What does the carbon price package mean for biodiversity?

The plan provides nearly $100 million for our unique biodoversity. pierre pouliquin/flickr

How effective will the carbon tax package’s biodiversity measures be in conserving Australia’s ecosystems?

The carbon price package’s biodiversity measures are a pleasant surprise.

To the extent that the proposed $946m Biodiversity Fund and the $44 million Regional Natural Resource Management Planning for Climate Change Fund are genuinely additional to the existing $2 Billion Caring for Our Country and various water funding and reform programs, the package could potentially help to conserve biodiversity.

It is extremely welcome that the threats posed by climate change to Australia’s biodiversity — not just to icons like the Reef and Kakadu, but much more broadly — have been recognised explicitly in this package.

Chronic, insidious and diffuse threats such as weeds, feral animals, and altered fire regimes and water flows, are all likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

At face value, a package that encourages greater storage of carbon in Australian landscapes should be good for biodiversity conservation, and for soil health and water quality.

Additional biodiversity funding, while very welcome and necessary, is however modest – equating to about 20 cents per hectare per year across the continent.

The $44m for regional bodies equates to about one staff position each. So these new investments will have to be very strategic to be of lasting conservation benefit. Much will depend on the design and operation of other elements of the package — in particular the Carbon Farming Initiative — and how well the package as a whole is implemented and governed.

We have an illuminating case study in the form of Managed Incentive Scheme (MIS) projects that illustrates both the potential benefits and risks inherent in reform of this magnitude.

MIS schemes demonstrated that a tax incentive can deliver large scale changes in land use, and lead to the revegetation of large areas relatively quickly.

On the other hand, MIS schemes illustrated how blunt these instruments can be, and some of the unintended and perverse consequences on the ground that were far from beneficial for biodiversity conservation — not to mention the brittleness of the business model.

In order to maximise the chances of being effective in delivering real conservation outcomes for Australian ecosystems, the overall package will need to be designed and implemented such that:

  • the funding is genuinely additional to existing programs, and not a replacement for them as they run out;
  • planning through regional bodies is sufficiently robust both to direct biodiversity fund investments to the highest value projects (in terms of durable effectiveness and value for money), and to prevent perverse outcomes for biodiversity from other elements of the overall package;
  • the Carbon Offsets Integrity Committee and the new Land Sector Carbon and Biodiversity Advisory Board will need to be particularly vigilant, strategic and influential; and
  • some of the very welcome funds earmarked for research and innovation should be directed to working out ways to optimise biodiversity outcomes from the carbon market.

One of the most pleasing elements of the whole package is the proposed governance arrangements.

Rolling a bunch of underperforming renewable energy programs together under a new, dedicated statutory agency under the CAC Act governed by a skills-based board is a very good move. In my experience, this is a much better delivery model for complex, long-term programs requiring a high level of technical expertise and a strategic investment horizon, compared with policy line agencies which also have to manage the daily exigencies of responding to the Minister’s Office.

In contrast, the $946m Biodiversity Fund is to be managed by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

As a footnote, it was pleasing to see an explicit allocation of $4 million for communication with landholders about their options and opportunities under this package.

But there should have been a much larger community engagement component — in schools at all levels, in households, in businesses and in community groups.

We need genuine interaction to build comprehensive awareness, understanding and confidence across the community that this recalibration of the Australian economy to price carbon heralds many opportunities for rural Australia, for natural environments, and for the long-term competitiveness of our industries.