In the vast landscapes of the Western Australian Outback, a new line of business called carbon farming is beginning to regenerate land degraded by decades of grazing. This approach works the land in a way that maximizes the amount of carbon stored in the native vegetation and soil, with the dual benefit of restoring natural landscapes while providing landholders with a sustainable income.
Carbon farming, also known as carbon sequestration, pays landholders to regenerate native vegetation by reducing the number of grazing cattle and sheep, overabundant native kangaroos, and feral animals such as goats, donkeys, horses, and camels. This helps native shrubs and trees to regenerate, which means they then absorb and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By adhering to specific guidelines, the landowners gain carbon credits, which they can then sell to companies that are seeking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.
The Western Australia pastoral lease system covers one-third of the state, an area bigger than Texas, and largely consists of semi-arid woodlands and shrublands, including areas with high natural conservation value. However, some large areas are now degraded, and many landholders are finding that existing pastoral lease requirements are forcing them to maintain high grazing levels despite significantly reduced productivity.
For years The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback to Oceans Australia program, in partnership with pastoralists, Aboriginal land managers, the broader community, and the Western Australian Government, has advocated for allowing carbon farming on pastoral lease properties. The government authorized this activity in 2018, and today many of these programs are up and running, effectively allowing pastoralists to earn money while regenerating the land.
Funded through the Australian Federal Government’s AU$2 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, these projects alone have the potential to earn at least $70 million in Western Australia over a 25-year time frame. They are also expected to generate more than 5 million tons of carbon abatement, with a further 15 million abatement tons sold directly to major greenhouse gas emitters seeking carbon offsets.
These new carbon farming funds will allow for ecological and economic rejuvenation in many districts, especially for southern pastoral leaseholders in the Murchison, Gascoyne, and Goldfields regions, where there are large areas of severely degraded land.
Carbon farming has the potential to have a positive impact on the people, plants, and animals of the Outback, which can be further amplified through targeted programs that support ecotourism and the expansion of Indigenous Ranger programs.
Outback carbon programs such as those now active in Western Australia have the potential to be an effective measure in the global work to reduce the effects of a warming climate.
Barry Traill is director of Pew’s Outback to Oceans program in Australia. Ollie Toohey leads Pew’s work on carbon farming in Australia.