Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Corey's head was spinning

After a grilling on Country Hour by the enraged agriculturalists who are attracted to call radio stations and vent, the Climate Institute's Corey Watts (ex-ACF, now the Regional Projects Manager at the Institute), told me his 'head was spinning'. Corey is an important player in this field because he is the best chance environmentalists have got to get a seat at the table we call Agriculture. Instead of coming from an ideologically-fixed position, Corey is trying to understand. So we'll give him the benefit of the doubt for the 'classic bloopers' in his soils section of his recent report "Towards Climate-Friendly Farming: Policies, Issues and Strategies for Low-Emissions Agriculture & Rural Land Use". There is significant evidence of over-exposure to conventional science and its prejudices: "There is a great deal of enthusiasm amongst landholders for soil carbon as a new commodity." Enthusiasm is code for 'irrational exuberance based on superstition and blind faith'. It is the classic put-down language. He goes on: "Indeed, [soil carbon] sometimes seems touted as something of a panacea." This is code for 'silver bullet' and leads directly to 'snake oil salesman'. Rather than listen to enthusiasts, we should observe what "best available science" says - and it "suggests clear thinking is needed before the real potential can be tapped." That is opposed to the woolly thinking of the enthusiasts. We've heard it all before. Australia is different: "Globally, the theoretical potential of soils to sequester carbon is significant. Moreover, the productivity benefits of soil carbon can make a powerful case for encouraging practices that improve soil health, though this is not always straightforward. In practical terms, however, the soil’s capacity to permanently store carbon is limited by a host of factors, most especially rainfall. Given Australia’s erratic conditions together with declining rainfall in southern regions, substantial long-term soil carbon management is generally less reliable here than in North America or Europe." Such generalisations are not useful unless you are seeking to discourage 'enthusiasts'. But those looking at the glass half-full see great reason to be enthusiastic about Australia's capacity to sequester carbon. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists said yesterday, "As a consequence of the loss of soil carbon in agricultural systems, many Australian soils now have a significant capacity to store additional carbon." The Climate Institute's report covers all the bases we have come to expect from defenders of the old regime:
"Accurately measuring soil carbon can be very expensive and very tricky, and there are significant risks of inadvertent release." And a final genuflection to 'sound science,' and thumbs up to biochar with no evidence of its viability. Now, if enthusiasm is cause for doubting one's credibility, biochar is full of it.

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