Stripped bare: Australia’s hidden climate crisis

“Land clearance and degradation is one of the greatest crises facing Australia and the world,” says Bill Hare, the chief executive and senior scientist with Berlin-based Climate Analytics. “It undermines the basis for food production, is causing species loss and ecological decline, destroys climate resilience, degrades water resources and reverses carbon storage on the land.”

Pollution from land clearing is projected by the federal government to remain at about 46m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to 2030, roughly equivalent to emissions from three large coal-fired power plants. The rate at which we are clearing land in Australia is almost immediately wiping out gains being made under tax-payer funded schemes to address climate change.

Australia is among the 11 worst countries when it comes to deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Queensland, with its vast swathes of untouched land on Cape York, has the highest clearing rate, but NSW is rapidly becoming a hotspot – and there is less to lose, with only 9% of the state’s vegetation in its original state.

What is becoming clear is that successive NSW governments have failed to explain the science behind preserving native vegetation – both in relation to climate change and protecting the landscape and endangered species – to farmers and the public.

Instead, land clearing laws in the state have been successively weakened, first by Labor and then more comprehensively by the Coalition, with the introduction of amendments to the Local Land Services Act in August 2017.

“NSW’s native vegetation laws were [once] based on the principle that broad-scale land clearing would not be permitted and clearing could only proceed if it could be shown to maintain or improve environmental outcomes,” says Rachel Walmsley, a solicitor at the NSW Environmental Defenders Office.

“The new act brought in a new approach with the twin stated objectives of arresting the current decline in the state’s biodiversity while also facilitating sustainable agricultural development.”

But while farmers are mostly happy with the new rules, environmentalists say they have ushered in an environmental disaster because they allow farmers to self-assess whether clearing is permissible. The old act also protected paddock trees; the amended act has made it much easier to get rid of them.

Critics say farmers have been given the green light to clear.

“I have sat in meetings where arguments have been put that driving a tractor around a tree is a significant cost in diesel for farmers,” Walmsley says.

“There’s no valuation of the ecosystem services these trees provide: clean water, clean air, healthy soils and hosting pollinators. There’s no dollar value put on vegetation.”

Dust is kicked up in a ploughed field outside Walgett, NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

A visit to the north-west of NSW is an eye-opener. From the black soil plains of Tamworth west to Bourke and Cobar and north to the border with Queensland there has been an epidemic of clearing, as farmers indulge in a kind of arms race to convert remnant bushland into acreage suitable for cropping: wheat, soyabeans, chickpeas and cotton.

But increasingly the question must be asked: is this viable country for large-scale crop farming?

Usually in winter this region would be green with winter crops. This year, as far as the eye can see, there is barren dirt – ploughed fields denuded of every tree and bush – as farmers wait in vain for rain that would enable planting.

Many farmers haven’t had significant income since 2012, says Brendan Moylan, a Moree lawyer and spokesman for the North West NSW Farmers Alliance, a group that has been campaigning on behalf of farming families in the region to get the government to back off prosecuting farmers for historical land clearing offences under the old act.

Already there have been dust storms this year and there will be more, on a scale not seen before. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest rainfall outlook says: “Rainfall is highly likely to be below average across most of the country for the remainder of 2019 and early 2020.”

Five decades ago this was mainly grazing country, offering scrubby paddocks that could support sheep and cattle. But the building of the Keepit dam, greater use of surface and ground water and more efficient mechanised farming have led to many farmers converting to crops – literally to the back of Bourke.

Nowhere is the debate about land clearing more heated than in north-west NSW.

The most extreme example of the tensions it ignites was the death of Glen Turner, an Office of Environment and Heritage compliance officer, who was shot dead at Croppa Creek in 2014 by a 79-year old landowner, Ian Turnbull. Turnbull was convicted of murder and died in jail.

People in the Moree farming community describe Turnbull as “a psycho” who did their cause no favours, but in the next breath express sympathy for his frustration at not being able to manage his farm because of the laws to protect native vegetation.

On the other side of the debate is Turnbull’s next-door neighbour, Alaine Anderson, who has been on her farm at Croppa Creek for 40 years. She has taken up restorative farming and is the local koala rescuer. She is horrified at what is happening across the north-west under the new laws.

