On the Monaro plain in southern New South Wales, a farmer is showing us the Kangaroo grass that has reappeared on his property. Unlike a lot of neighbouring properties, this farm is filled with native grasses that come up to your knees. The farmer points out the kangaroo grass scattered throughout the paddock, and in the distance you can see patches of the orange native that once dominated this landscape.
"Magic stuff" he calls it.
This is Charles Massey's farm, Severn Park in Bobundara, a few kilometres south of Cooma. Massey is a third generation farmer; his grandfather purchased the land in the 1920s and Charles took over from his father 40 years ago after he had a heart attack. He's a High Country farmer straight from central casting - his weather worn akubra seems about to fall apart he's sported it for so long.
"From the Queensland border to right down through all this country - Victoria to the South Australian Border - at this time of year, before Europeans arrived, the whole landscape would have been orange with this grass."
Around the world grasslands act as carbon sinks, their deep roots keep the soil intact and lock away huge amounts of carbon. But they've been severely degraded. In the Monaro region, pastures have been transformed, and introduced grasses for livestock have largely replaced native species.
"Overgrazing, poor management, ploughing and everything has destroyed all that. So we're now starting to see that coming back with our management," Mr Massey says.
The regrowing of Australia's grasslands has been a key focus for many farmers and climate change experts over the past few years. It provides more productive soil for growing and pasture, while also helping suck carbon out of the atmosphere, a process known as carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is likely to be a key tool in attaining net zero emissions and preventing and reversing some of the impacts of climate change.
Mr Massey isn't a carbon farmer, but he has been using similar techniques on Severn Park for decades and his soil health and hydrology are in amazing condition.
"What you're doing is laying down more cover, stimulating more regrowth, putting more carbon in the soil, and you're keeping that soil covered so you're not losing carbon."
But as their conditions worsen, grasslands lose their ability to store carbon. A similar process happens on farms. European farming methods have degraded the landscape and reduced its ability to store carbon.
Conversely, improving ground cover boosts that ability, so farmers are being paid to change the way they farm through the Emissions Reduction Fund. They earn carbon credits for the carbon their land stores, and can sell those to polluters to offset their carbon emissions.
And the uptake has been huge - there are currently 1155 carbon projects in the country. The price of carbon has more than doubled in two years and the carbon credits industry is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion. And it's recently been announced that carbon farmers themselves will receive a tax break from the federal government, and the tax concessions are estimated to be worth $100 million over four years.
Rodney Royds is one of these farmers. At his Jinglemoney farm, half an hour out of Braidwood NSW, he runs a project to sequester carbon into his soil through land management techniques.
He made several changes to his profitable sheep and cattle farm, but he says the key is increasing and maintaining groundcover.
"The most important thing to do is increase the productivity of your country, which means that you're growing more biomass. And to do that you've got to correct the fertility of your soil." He told me he did this by adding nutrients like lime, sulphur, and phosphorus.
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More than 100 million carbon credit units have been issued since the Emissions Reduction Fund started in 2012. One carbon credit unit indicates the offsetting of one tonne of carbon. The price was $15 per tonne a couple of years ago. That's more than doubled.
Mr Royds' project, like most, is funded in part by carbon aggregators, companies that help farmers navigate the red tape and trade the carbon credits. He says he wouldn't have considered it if it weren't for the aggregator conducting the expensive baseline soil testing on his behalf and absorbing the costs.
"I think that expense is what's stopping a lot of people getting into it. Carbon aggregators are doing the baseline measurements and soil testing. But I think people are sequestering carbon in the soil anyway."
Mr Royds farm is changing, but he hasn't earnt any carbon credits yet, saying that "in the next year or two, I'll hopefully get some benefits there. But at this stage everything has been an input cost. And there have been a lot of input costs."
For Mr Royds, the money he might get from the carbon in his soil is actually less important that the increased water holding capacity from soils which have more carbon.
"The profit is in the increased productivity that you're going to gain by increasing the water holding capacity. All the research done so far indicates that you can increase the soil holding capacity by 30%. And I think that's going to extend the production phase of my pastures."
He's not sure he'd recommend carbon farming to his neighbours without a huge amount of research on their part.
"It's got to be economically viable to do it otherwise I can't justify it. I'm running a business and farming is all about maths and science."
Dr Kate Burke, founder of boutique agriculture consultancy Think Agri, also recommends caution before people rush into new projects.
I think it's easier to search for a soft answer, something like carbon sequestration rather than tackling the really hard issues of how do we stop emissions in the first place.- Dr Kate Burke founder of agricultural consultancy Think Agri
She argues that carbon farming isn't a silver bullet for climate change.
"There's a big risk of misleading both the farming community but also those in cities that are interested in our environment and in mitigating climate change. It could give them false hope. Ultimately, to get to carbon neutral, we need to reduce emissions.
"Carbon sequestration is not going to absolve us from our emissions sins."
Measuring soil is hard and it takes time to collect samples and analyse them in a lab, and the framework that gets people paid is a meticulous process that requires you to prove an increase in carbon. It is a slow process and, like Rodney, you might not see a profit for years.
"It's very difficult to get an accurate carbon baseline," Dr Burke says. "It has huge errors associated with it. So it's probably being a little bit over simplified by some of the carbon aggregators. And I really would stress that it's buyer beware in terms of farmers wanting to get involved in carbon farming."
Dr Burke is sceptical of leaning on farmers and relying on carbon farming to reduce emissions, she says that climate change politics might be obscuring the science.
"I think it's easier to search for a soft answer, something like carbon sequestration rather than tackling the really hard issues of how do we stop emissions in the first place."
There are also concerns that the system doesn't work and that people are getting paid for junk credits. New research from the ANU suggests that despite the government issuing millions of carbon credits worth tens of millions of dollars to projects in Queensland and NSW to restore forests, the total forested area actually decreased in some areas and overall did not increase by much.
And while Mr Massey at Severn Park thinks paying farmers to increase the carbon in their soil is a positive step, he thinks the time for incremental change has passed.
"Recent droughts, bushfires, massive wet seasons like this make management very hard. Even though you're getting lots of growth, it ruins crops at the point of harvest and all those sorts of things," he says.
"I just don't understand this complacency or gutlessness and the pacing of what is the greatest issue of any time for humanity."
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