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Carbon farming could restore Australia’s southern coastal wetlands

Australia’s southern coastal wetlands are more diverse than most people realise. In a recent paper, Paul Boon suggests they provide valuable ecological services that exceed those of inland wetland ecosystems…

Restoring our southern wetlands as carbon farms would have many additional benefits to the ecosystem and the public. Catherine Lovelock

Australia’s southern coastal wetlands are more diverse than most people realise. In a recent paper, Paul Boon suggests they provide valuable ecological services that exceed those of inland wetland ecosystems. But these wetlands face enormous pressures from urban development and climate change. Fifty percent of coastal wetlands have been lost from the east coast of Australia.

Despite this staggering loss we don’t know enough about them to manage or restore them effectively because of years of under-valuing, under-researching, under-funding and under-managing them. We now have an opportunity to redress the poor treatment of our southern coastal wetlands.

Wasted wetlands to carbon farms

Coastal wetlands store and sequester large amounts of carbon in their soils. “Carbon farming” is encouraged in the land-based environment to improve condition of the landscape and provide offsets for activities that emit carbon dioxide. Carbon farming could be encouraged in coastal wetlands, with restoration and improved management providing the possibility of benefits for biodiversity, fisheries, coastal protection and recreation.

The carbon value arises because the plants of coastal wetlands are highly productive in contributing their own carbon to the soils. They can also “trap” carbon from other locations that is delivered with water flows. Additionally the low oxygen levels in their waterlogged soils inhibits decomposition of the carbon in the organic matter that is deposited leading to large stores of carbon in their soils.

Recent studies of the carbon gains of restoration of saltmarsh in Australia indicates that about 0.6 - 1.4 tonne of carbon per hectare per year is stored in these wetlands (Howe et al.) compared to 0.1 - 0.3 tonne per hectare per year in agricultural soils when management is improved (CSIRO agricultural soils report). With the restoration of these ecosystems the potential for carbon sequestration far exceeds that of land-based ecosystems on a per hectare basis.

Rogers et al. estimate that opening flood gates and allowing sea water with sea level rise into the Hunter River system could result in an additional 750,000 tonnes of carbon sequestered by 2100.

Saltmarshes and mangroves are only two of the sixteen coastal wetland types listed in Boon’s paper. Other types, such as estuarine wetlands and melaleuca forests are known to have highly organic soils and are also likely to sequester large amounts of carbon.

Siezing the opportunity

Including coastal wetlands in the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) would not require any changes in the current legislation, because restoring drained wetlands is already listed as an eligible activity. This could be extended further to include restoration of degraded wetlands.

The possibility of carbon sequestration projects in wetlands has already been established, with mangrove projects operating under the international voluntary carbon markets. Additionally, it is feasible that insurance can be obtained for carbon in wetlands.

Multiple benefits would flow from including restoration in the CFI. Many coastal wetlands in southern Australia are contained within privately-owned properties, and recognising the carbon sequestration values of well managed wetlands can have a positive impact on property values. The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency’s recent assistance package to regional Natural Resource Management groups could be used to explore the benefits from carbon farming by restoring coastal wetlands.

Better still would be to include in the CFI a mechanism for including restoration of wetlands on public lands. This would go some way to reversing the degradation and loss that is occurring.

National benefits

Although coastal wetlands are currently managed mainly at the level of state and local government as well as by private landholders, they are a vital national asset.

The Australian Government will benefit from coastal wetland restoration because of improved habitat for biodiversity, flood control and water quality improvement. But also the Government stands to benefit from the new wetlands accounting framework of the IPCC that is currently under review and likely to be ratified in October 2013. In this document the conversion and degradation of coastal wetlands will have an established carbon cost, and their maintenance and restoration will assist in Australia’s carbon balance.

Although the Australian and state governments have legislative control over coastal wetlands, often the cost of day-to-day management of coastal wetlands is at local government level with a plethora of demands placed on their limited resources.

A modified Carbon Farming Initiative that can include restoring publicly-owned wetlands may provide badly needed resources for local governments to manage wetlands in a way that increases their carbon sequestration with the additional benefits to biodiversity, fisheries, water quality, flood control and recreation. Ultimately our whole society benefits from having intact, functional and diverse wetlands.

Colin Creighton of the Fisheries Research Development Corporation, Neil Saintilan of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and Anissa Lawrence of TierraMar Consulting also contributed to this article.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great article, thanks for posting. I share the same concerns as expressed by John Newlands regarding actual increase in the rate of sequestration, especially given the burn off techniques that are currently practiced by non professionals - people in suburbs burning rather than composting and thinking they are doing something positive

    It would seem to be more profitable to make money whilst destroying the wetlands and then get paid to restore them back to where they were

  2. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Let's do some numbers. In SW WA, the Vasse Wonnerup Estuaries are one of the largest coastal wetland systems. Covering 2000 hectares, if we assume that better management (they're being very poorly managed at present) will increase the carbon storage by 1 tonne per hectare per year, then a carbon price of $15 per tonne will generate $30,000 per year that could be used for wetland management. One full-time employee would cost about $150,000 per year when you add in overheads such as office accommodation and motor vehicle. Sorry but I just can't see how carbon payments for wetland rehabilitation will make much of an economic difference to land managers.

