Sunday, September 05, 2010

Who owns Soil Carbon: grower or government?

The Carbon Coalition supports the call by a Victorian Government subcommittee for soil carbon rights to be made law. Environment and Natural Resources Committee chair John Pandazopoulos says legislation is needed to protect the rights of growers to the carbon they sequester in their soil. Currently Western Australia is the only State to have such protection enshrined in law. The need is real. Governments in Australia have set precedents for nationalizing privately owned resources: Peter Spencer’s campaign for compensation for the impact of native vegetation laws is based on establishing the fact that the Commonwealth has used the ban on clearing to meet its Kyoto obligations. The estimated value of the carbon involved has been stretched to billions. The Spencer case will succeed only if the High Court agrees with him that, while the States banned clearing, the Commonwealth was party to the action after the event. The Government gained something of value, the farmers lost something of value, and therefore compensation should be paid.
Soil scientist Professor Peter Grace advises Governments that they own the carbon in soil: “the Crown retains broad prerogative powers of reservation and resumption in respect of leasehold land…” If this is the case then the relevant state government must assign ownership of the carbon to the landholder.” This statement would need to be tested in court.
The Victorian Committee seem to believe that soil carbon can be classified as a mineral (and the law assigns ownership of minerals to governments). The scientists use the term ‘mineral soil C’; international mineral classification experts have included a new organic category. There is enough doubt to request that Governments clarify the rights of farmers.
The obvious problem for a government thinking of hijacking a farmer’s soil carbon is this: unless the government is going to enforce certain soil management practices, it is the farmer’s choice. What incentive will it take to get farmers to change?
Academics and Green activists believe farmers should be forced by law to sequester soil carbon. Peter Grace believes that the “government should also be a signatory to all contractual agreements between the landholder and the purchaser involving crown land to warrant that it will not authorise uses of the land which conflict with the maintenance of SOC stocks.”
Given the importance of the role soils can play in our response to Climate Change and the urgency, any disincentive put upon farmers would be foolish.

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