Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lal: We can put back more than we took out

Professor Lal says carbon farmers can put back far more soil carbon that has been taken out. Speaking at the Conservation Agriculture Carbon Offset Consultation in Indiana this week, he indicated that innovative technology can do it. One such technology is "Probiotics" that is delivering staggering soil C results in Australia as trials progress.


(See for registration forms and program.)

Soil carbon worth US$250/tonne says world authority

Soil Carbon is easily worth more than US$200 a tonnes, according to the world's most senior soil carbon specialist, Professor Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. He calculated the value to the farmer of the enhancement of soil quality by carbon and the value to society for its role in ecosystem services. Soil Carbon performs many useful tasks for society, he said at the opening of the Conservation Agriculture Carbon Offset Consultation run by the UN FAO in Indiana, USA yesterday (28th Oct.)

These tasks include:

* reducing erosion
* reducing sedimentation of waterways
* improving water quality
* biodegrading pollutants
* mitigation of climate change

He includes in his calculation the quantity of N, P, K, Zn, Cu, etc. fixed and the water retained in Humus.

"We need to determine a just value for soil carbon because undervaluing a resource can lead to its abuse," he says. He asks the eternal question: "How can soil C be made a commodity that can be traded like any other product?"

He said the challenges ahead included:

1. Aggregating small landholders (around 1.5 acres) into meaningfyl transaction sizes
(eg. US$100,000).
2. Assessing the net increase in soils year-on-year over a country or district.
3. Calculating the social value of soil C.
4. Paying farmers a just and fair price.*
5. Minimising transaction costs.

"We should be making Agriculture a solution rather than a cause of environmental problems."

*The rates paid on the Chicago Climate Exchange are generally felt to be too small to attract rapid uptake by farmers.


(See for registration forms and program.)

Carbon Coalition presents to historic UN Soil Carbon Confer

In a breakthrough in world Climate Change affairs, America, China and India are sitting down together to find joint solutions to the Soil Carbon issue. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation have gathered delegates from these and 10 other nations to discuss how conservation agriculture can be included in the global market for offsets. "I am very delighted that such a significant group of experts has assembled here from all over the world,"said the FAO's Crop and Grassland leader Theodore Frederich. "This meeting will hopefully produce an output which should stimulate the inclusion of appropriate agricultural land management culture linked to global mechanisms for the mitigation of climate change."
The event - called a "Conservation Agriculture Carbon Offset Consultation" - is being held at Purdue University in Indiana over 3 days, and nations represented include Australia, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Columbia, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Tunisia, and the three biggest emitters who are yet to enter a cap and trade scheme, USA, China & India.
Carbon Coalition convenors Michael & Louisa Kiely presented a report on the state of play in Australia on the morning of the first day (yesterday, 28th Oct.) The delegates were disappointed to learn that the Green Paper rendered the creation of offsets impossible for Agriculture and also threatened the existence of the Voluntary Market.
The ambition of the organisers is to brainstorm a method for certifying soil carbon credits as tradable.


(See for registration forms and program.)

Government nationalises soil carbon credits!

Peter Spencer was right. The Commonwealth Government wants to confiscate Australian farmers' soil carbon credits to meet its obligations - and that was the plan all along.

The following section from the Green Paper does one or all of these things:

1. It nationalises soil carbon credits by claiming them for the 'national abatement'.*
2. It claims the notion of offset credits is flawed, contrary to the views of the rest of the world.
3. It claims the baseline process, a Kyoto mechanism, is subjective and unworkable.
4. It forces Agriculture to wait until 2013 to start sequestering significant a mounts of CO2e while the DCC dawdles through its consideration of whether we should be covered or not.
5.It creates the absurd situation where Australian companies cannot buy farm soil credits from Australian farmers, but they can buy the from American farmers.

*The Justice in Monaro farmer Peter Spencer's last appearance in the Supreme Court declared that a carbon credit could be a property right. This means legal action could be possible.

