Land has always been an asset. If you control land you can live on it, grow food, exploit other natural resources on or under it, and even charge people for passing through. Land makes money. We didn’t call the old money upper classes ‘the landed gentry’ for nothing.
What we choose to do with land depends on its potential and the owner’s ability to realise that potential. Assuming, of course, the owner recognises the opportunity. In turn opportunity is about where the land is and what other people want either from it or from what it can produce.
A hectare that overlooks Sydney harbour to the opera house might have been used to raise sheep 200 years ago before there was such an iconic view. Not even the most recalcitrant planning officer could block development of dwellings on such land today. It simply has orders of magnitude more value as a place for dwellings than as a paddock.
Sheep production will not suffer for a few hectares given up to buildings. Grazing properties in Australia cover more than 4 million km2, more land area than India and seven times the size of France.
Nevertheless the Sydney Morning Herald recently printed a story with the following opening line: “FARMERS fear a new rush of environmental plantings for biodiversity and carbon offsets will accelerate the loss of land for food production”.
The story was about mining companies, energy utilities and investment banks buying up land, often through carbon trading companies, to plant trees that will become biodiversity and carbon offsets under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Initiative.
Much of the land purchased is degraded or marginal with limited production potential – a gentle way of saying uneconomic. The new owners have trees planted and account the carbon that these plants pull out of the atmosphere as they grow. This they can register as credits to offset their obligations to purchase emission permits.
Under the carbon accounting rules the new plantings are expected to be “permanent”. That is they must persist long enough to count as emission reductions on the greenhouse gas balance sheet.
An offset planting is not a plantation or production forest. There is no mechanism to allow for later use of the timber resource. They are carbon sinks, soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere, and providing habitat for any number of creatures that were under pressure as a result of land clearing.
The green end of town is happy indeed. A good thing you would think.
Farmers and their advocates are less enamoured. The prospect of losing large tracts of agricultural land sends a disturbing message to a community already worried by drought, flood, pests, a strong currency and uncertain terms of trade. Then there is also the buy up of productive land by foreign entities, both companies and sovereign states, looking for food security at home. More land going out of our control.
With this kind of reporting it is a small psychological step to thinking that the land is being appropriated from under our feet creating a threat to a 200 year old way of life.
This will not happen. Even at their maximum extent offsets will be a tiny percentage of the total land area. After all it takes a lot of plantings to cover an area the size of India. However, the reality is that there will be questions asked of land use in the coming decades. We will need more efficient production, regrow vegetation for its carbon value, pay more attention to conservation efforts and be smarter about water use. There will be changes. And this is what the reporters latch onto. Tradition will not be enough to guarantee persistence of the current use everywhere. We will find new ways of making the land productive. Like the plot of land across from the Opera House values will change in ways that make alternate so attractive that change is inevitable.
And in the shakedown, who owns the land may be less important than what is done with it.