By Prom Area Climate Action

FARMERS or landholders interested in creating greater biodiversity on their land also have opportunities to generate income from their ecological assets, through carbon offset programs, according to Peter Gannon.

Peter, his partner Thomasin and two young children, live on a 50-acre property at Mirboo South, from where they operate their independent consulting business.

Peter is a highly qualified and principal ecologist and environmental consultant at Ecocentric Environmental Consulting.

He also takes an active role in the local community, being a Milford CFA member and President of Friends of Turton Creek.

“Harry Butler’s ‘In The Wild’ was an inspiration to me as a kid,” Peter said, whose love of all outdoors activities has led to his deep appreciation of “what a natural system is”.
Accredited with the Victorian (DELWP) and Federal (DAWE) Departments of the Environment, Peter has worked with public and private landowners on offset programs for 20 years.

Native vegetation offsets are a way to compensate for the biodiversity losses caused by development through the provision of improved biodiversity values elsewhere.

Up to the late ‘90s, there was little regulation concerning the removal of native vegetation for such things as road construction, housing development and land clearing.

In 2003, the state government introduced a framework for the creation of Native Vegetation offsets under the Planning and Environment Act.

Since then, anyone clearing native vegetation must go through three phases: accounting for steps taken to avoid loss where possible; minimising loss, and if that’s not possible, offsetting partial or total loss.

“Offsets are controversial, to say the least,” Peter said.

However, financial and bureaucratic disincentives are needed to prevent proponents from clearing native vegetation without any costs.

If they clear native vegetation, they are obliged to buy or provide offsets to compensate. This means that private
landholders can provide carbon offset credits and thus generate income.

An approved assessor must assess the landholder’s block for the level of biodiversity it contains. The landholder then enters a binding covenant to improve or maintain biodiversity levels, and the improvements are measured as biodiversity units.

Peter outlines some drawbacks to the scheme, such as the hefty cost of the covenant and the inability to reverse it later.

The payment is spread over 10 years, but the land is locked up in perpetuity, and the improvements must be maintained, even when the block is sold.

Prices for units also fluctuate according to market forces.

Improvements include putting up fences to exclude feral pests and livestock, weed control and no removal of fallen habitat trees, all of which must be maintained and are monitored.

Peter and others are currently lobbying governments to change the legislation to allow for ongoing allocations of carbon credits, rather than just a one-off payment over 10 years, which would be a fairer return for improving sustainability and biodiversity.

Even so, the native vegetation offsets scheme is a vibrant market involving tens of millions of dollars.

“I’m not a big player, but I’ve set up more than 1000 hectares alone,” Peter said.

Benefits also accrue from the increasing biodiversity created.

When they bought their property, The 55, in Mirboo South in late 2008, one third had been planted under the Carbon Sequestration Tender Project.

The plants were only one foot high and bird life was mainly introduced species and only some of the larger natives.

Peter has observed the planted vegetation develop in three phases: firstly, the pioneer understorey shrub species; secondly, the emergence of middle storey trees like black wattles and blackwoods through the shrubs; followed by the third and final storey of habitat, the canopy eucalypts.

There are now more than 60 species of native birds, especially the smaller ones which help keep the trees free of insect attack.

Wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, snakes and koalas – the latter being especially important in the Strzelecki’s’ ecosystem – are also returning in greater numbers.

“Our carbon revegetation areas are starting to represent a damp forest environment, though there is still a long way to go before official recognition,” he said.

Another carbon market is ‘Blue Carbon’, which provides options to sequester carbon in marine environments, through the establishment of mangrove and seagrass habitats, though these are largely ‘part of our commons, managed and owned by public agencies’.

More exciting for Peter is the market for ‘Wet carbon’, or the establishment of wetlands for carbon sequestration.

“This market would be ideal for so many of our local areas,” he said.

Many local landholders have natural remnant vegetation back blocks, low-lying and subject to flooding.

Peter observes farmers going to great lengths to restore suitable conditions for cropping or grazing after flooding events and wet years. This includes expensive re-fencing.

Peter reasons that establishing a wetland instead would be more sustainable, as well as offering a better return on marginal lands. These low-lying areas are ideal for the creation of wetlands.

A huge advantage over other carbon markets is the quick and efficient return. It can take as little as two years to achieve biodiversity credits on such sites.

This would also link in with providing habitat for threatened species, such as the 14 species of burrowing crayfish about to be officially listed in our area.

Doing your bit for the environment can be rewarding in more ways than one.

For further information, look up Peter’s webinar presentation on the promareaclimateaction.org website.