The Green Paper says the following:

"The broad coverage proposed for the Carbon Pollution Trading Scheme creates limited scope for activities to create offset credits. Offset credits are rewards for reductions in emissions measured against an assumed baseline. Offset schemes are administratively complex and require considerable judgment to determine baselines—‘what would have happened in the absence of a particular decision’. Determining these baselines is inherently subjective, increasing the risk that schemes do not promote genuine abatement.
"Offsets also do not increase national abatement, as the provision of credits into an emissions trading system allows additional emissions in the covered sector.
Since the scheme already creates an incentive to reduce emissions in covered sectors, it makes sense for offsets to be considered only in uncovered sectors. However, if a sector may be covered in future—for example, if agriculture is to be included in the scheme in 2015—it makes little sense to develop offset methodologies and install the required administrative arrangements for such a short period, particularly given the questions raised above regarding baselines and the lack of additional abatement. "Accordingly, the Government is not proposing to establish an offset scheme for the agriculture sector prior to a final decision being made in consultation with the industry on final inclusion of agriculture in the proposed Carbon Pollution Trading Scheme (in 2013)."

The Australian Greenhouse Office might have been dissolved, but its spirit lives on in the continuing campaign it waged against the recognition of soil carbon offsets.

The Total Environment Centre recently released a position paper complaining that the Voluntary Market for Offsets is under threat. An industry group has been formed to take the issue up to the Government.

"For all the promise and positivity of Mr Rudd and Professor Garnaut, the DCC have simply written us out of the game with a collection of bogus claims and convoluted mumbojumbo," says Michael Kiely. It's arguments about bush fire and drought are thin and misleading, plaaying on the Prime Minister's fears.

"In this case we believe that government officials are acting against the national interest. There is enough dissatisfaction in the bush about the ETS to cause real problems for the Government, and the Senate is a problem for them."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Soil scientists can save the world!

Soil scientists are my heroes...

It is the largest deployment of scientists in the history of humanity: Climate Change has unlocked billions for science. But not for soil carbon science, until recently.
Soil science has been on a downhill trajectory for many years, they tell us. There used to be soil science departments in most universities. Alas most have closed. Student numbers plummeted.
But that could be behind us because it is an exciting time to be alive in soil science.
Soil science is an inspiring field to work in. It is the final frontier. Any senior scientist will tell you there is so much yet to be discovered. We need the schools of soil science reopened at all universities. We need more places funded, more teachers, more equipment, more resources thrown at soil science. Because scientists can save the world from starvation and despair.
We believe a percentage from each soil carbon trade be dedicated to research. We believe in soil science.

Trouble ahead for 'marriages"?

Since Penny Wong is sloshing millions around, the words "soil carbon" appearing on countless research proposals. We should rejoice: Soil C finally gets some research attention. Unfortunately the two recent rounds of funding may have built into them a wild card that could cause many projects to produce suboptimal outcomes. The requirement that large numbers of partnerships be formed has set the scene for conflict between parties in these marriages of convenience. Nice idea. A bold experiment. Does it reflect the sense of urgency required to meet the Climate Change challenge? Maybe.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is there a soil biology “cell” in the GRDC?

A recent tender document reveals that the ‘biology’ bug has bitten someone inside the GRDC.
Without once using the word “biology”, the GRDC tender specifies a biological approach, which it terms ‘novel’ to refer to Mother Nature’s oldest soil technology: “Novel approaches to making fixed soil P available to plants are required, as are practical means of increasing crop uptake of the P present in some sub-soils... Typically 60-80% of the fertiliser P applied to crops becomes ‘fixed’ and unavailable for plant uptake. Plant P uptake can be affected by mechanisms in the plant itself and by processes in the rhizosphere.”
“Proposals should also consider the role of soil pools in N availability (including non-symbiotic N fixation)… Work is also sought… to examine the practicality and economic feasibility of novel sources of nutrients for broadacre cropping. The outputs from this component of the program must include practical measures that growers can use to optimise nutrient cycling and availability within the soil profile and its nutrient pools and stores.”
The GRDC is best known to us as the lead institution in the National Campaign to Deny Soil Carbon Sequestration in Australian Soils At Any Cost and With Any Argument. Readers might recall the “Australian soils too ancient and degraded to sequester significant amounts of carbon” argument. In fact, it is still being recited at seminars and conferences, despite being dismissed by leading soil scientists as “nonsense”. The new line of attack features the assertion that it is too costly to grow humus because you have to add nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur, and these elements are more expensive than the return in soil carbon credits. This argument proved to be a defining moment in the debate because it revealed the gap between soilies that ignore biology, and those who focus on microbiology (with the danger that they can drift off into a soil mysticism a la Steiner).

