THE Coalition will unveil a major policy on deforestation and agriculture in a renewed effort to take on the Rudd Government, which has faced wide-ranging criticism of its greenhouse targets and climate change policies.
With the Government under pressure from environmentalists, business and its hand-picked adviser, Ross Garnaut, the Opposition is regrouping internally on a new package of measures that fill gaps in the Government's emissions trading scheme.
The policy is being developed jointly by Liberal environment spokesman Greg Hunt, and by NSW Nationals Senator John "Wacka" Williams — one of the more militant senate Nationals who split with Liberal senators late this year.
■ Government emissions trading scheme omits deforestation and agriculture.
■ Opposition policy aims to help farmers use their soil to sequester carbon dioxide.
The joint process follows a mid-December crisis meeting of the Coalition leadership and party heavyweights in an effort to restore harmony, which had been strained by a series of damaging policy splits between the Liberal and the National parties.
The new joint process is intended to keep both Coalition partners in the tent, with splits emerging over critical climate change questions including the starting date for emissions trading, and the use of tax breaks for forest planting.
The policy is expected to include a commitment to halve emissions from deforestation within five years, building on a $200 million global forests initiative unveiled by the Howard government.
It will also include tax breaks or other incentives to help Australian farmers use their soil to sequester carbon dioxide.
The Opposition has been considering work by a high-level consortium of farmers, scientists and engineers on the merits of adding "biochar" to the soil.
According to some researchers, biochar makes soil more productive, and also increases its performance as a "sink" for storing carbon, thereby reducing damaging greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Mr Hunt told The Age the Government had "dropped the ball on the global greening project" by leaving out deforestation and by keeping farmers outside the scheme.
"We think that this is wrong — not a minor error but an extraordinary strategic gap," Mr Hunt said.
The Rudd Government — despite protests — decided to leave deforestation and agriculture out of its emissions trading scheme in the first instance, a move that has left room for the Opposition to develop an alternative policy position.
Environmentalists have attacked the Government's carbon reduction targets as too low, while some businesses groups have called for the scheme to be delayed because of the global financial crisis, and Professor Garnaut blasted the Government's recent white paper.