actions have arisen from this work:
That Terrain NRM take the lead on discussions with the LRF about representation to the Australian government in relation to reducing audit costs and approving a carbon accounting methodology for ecological plantings in the Tablelands.
That Terrain NRM take the lead on discussions with the LRF about developing practical understanding of a market for biodiverse carbon from ecological plantings.
That TREAT take the lead on discussing carbon farming with landholders of candidate planting properties. This could begin with a field day and workshop, in conjunction with a launch of this report.