Case Study: West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project

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How do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions from savanna burning by 500,000 tonnes per year by 2030?  (Climate Change Policy Target 18)


Background

The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement  (WALFA) project is described by the United Nations University as the world’s best example of how to connect local Indigenous people to carbon markets[1].

The project arose when Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas PL, a local subsidiary of the trans-national energy company ConocoPhillips sought approval to build a gas liquefaction plant at Wickham Point. The company wished to offset on-site impact on a small area of rainforest, as well as to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). At the time of negotiation there was no requirement in Territory or federal law to reduce or pay for GHG emissions. 

The company ultimately agreed to support Indigenous land managers on the Arnhem Land Plateau – an area of international significance for biodiversity – to reduce the incidence of wildfire. Under contract, they funded land managers to reduce GHG emissions from fire by the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes CO2 annually.  Biodiversity benefits, including protection or rare and restricted rainforest types from fire damage, were also expected to be substantial. 

Consideration of the Issues

From 2005, when the WALFA project formally began, the Indigenous providers of the offset have exceeded their contractual targets by a large margin and at the same time demonstrably reduced pressures on biodiversity values. Up to 30 people have been employed seasonally. Participants draw on skills in fire ecology based on their collective experience and traditional knowledge.  This project has provided opportunities for work where there are no other industries or employers.  

The experience has provided impetus to establish an Indigenous Protected Area, bringing more employment. Local Indigenous organisations are committed to develop more enterprise exploiting carbon markets, together with commercial delivery of other environmental services. So far this work has contributed about $15 million to the otherwise weak local economy. 

The Australian Government has undertaken to facilitate access to carbon markets based on fire management and contributed an additional $8 million for similar work in other areas. Although calculation of benefits so far has been based on reduced emissions from the fires themselves, associated studies have shown that even greater benefits will come from increased sequestration of carbon in native vegetation. 

The project has recently been comprehensively documented by Territory researchers and their national collaborators[2]. Extending the work to new areas over the next few years will allow the Territory to meet a commitment in the Climate Change Policy to reduce emissions by 500,000 tonnes a year.
 

Lessons Learned.

The first lesson learned was that despite savannas being the world’s most fire prone landscapes, WALFA shows that it is possible to intervene effectively to limit destructive fire and its emissions at very large spatial scales (WALFA is more than 2.8 million ha). 

Secondly, the local Indigenous people have shown that traditional fire management practices can be adapted to meet both cultural goals as well as contemporary environmental and wider social goals. 

It has become clear that the immediate benefits in lower emissions in the fire themselves are only part of the story:  The benefits in increased long term sequestration of carbon in healthier landscapes produces much greater benefits that will make a major contribution to the Climate Change Policy’s more ambitious goal to offset more than 4 million tonnes of tonnes.ha-1.yr-1 co2-e annually. 

Importantly, it has been recognised that addressing the carbon costs of development can be achieved through improved land management that delivers social benefits in employment in regions that otherwise lack opportunity as well as improved biodiversity outcomes. Projects that deliver such co-benefits are particularly important valued in international carbon markets, as the adoption of multiple bottom line accounting formulas has meant that pure financial return is not the only criteria for measuring value for money.  

The lessons learned from WALFA hinge on pursuing approaches to climate change that are multi dimensional.  The benefits are therefore greater than the sum of the single elements, and sometimes that ideas that at first seem counter intuitive can be very innovative.
 

Next Steps 

The benefits realised by this approach have much broader application across the Territory and in other regions of Australia.  The possibility of transferring knowledge and techniques of land management will provide employment opportunities and income to regional and remote Australia and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.




[2] Russell-Smith J, PJ Whitehead and PM Cooke (eds) (2009). Culture, ecology and economy of fire management in northern Australia: rekindling the wurrk tradition. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne. 386 pp.

 

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