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Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Land-Use, Bushfires: Australia’s conundrum

November 18, 2009

When economic studies of climate change mitigation weigh up the costs of inaction versus the cost of action, the direct and indirect financial effects of climate impacts are typically utilised.  This is true of the reports of both Stern and Garnaut.

It is often noted that Australia is particularly susceptible to climate change.  There are often references to drought, and to bushfire (particularly this week with the heatwave and ‘catastrophic’ fire risk in South Australia so early in the season).

However, not all financial impacts have been internalised into economic models – and Australia wants to keep it that way in the real world.


Climate change will increase emissions from Australia’s land-use sector.  This would represent a real, financial liability to Australia should these emissions be included formally in Australia’s national inventory, and thus have a tradeable market price.  Australia therefore wants emissions from things like drought and bushfire to be kept out of the national inventory.

As part of a global climate deal, Australia wants to be able to benefit from demonstrating enhanced sequestration from land-use activities, but not be liable for ‘non-anthropogenic’ emissions within their inventory.

At present, most of the mitigation options from agriculture are included already in the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas accounting articles (in particular Articles 3.1, 3.3 and 3.4 as options, but Australia has elected not to account for Article 3.4 activities (rangelands, mulga, soil carbon (carbon storage) and Savanna (carbon storage), while biochar could be added to this category. 

If Australia did report those activities, then there would be an obligation to report on emissions from e.g. forest fire and drought – and be liable for any change.

As the Garnaut Review states:

It is important for efficient global mitigation that the international community move to comprehensive carbon accounting related to agriculture and forestry. This is particularly important for Australia.

Comparative carbon accounting, among much else, would bring to account all carbon sequestered by and emitted from managed lands. This would provide significant revenue opportunities for landowners. It would also bring risks, especially, as would be required in logic, if all emissions arising from fires and the effects of drought are covered.

The Australian Government position for the second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. the negotiations at Copenhagen in December), is for Australia to pursue separate treatment of natural- and anthropogenic sources and sinks of emissions from Article 3.4 categories. 

This would enable recognition of anthropogenic changes/improvements such as improvements in carbon sequestration through improved rangelands grazing practice, while avoiding the potential substantial inventory risks associated with the inclusion of e.g. bushfire and drought-induced emissions. 

Australia does not want to be saddled with a category which would increase its national emissions – and thus make the national target harder.  Others have noted this strategy.

What is the quantum of the risk from land-based non-anthropogenic emissions?  By way of illustration only, personnel from the Bushfire CRC in February made statements to the effect that just two of the major bushfires in the last decade account for greenhouse gas emissions of between 70-105 MT CO2e.

In November last year The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research – a joint CSIRO/BOM institution – released a study entitled ‘Assessing the impact of climate change on extreme fire weather in southeast Australia’

I’ll save you having to read the technical document, by providing remarks from the summary below:

The research results reveal an increasing danger under climate change conditions for both of the two contrasting scenarios investigated. The models selected by our analysis show under the low and high emissions scenarios an increase of respectively -41-208% and -22-1072% in the number of cases of potential fire weather by the end of the twenty-first century.

Excluding the one model that showed a far stronger trend than the others, these percentage increases equate to a change from around one event every two years during the 20th century, to around 1 event per year in the middle of the 20th century, and 1-2 events per year by the end of the 21st century, but with a great degree of variation between models.

So – one might conclude that, if the episodes referred to by the bushfire CRC were to be taken as typical events in terms of emissions release, one might expect Australia’s emissions inventory to be very heavily impacted by the inclusion of non-anthropological emissions from LULUCF, and worsening over time.

Australia finds itself in a bit of a fix:  to take advantage of the (often low-cost) biophysical sequestration potential in Australia of 1000 MT CO2e per annum, changes must be made to the Kyoto Accounting rules.  Otherwise, it’s too much of a risk to include these elements of LULUCF in the inventory, in case emissions exceed sequestration. 

Until non-anthropogenic disturbances are included, Australia will not have a direct financial liability associated with the impacts of climate change in terms of the price of the greenhouse gas emissions permits in the national inventory associated with drought and bushfire emissions.  (The question, of course, is how to differentiate between natural and un-natural bushfires and drought, in order to establish the marginal financial implications of climate change impacts.)

Marginal additions caused by climate change to LULUCF emissions can structurally be limited through reducing global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions – thus limiting climate change itself. 

In order to do that, developed countries, including Australia, must assume deep cuts.

Without biophysical sequestration, a deep emissions target for Australia is unlikely to be forthcoming due to perception of high costs.

So we would ordinarily be hoping that Australia’s position wins through so that it can take on a deep cut target through the inclusion of anthropogenic emissions sequestration from LULUCF.

However, there is little evidence of a deep cut being on the table from Australia in any circumstance – and there’s lots of wriggle room in Australia’s position with the definitions used.

So all the inclusion of LULUCF offsetting or sequestration activities would likely achieve is to drive down the price of permits in Australia by substantially increasing supply.  This is a potential major opportunity to alter Australia’s risk profile.

As Giles Parkinson points out, having a low carbon price as an over-riding objective should not be the principle concern.

One might imagine that, should Australia take on responsibility the real costs of climate change as evidenced through the dollar value of climate change-related increases to LULUCF emissions, it is much more likely that the imperative to act aggressively to address greenhouse gas emissions across the economy, but also from emissions from increase in drought and bushfire, would be evident. 

After all, money talks.


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