Alaine Anderson runs a farm and koala rescue outside Moree NSW. One of her injured animals is nearly ready for release. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

When we visit she has three injured koalas under her care. Increasingly, koalas are being hit by cars as their habitat becomes fragmented or disappears entirely, rounding them into smaller and smaller areas. Sometimes they are injured during land clearing operations because they hide under the piles of trees that are then set alight.

“Originally we had sheep in our neighbourhood and much smaller holdings,” Anderson says. “Then we went to broad-acre [large-scale crop farming] … Then in the last decade, industrialised farming has just exploded.

“With that we have seen a ruthlessness with the landscape that we hadn’t seen before. Our ecology has just collapsed and with it has come a loss of a sense of community.”

Anderson says her friends attended a meeting on the native vegetation laws where one farmer stood up and said: “It’s our land, we can do what we want” – to loud applause.

Getting farmers in the region to go on the record is difficult. Both sides fear reprisals.

A phone call to a Walgett farmer, Cameron Rowntree, who has been on the Sydney radio station 2GB talking about the problems with the native vegetation laws, draws a blank.

“We have been slaughtered by the press,” he says. “We agree to interviews and we get just a couple of paragraphs. The print media is the worst.” He declines to say more.

Emus run across a bare field outside Moree NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

Several other farmers tell Guardian Australia they won’t talk to us because they fear being targeted by environment department compliance staff.

“It’s the perceived infringement on property rights,” explains Moylan, who represents a number of Moree farmers now under investigation for illegal land clearing. “[The law] imposes a condition to improve or maintain native vegetation on their land. That imposes an active obligation on them without consideration of compensation.

“The farming community also see that [these rules are] imposed on them for the greater good of the community, so they’re wearing a disproportionate burden.”

One farmer, Robert Houston, who is from near Mungindi on the Queensland-NSW border, is facing prosecution for illegally clearing 40 threatened and endangered species of vegetation on his land, including trees that were estimated to be more than 200 years old.

He has begun action in the high court arguing that expecting farmers to conserve vegetation to meet the government’s climate commitments under the Kyoto protocol, without compensation, is tantamount to resumption of property by the state. The case has been remitted to the federal court for hearing.

The scientists working in the area are also fearful.

One talks about how her kids have to live in the community, how she needs to keep working for the state government, and how she has received death threats. So, sorry, she can’t go on the record.

Ecologist Phil Spark in bush outside Moree, NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

Phil Spark is one who is prepared to speak out. He’s an independent ecologist who has worked in the region for 20 years and has been coming here since he was a child.

“At that time it had native vegetation over 90% of it – now it’s an average of 10% of native vegetation,” he says. “Back in the day when it was grazing, farmers did appreciate the value of conservation, but now it’s going down the track of treating the land like a factory.”

Spark blames the government for the anger in the current debate and the wilful blindness to science.

“They have never gone out … and explained to farmers why we need to have a landscape conservation approach,” he says. “They have always sided with the farmers, and supported their argument that it’s against farmers’ rights to protect native vegetation.”

“I am pretty despairing. There is so much science to tell us what we need to be doing and they totally ignore it.”

The facts are unequivocal. NSW is losing vegetation at an alarming rate.

The former Office of Environment and Heritage (now reduced to the environment energy and science division in the Department of Planning) uses satellite imagery to determine the changes in woody vegetation – that’s trees and forests – owing to forestry, agriculture and fires.

The loss of woody vegetation to agricultural clearing had hovered around 8,000 to 9,000 hectares a year until 2014-15, but spiked as farmers anticipated a law change based on the Coalition’s election promises. By 2017-18 it had more than tripled to 27,100 hectares – that’s an area about 100 times the size of Sydney’s central business district each year.

Data collected by the Local Land Services offices, which administer the new laws, shows that land notified or certified to authorities as land to be partially or fully cleared under the new codes has now reached 368,000 hectares. That’s an area one and a half times the size of the Australian Capital Territory. There are some set-asides – land put aside for conservation as part of clearing agreements – but these are a fraction of the losses.

