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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Scientists advise Soil Carbon farming unviable - time to bury the Coalition Direct Action Climate Plan

Latest Scientific advice from University of Melbourne researchers says that The potential for carbon sequestration in Australian agricultural soils is technically and economically limited. This scientific report, published in Nature on 12 July 2013, should truly bury the Liberal National Party reliance on soil carbon sequestration for 60% of their Direct Action climate plan. It simply won't work.

Most of the rest of the Coalition Climate Plan revolves around urban tree planting and reverse auctions to pay polluters to reduce carbon emissions, both of which are also very problematic and costly responses, likely to be ineffective in mitigating emissions by 5% on 2000 levels by 2020. This all adds up to the Coalition Climate Plan being a huge crock. Something to say you are doing when you are actually doing nothing.

One of the soil carbon report authors, Professor Chen, said that even at the relatively high carbon price of $23/tonne, all practical soil management practices lost at least $3 per hectare per year. The researchers found that under normal cropping practices, farmers would need about $36 per hectare just to break even on carbon payments.

A Western Australian scientific study using broadacre farm practices found that $80 per tonne would be needed for a farm just to break even on costs. See Soil Carbon sequestration limited in mitigating fossil fuel emissions say scientists.

The economic viability plus the restrictions that the carbon must remain sequestered 100 years, severely limits the viability of both the Government Carbon Farming Initiative, and particularly the Coalition Direct Action Climate Policy because of it's strong reliance on soil carbon sequestration to deliver carbon credits.

"Increasing soil carbon is good for fertility and productivity of soils, so has long been a goal of cropping, even though the financial benefits are hard to calculate,” Professor Chen said. “Even when nitrogen fertilizer was used to increase crop growth and subsequent soil carbon, the costs of the extra fertilizer use generated a financial loss across all systems even assuming that you can keep the carbon in the ground despite drought, and changing land ownership and practices.”

Will McGoldrick, Climate Change Policy Manager at WWF-Australia, suggested on twitter that the research suggested better management of nitrogen fertilisers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions may be more productive. Nitrous Oxide is an extremely potent greenhouse gas 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Here is the abstract to the report - The potential for carbon sequestration in Australian agricultural soils is technically and economically limited - which can be read in full online.

    Concerns about increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), have raised worldwide interest in the potential of agricultural soils to be carbon (C) sinks. In Australia, studies that have quantified the effects of improved management practices in croplands on soil C have generally been inconclusive and contradictory for different soil depths and durations of the management changes. We therefore quantitatively synthesised the results of Australian studies using meta-analytic techniques to assess the technical and economic feasibility of increasing the soil C stock by improved management practices. Our results indicate that the potential of these improved practices to store C is limited to the surface 0–10 cm of soil and diminishes with time. None of these widely adopted practices is currently financially attractive under Australia's new legislation known as the Carbon Farming Initiative.

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1 comment:

  1. This study features 7 major misunderstandings of on-the-ground carbon farming that could lead readers into error:

    Fundamental misunderstanding 1: Not one of the hundreds of studies analysed is relevant because genuine carbon farming is not about applying a single “improved management practice”. It involves combinations of practices orchestrated by the farmer whose expertise and experience determine the outcome. This was the lesson of the largest and latest research effort: the $24m Soil Carbon Research Program. Genuine carbon farming has yet to be widely adopted because there are no credits to be earned until the Government produces an approved "Methodology" - which will take at least another 12 months. The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) specifically rules out rewarding 'business as usual' or practices started before the existing carbon stocks in the soil are 'baselined'.
    Anyone attacking the potential of soil carbon trading at this time must be constructing straw men.

    Fundamental misunderstanding 2: Using a fictional “current” price of $6/tonne is misleading. No soil carbon units are being sold at that price or any price. The carbon farmer is not likely to have carbon to sell for at least 5 years. And soil carbon offsets are 'bankable' - i.e, farmers can decide when to take their carbon to market. No one can predict any commodity’s prices in 5 years' time. Five years ago carbon was bringing 40 euros on the European Carbon Market. Few market analysts would risk predicting the price in 2020, especially with China about to launch its own carbon market which could create demand for 600 million units per year.

    Fundamental misunderstanding 3: Limiting the measurement of carbon activity to the top 10cms is out-of-date. The CFI started out with that depth, but extended it to 30cm. Since then the concept of "Deep Soil Carbon" has been established by researchers who found that soil carbon levels for the entire profile are 2-to-5-times greater than the top 50cms. (Paper in the same journal.)

    Fundamental misunderstanding 4: The choice of croplands for the study is loading the dice against soil carbon. Around 80% of Australia's agricultural soils are used for grazing, an activity which out-performs cropping in carbon sequestration. The implications of excluding permanent pastures from the study is not made clear to the novice reader.

    Fundamental misunderstanding 5: It is wrong to assume that measuring soil carbon for carbon farmers will cost as much as it does now when scientists do it. The CSIRO is just putting the finishing touches to a new measurement system that dramatically cuts the cost of measurement because it eliminates the need to know spatial variability. Once the methodology is approved, the

    Fundamental misunderstanding 6: The report bases its economic analysis on an assumed price of applying nitrogen to the soil (to stabilise carbon) as a fertiliser. It does not consider alternative forms of adding nitrogen to the soil such as legume crops, composts or manures which will have different cost structures.

    Fundamental misunderstanding 7: The report does not consider the co-benefits associated with building soil carbon such as increased water retention, better soil structure, reduced erosion and increased productivity. This will change the cost/benefit analysis of any project.

    These are the facts behind the headline.