Saturday, January 24, 2009

Soil Carbon: Will Turnbull's Research be too late?

The Carbon Coalition welcomes the Federal Opposition Leader's endorsement of soil carbon as a major solution for Climate Change. And the promise of more research.* Malcolm has a clear understanding of the issues surrounding soil carbon, according to his Shadow Minister for Climate Change Greg Hunt. "We're fully engaged," he said, several times. But we all know that soil carbon is a complex issue. It gets too hard if you're not committed. How committed could a Leader of an Opposition be? It is hard to detemine the detail of his plan from the briad brush strokes of his speech to the Young Liberals Conference. He said that his climate change strategy "is founded on optimism and confidence, ingenuity and enterprise." This is a stark contrast to the fear-driven strategy the Government has pursued, especially in its communications with farmers. Malcolm goes on: "It is a plan to invest in the health of our landscape, enhance the productivity of our agriculture, and increase our food and energy security." His "Green Carbon Initiative" is "a comprehensive biocarbon strategy of investing in the health of our landscape, restoring soil carbon by reversing over-grazing and excessive tillage, embedding CO2 in bio-char or charcoal, tree planting, and revegetation." He describes soil as one of "three gigantic opportunities for CO2 abatement that the Rudd Government has ignored." It is not exactly "Soil Carbon Manifesto", but it might become one. The Carbon Coalition is briefing the Opposition and will seek to reach a clear understanding of its intentions.

*We don't need more research. We need the right research and we need some process innovation. The type of research we do not need is that which describes how hard it is to measure soil carbon, and that focusses on the fractions of carbon in soil. They are irrelevant in a trading context. Total carbon is all that is required. Flux is irrelevant. What the market needs to know is the delta in total C between two points in time. They are purchasing the delta. The type of research we do need is that which measures the performance of real world "Carbon Farming" techniques in different climate zones so we can populate a suitable model with data. "Zero tillage with stubble retained" is not Carbon Farming and the Coalition does not hold it out as such. It is a means of neutralising the CO2 emissions from ploughing, with a small increase in Carbon over time. It is 'standing still', but at least it is not going backwards. (The Government is not counting CO2 losses from ploughing.) We also need innovation in the processes that make trade possible. The Measurement Issue is not something science can resolve. Tony Lovell has clearly demonstrated that we should be guided by the answer to the question "For what purpose?" when asking how accurate our measurement need to be. When the answer is "to give a buyer confidence", the degree of exactitude is different to that which is required for the purpose of scientific enquiry. Degrees of uncertainty are necessary for the 'risk/reward' device to operate as an essential mechanism forming a market. Malcolm Turnbull will understand this issue easily.

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