Today’s announcement from the federal government of a $3.5 billion Climate Solution Fund has prompted a mix of scepticism and disappointment in the farm sector.
The policy is designed to meets Australia's commitment under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030.
Concerns about the policy centre on the lack of funding available, new measures to tackle the causes of climate change as well as missed opportunities create new income streams for farmers who enhance the natural environment.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the new funding in Melbourne today, which extends the existing Emissions Reduction Fund with $2 billion over 10 years, and invests $1.4b in the Snowy Hydro renewable energy initiative.
The ERF was launched in 2014 by former PM Tony Abbott with a funding commitment of $2.5b over 5 years, or $500 million a year.
Mr Morrison’s announcement delivers a significant funding reduction, down to $200 million a year over 10 years.
The ERF supports landowners to reduce emissions through biodigesters to reduce methane from animal waste, revegetation, livestock herd management, soil carbon sequestration, as well as energy efficiency in the resources, transport and development sectors.
Farmers for Climate Action chief executive Verity Morgan-Schmidt said while the Climate Solutions Fund did not adequately address the energy sector, which produces the most carbon emissions.
“We welcome ongoing opportunities for agriculture to participate in climate solutions, including revegetation and drought-proofing activities. However, these strategies must be delivered in conjunction with a credible, transparent policy to drive a transition to clean energy,” Ms Morgan-Schmidt said.
National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said was disappointing that the government’s climate policy didn’t commit to an ecosystem services fund to develop a market that creates an economic value for “ecosystems services” - which is biophysical assets such as threatened species or habitats, increases to biodiversity and so on.
It is understood that ecosystems services payments are a focus of an independent review of the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, which the government commissioned to from agricultural policy expert Wendy Craik.
The review was handed to the federal government several months ago but is yet to be released. It’s content does not feature in today’s announcement.
"This is something we'd like to see included in further iterations of the Government's climate policy and to be committed to by the Opposition,” Mr Mahar said.
"The ecosystem services fund is an important policy for the farm sector to allow it to maximise its investment in natural capital."
University of Queensland senior research fellow Professor John Quiggin, a former Climate Change Authority board member, was scathing in his assessment of the scheme.
“The funding is so trivially small it doesn’t count as a policy, it’s just a gesture before the election,” he said.
“The ERF could look at ecosystems services, but there was no evidence of that under the Abbott government and the lack of detail this time is appalling.
“In the end what we got was effectively a very inefficient carbon price with a whole bunch of restrictions on the scheme that made it ineffective.”
Last week the Climate Proofing Australia campaign, which includes the Red Meat Advisory Council, Farmers For Climate Action, Greening Australia and the Forestry Products Association, launched to call for government-funding which recognises the public benefits achieved on private land.
Farmers for Climate Action Deputy-Chair Charlie Prell, Crookwell, NSW said the Climate Solutions Fund missed opportunities to promote renewable energy development in regional economies.
“The package should be focused on reducing emissions, not just absorbing and offsetting the emissions that are already in the atmosphere. Massive benefits are available for farmers and rural communities that host the renewable energy infrastructure of the future,” Mr Prell said.
To date, about 80 per cent of the ERF’s emission reduction have come from farm projects, with revegetation work doing the heavy lifting.
ERF projects are now estimated to be reducing Australia's net emissions by 177 million tonnes CO2-e per annum.
Just $250 million of the ERF’s initial funding remained before today’s announcement.
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Mr Morrison launched the policy in a speech at Melbourne this morning. He has to manage a government which is divided between moderates who favour action to address climate change and the right wing which have to date resisted any measures to curb emissions.
The issue was a significant factor in former PM Malcolm Turnbull's downfall.
Mr Morrison has characterised the issue as an economic challenge across society and highlighted the the Coalition's "responsible, practical" policy and compared it to Labor's more ambitious and economically "reckless" 45 per cent emissions reductions target.
"You don't have to choose between the environment and economy," Mr Morrison said today, emphasising funding for practical measures in his new policy.
"It's sensible action without damaging your family budget," Mr Morrison said.
Labor committed to a $15 billion plan to cut emissions on 2005 levels by 45 per cent across all industries and to achieve 50pc renewable energy in national generation mix.
The party has a roadmap to emission reduction for the energy sector, but it has yet to detail its plans for other significant emitters, including agriculture.
Labor's climate change spokesman Mark Butler support carbon farming schemes and has indicated agriculture would be exempt from a 45pc emissions reduction target under his party's policy.