Try Biology?

The current rush to “Try Biology” is sweeping up scientists, soils extension people and research institutions. Sydney University’s Soil Science Department is advertising for a senior lecturer in soil microbiology. Soil-Bio has been declared ‘the new frontier of soil science’ by one senior scientist.

Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Christine Jones (both working outside the mainstream) deserve credit for raising the profile of the applied science of soil biology in Australia. Dr Ingham is responsible for the formation of Microscope Clubs among farmers in the Central West of NSW and beyond. For many years, soils officers dismissed microbial inoculation as ‘witches brew’. But farmers perservered. Now we know that a new paradigm of soil dynamics is made possible by harnessing the microbial workforce around the roots and giving these workers the tools they needs to perform miracles in plant nutrient availability and carbon storage.

Soil biology provides the answer the conundrum: where does the C come from if outputs equal inputs? And, where does the N, P and S come from? Probiotic inoculants and soil treatments are recording extraordinary levels of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus performance in field trials. Naturally they won’t be believed until the findings have been reproduced and subjected to peer review. (Both are major hurdles: 1. Science has yet to reproduce on-farm results with grazing management, largely due to methodological problems associated with studying an holistic ‘ecological’ phenomenon. There is controversy inside the scientific community about reductionism - studying a single organism in isolation - and holism - studying the organism as part of a system. 2. Even if the phenomenon can be reproduced, the results may not be believed. There is no observation without interpretation. The “Theory-Laden Observation” is a condition that scientists who study the process of scientific practice have identified. It means that what scientists observe is a function of the theories they believe in, that even the language used determines outcomes. For instance, words like ‘atom’ and ‘current’ presuppose a particular theory of matter. "Wave" and "Packet" imply another. In soil C science, the use of the words “inputs” and “outputs” implies a balance within a closed system. It says, “What else is there?” So soil biology’s prodigious potential may never get the official tick. But that hasn’t stopped grazing management or pasture cropping. (BTW, a university scientist conducting a sampling exercise for one soil inoculant user threw the first round samples and results away recently because they were “too high”. Coalition members report similar experiences. "There must be something wrong with the sample" is a normal first response.)

"Don't wait to get it right!" says Garnaut

Ross Garnaut has become more alive to the Coalition's basic argument for deploying soils immediately to sequester the vast amounts of carbon we know they can capture and hold. Hundreds of millions of hectares will sequester hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2e.
Unlike those who caution against rushing ahead to start a soil carbon program before the global community is 100% certain we can measure it and hold it and count it... (unlike every other area of Climate Change Mitigation). Garnaut says "Just do it!" He says: "The mitigation gains are potentially so large that it is important for Australia to commence work on program design and implementation even before the issues of coverage, national and international, are fully resolved.”

Soil Carbon: $12billion/year cash crop?

The Garnaut Report estimates that Australian agricultural soils can sequester 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which could be worth up to $12 billion to Australian farmers. The total value of Australia's agricultural output is less than $40 billion.
This would make soil carbon the most valuable commodity Australian agriculture produces. And Garnaut’s estimates are very conservative, following the low-dollar/low carbon removal potential Chicago Climate Exchange soil carbon trading values.
The Carbon Coalition’s 2nd annual Carbon Farming Conference – 18th-19th November in Orange NSW - is themed “Soil Carbon: The New Cash Crop”
Professor Garnaut used scientific and expert sources to set rates of soil carbon capture: Cropping lands have an annual removal potential of 68 million tonnes of CO2e on 38 million hectares – that is 1.7 tonnes CO2e/ha (or 0.5 tonnes of carbon per hectare). At $20/tonne CO2e, a farmer ‘carbon farming’ on 500ha could earn and additional $18,000 per year, on top of the income from crops normally harvested.
This is the type of level that would convince a farmer to change land management styles. We have no concern about that price, given the shortages of tradable carbon that will become clear when the various Emissions Trading Systems start up.
Garnaut says the potential for Australia’s arid and semi-arid grazing land is very significant: “A carbon price of $20 per tonne would provide up to a tenfold increase in income for property holders in this region if current practices were replaced by land restoration through a strategic property management program." Professor Garnaut identifies the vast areas of pastoral country as “a potential international comparative advantage. He estimates that Australia’s grazing lands (358 million hectares) can sequester more than 500 million tonnes of CO2e each year.