The majority of the clearing is being done under the code that permits “low or moderate” clearing to control invasive native vegetation.

But much of this clearing, say ecologists, is not low or moderate impact because it’s being done with bulldozers and disturbs the soil. Farmers also get to self-assess which code the land clearing falls under – and there appears to have been little checking about whether they are using the codes properly.

In June the NSW auditor general delivered a scathing assessment of NSW’s new land clearing laws, saying they were “weak” and “not effectively regulated”.

“There is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is being carried out in accordance with approvals,” the report notes.

The auditor general was just as critical about enforcement. The report found that unexplained land clearing can take more than two years to identify and analyse, making it difficult to minimise environmental harm or gather evidence to prosecute. Despite about 1,000 instances of unexplained clearing, more than 500 reports to the environmental hotline each year and about 300 investigations in progress at any one time, there are few prosecutions, remediation orders or penalty notices for unlawful clearing.

Failed crops due to lack of rain near Moree NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

The report elicited promises from the Department of Primary Industries to devote more resources to monitoring. But the central policy criticisms have been met with silence from the NSW government.

Instead, successive National party ministers responsible for these areas have had an open-door policy for farmers and their concerns, while largely ignoring the environmental science.

In the lead-up to the new legislation being finalised, the former primary industries minister Niall Blair held regular meetings with the NSW Farmer Association’s native vegetation committee and with farmers from north-west NSW and the Tablelands, ministerial diaries show.

By the time the legislation emerged, it had exemptions that undermined its environmental goals, says Prof Hugh Possingham, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a world-renowned ecologist, who resigned from the expert committee advising the minister.

He says the committee was working to the principle that the legislation should provide for “no net loss” in native vegetation. That would mean that, in most cases, clearing of high-value vegetation would need to be matched with areas put aside for conservation.

Professor Hugh Possingham. Photograph: AAP

Instead, the government “added some exemptions for large amounts of hectares that [would] not need to be offset”, Possingham says. “That’s why I resigned – because one of the fundamental principles of no net loss had been undermined.”

Environmental groups stormed out of consultations, saying the process had “predetermined” outcomes and were skewed towards “radicals in the National party”. “It is now clear that the government is determined to pursue development at any cost,” they said.

There have also been issues with the maps that were meant to underpin the legislation. Under the Local Land Services Act, a series of codes set out when clearing is permitted without seeking formal approval. Land that is mapped by the department as “sensitive” must be approved for clearing by the native vegetation panel. But on non-sensitive land farmers can self-assess whether the clearing is allowed.

Yet two years in the new regulations and the regulatory maps have not been completed. “The lack of a complete [native vegetation regulatory] map can make categorising land more difficult,” the auditor general said in the report.

Meanwhile, farmers in the north-west have embraced the exemptions in the legislation with gusto.

Illegal land clearing cases decided by the courts bear this out. Many of them involve large-scale clearing motivated by economic gain – an aggravating factor under the law. These are not small-scale farmers caught out by unfair legislation.

Birds sitting on a dead tree in a field outside Brewarrina NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

Kurstjens, Fitzgerald’s neighbour, and his company Topview Brisbane Pty Ltd, were fined a total of $157,500 plus $185,000 in costs in the land and environment court in May 2017 for illegally clearing native vegetation on Beefwood between 2011 and 2012. The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage determined that at least 1,000 trees had been unlawfully cleared.

Kurstjens is now before the land and environment court again after environment authorities alleged he had cleared two new areas without consent. The department alleges the vegetation was neither regrowth nor ground cover and was not routine agricultural clearing.

Kurstjens did not respond to Guardian Australia’s request for comment.

Fitzgerald’s concerns about the change in the microclimate as a result of Kurstjens’ clearing are just the tip of the iceberg.

Work by the NSW government in 2014 on the impact of climate change on the state found that New England and north-west NSW had already warmed by about 1C and could expect 2.2C warming by 2070.

Clem Dodd, a Dharriwaa elder at Walgett, has seen the change.

“It’s getting drier, it’s there for everyone to see,” he says. “You knock all the trees out, you got no moisture in the ground. And you get no moisture in the ground, you get no clouds, and you get no rain. All you get is dust.”

