‘TreeBay’ scheme for carbon farmers

By Jane Garcia

A proposal for helping farmers to earn carbon credits for native vegetation and trees they preserve or plant on their properties could also prove profitable for local government, according to an Australian National University researcher.

Philip Gibbons from the university’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, suggests an online auction system, similar to eBay, could help farmers and small organisations that sequester carbon from the atmosphere by planting and protecting native trees and shrubs to get paid for the service by individuals and companies wanting to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

He is not aware of a similar concept being used anywhere else in the world, but sees its potential in the context of the emerging carbon trading market worldwide.

Even though Australia does not have a national emissions trading scheme, a carbon market has gone ahead and emerged, Dr Gibbons says.

“Greenfleet, for instance, has over 50,000 subscribers and none of those people ‘have to’ buy or offset their carbon, it’s all done voluntarily. Their subscribers include Telstra, government departments and the ACT Government,” he says.
“What I’m trying to achieve with my idea is that individual farmers, who are collectively very important for offsetting carbon emissions, can’t really get in to this market because individually they grow or produce or sequester a small amount of carbon relative to the total market. The economies of scale aren’t there, especially given some of the uncertainties and complexities involved in carbon trading at the moment.
“What I’m proposing is an online system like eBay where farmers can put up the carbon they have available for sale as individual, small packets. It means that they can access the market easily and buyers can use the system. If that system also operated as a brokerage service that made transacting carbon much simpler for individual farmers, ir could really be a goer.”

The benefits of such a scheme could be both financial and non-financial.
Dr Gibbons says carbon trading should not be seen as a “cash cow”, but even at the moment some people are doing quite well out of carbon. The market will decide how much a landholder or seller of carbon ultimately receives, but, based on current prices, a landholder could get between $1000 and $6000 a hectare, he says.
The amount will vary with the soil type, rain fall and other factors influencing the amount of carbon trees and vegetation can sequester.

Non-financial benefits could include gains in biodiversity, improved water quality, farming productivity gains and mitigation of salinity. He suggests it could also spark some innovative marketing strategies to provide habitat for native species and carbon sinks.

Dr Gibbons acknowledges that carbon sequestration is just one strategy in a suite needed to reduce greenhouse emissions, and measures need to be put in place to ensure the integrity of the trading scheme.

“The market is already happening and auditing and compliance are still at a nascent stage,” he says.
“It will develop over time and there are two options. Government could heavily regulate this industry but unfortunately, if you talk about individual farmers, they don’t like heavy regulation. It could also make it a bit unwieldy and expensive to be active in the market.
“The other option is more of a self-regulating market where government’s role is to set standards: identify what is consistent with international standards in accounting for carbon, communicate them to anyone wanting to participate in the carbon market, and educate sellers and buyers. Buyers of carbon will then over time through due diligence only buy carbon that is grown, measured and marketed consistent with international standards.”

Local government could trade on its good reputation in the community and existing robust governance structures if it was to join a ‘carbon farming’ scheme.

”Any organisation that has a bigger pool of land and already has strong administration and proven governance arrangements is going to have a natural advantage,” Dr Gibbons says.

For more on potential models for carbon trading markets in Australia see the March edition of Government News magazine.

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