    I agree with John: wetlands needs to be protected for their intrinsic biodiversity, aesthetic and hydrological values. Carbon farming should not be touted as a major driver for wetland change.

    1. Joe Hampson


      In reply to Bernie Masters

      @John Newlands- I don't agree with you on the concept of additionality; I thought that for a credit to be additional it purely needed to lower the CO2/e levels below what they were at a business as usual baseline. Thus, if the wetlands, through mgmt, store more CO2/e per hectare, then they are additional and generate credits. In the case of the CDM, additionality also meant that the project needed the funding from the credits to become economically viable- I'm not sure if that's the case in Aus as…

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    2. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Bernie, I am all for sound management of these areas for the reasons you stated but no for wholesale exclusion of local communiity activities just so a minority can make money/offset pollution through trading carbon credits.

      Placing such dollar values on these areas makes them attractive for purchase by multinational industrial giants often at the expense of everyone elses access.

  3. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    While I think carbon farming is a white elephant, I think that the CFI could be used to great effect for rehabilitation and ecosystem management.

    Also, the carbon accumulation will eventually top out, is the upper range known for these ecosystems?

    1. Colin Creighton

      Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Hi all - just a few points of clarification as to why we in FRDC invested in an analysis of carbon in our coastal wetlands ;
      1 - back in ecology 101 all of us learnt that wetlands are the worlds most productive ecosystems....equals carbon. Therefore it seems appropriate Aust and international policy should include the wet bits. Of course no bushfires either so low risk and yes under Kyoto it is about additionally so in this case its about repair.
      2 - we are still losing the battle to retain let…

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Colin Creighton

      Good points Colin.

      Would you know the answer to my query? I'm curious what the upper limit of carbon deposition, much like certain soils have a very low base level and can't maintain higher levels without artificial inputs. Also, would this provide a biodiversity hotspot quickly?

    3. Colin Creighton

      Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Hi tyson - dont know is the short answer.

      Guess the longer answer is that we are mining it here in Qld - all the previous wetland systems now being coal resources!

      Under Kyoto of course it is additionality so we are keen on repair.

      Of course drained poorly performing systems are also a problem as they are methane emitters....but the precise numbers are not well quantified. Nevertheless another good reason to repair.

    4. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Colin Creighton

      Ahhh coal mining, I'm sure that they are using biodiversity offsets...... *sigh*

  4. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Could I please retire to a self contained houseboat on one of these coastal wetlands and amuse myself conducting the necessary scientific experiments?
    Sounds quite idyllic.
    And perhaps a bit of carbon sequestration in a local peat bog at the end.
    Still it will probably take all the trials of King Arthur to be eventually taken through the New mists of Avalon in a wetland rowboat.
    Perhaps someone can write a romantic book about it for inspiration.
    The peace and quiet would be quite exceptional, no roads, no council rates no squabbling contentious ratbags vying for supremacy.

  5. Megan Evans

    PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy & Economics at Australian National University

    Thanks Cath, Justine and Kerrylee for a really interesting piece.
    One thing that strikes me about your proposal is the opportunity cost of sequestering carbon in wetlands could be a lot lower than environmental plantings or other terrestrial carbon sequestration activities on agricultural lands.The 100 year permanence rule might not be such a barrier either. I imagine it might be a more complex methodology for carbon measurements though (?) compared to offsets using terrestrial vegetation.
    Is there a methodology for carbon farming in wetlands being developed for consideration under the CFI?

  6. Jackie Gatland

    logged in via Facebook

    This is a good paper highlighting the need for more funding into coastal wetland research. I would love to do a full carbon budget for one of these wetland sites as other research suggest these ecosystems have high carbon sequestration rates, yet in my own study i am finding huge fluxes of CO2 and CH4 gases from these areas. Then again the site I am studying is a severely drained acid sulfate soil floodplain. Research integrating terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycling is needed to accurately quantify the carbon budget in these unique Australian ecosystems!

  7. Edea Krammer

    logged in via Facebook

    Hmmm! It appears that the program will provide $429 Million if I'm not mistaken, simply to guarantee that the developments in the discharges decrease advances and procedures will proceeds the administration practices in the area division towards outflows diminishment and enhanced benefit which most likely a permit that the famers and different landholders to profit from these financial chances.
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