Land clearing in a paddock on a back road outside Moree NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

Prof Clive McAlpine from University of Queensland explains that not only does land clearing release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it also has an effect on climate, well beyond the emissions.

“It causes warming locally, regionally and even globally, and it changes rainfall by altering the circulation of heat and moisture,” he says.

“Trees evaporate more water than any other vegetation type – up to 10 times more than crops and pastures. This is because trees have root systems that can access moisture deep within the soil.”

The increased evaporation and rough surface of trees create moist, turbulent layers in the lower atmosphere, he says. “This reduces temperatures and contributes to cloud formation and increased rainfall. The increased rainfall then provides more moisture to soils and vegetation.

“The clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation for shallow-rooted crops and pastures diminishes this process, resulting in a warmer and drier climate.”

McAlpine argues that we should be replanting in the north-west of NSW and south-west Queensland to achieve a tree density of 40% to stabilise the local climate. Grazing would still be possible underneath the tree cover.

Sunrise over a field that remains empty of crops due to the lack of rainfall, outside Walgett NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

But all signs are that the NSW government wants to go in the other direction.

After a campaign by the North West Farmers Alliance, aided by 2GB’s Ben Fordham, the NSW government announced a review of prosecutions of farmers who were facing charges under the old native vegetation laws.

The agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, tells Guardian Australia the review – a kind of amnesty on prosecutions – was justified because “an independent review found the old Native Vegetation Act 2003 was delivering poor outcomes for both agriculture and the environment”.

“It simply wasn’t fair that landholders found themselves in a situation where they could be punished by a piece of legislation that we as a government repealed because it was ineffective.”

As a National in the seat of Northern Tablelands, Marshall is acutely conscious of how this issue is playing in northern NSW. “The changes are all about delivering a fairer outcome and allowing farmers to get on with the important job of producing the state’s food and fibre,” he says.

“The new land management regime gives landholders greater opportunities to manage their land and enhance productivity, while also delivering record funding for private land and threatened species conservation.”

Marshall says since the laws were introduced “more than 60,000 hectares of high-quality land has been set aside in perpetuity”. He points to 31,714 hectares through offset agreements (where farmers agree to put bushland aside in return for permission to clear) and 29,000 hectares through payments from the Biodiversity Conservation Trust, which is a fund to support conservation.

The vast majority of clearing under the new laws has been to manage invasive native species, he says. The government is now assessing the 156 cases in the pipeline and will only proceed with those that would be breaches of the new laws.

Dry paddocks along the Moree-Collarenebri road, NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for Guardian Australia

But Walmsley from the EDO says the decision to discontinue prosecutions sends “a terrible signal”: that people can disregard environmental laws if they think they are going to change in the future.

A few weeks ago the Natural Resources Commission sounded the alarm, warning that the loss of woody vegetation in NSW had passed a secret 20,000-hectare threshold agreed when the legislation was passed.

It has triggered a review which will go to cabinet soon. But whether Gladys Berejiklian’s government is prepared to revisit legislation that is designed to give farmers a freer hand remains to be seen.

The environment minister, Matt Kean, says the answer lies not in trying to enforce laws on privately owned land but in extending public conservation. He has said he wants to add 200,000 hectares to the state’s national parks estate by 2022, which would represent a 10-fold increase in the rate of creation of national parks under the current Coalition government.

Environmentalists welcomed his ambition but so far there is no budget to buy land, let alone a commitment to the resources to run an expanded national park network.

In the north-west the need to act is urgent because the remnant bushland is now so fragmented that ecosystems are at breaking point.

“We have already pushed the loss of vegetation past a reasonable level so we should be looking for policies to get net gain,” Possingham says. “That doesn’t mean every tree is sacred but we have to realise that land clearing costs this country.”

He says preserving native vegetation and restoring it is absolutely essential for Australia to meet its climate obligations.

“There are a variety of ecosystem services that natural habitat provides. The most obvious is keeping carbon in the ground and not in the air. It’s a major part of our path to avoiding a climate catastrophe.”