Sunday, February 06, 2011

Global Summit The Woodstock of Soil Carbon (Going down to Yasgur's Farm)

Robert Hill (John Howard's Environment Minister who negotiated the famous "Australia Clause" which allowed us to set a target of 108% in the first commitment period of Kyoto) is a genuine soil carbon believer. As Director of the US Studies Centre at University of Sydney, last week he hosted a 3 day summit of soil carbon specialists from around the world. From the US, Canada, UK, Europe, and NZ, they came to volunteer their time to discuss with each other how to achieve a breakthrough to save the soils of the world from disappearing. Professor Iain Young from UNE set the pace with a terrifying presentation on the scale of the problem. If the panda becomes extinct, we lose the pandas... But if we lose the last two species of soil microbe, we all die. Rousing stuff. Cut to the last presentation by Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney and we 'stakeholders' hear the result of the experts' two days of brainstorming for a breakthrough. The draft of the "Soil Security Initiative" lifted the spirits. The Goals included raising the issue of soil carbon to water cooler conversation status. They also include soil sustainability through the change of land management by farmers. The strategies in the draft include increasing soil C to optimise soil function, improving engagement between farmers and scientists, establish a global network of researchers, devise incentives for farmers that will get them to manage soil carbon optimally, and finally build a new partnership between city and country. In between these two presentations, it became clear that "Incentivise farmers appropriately" does not necessarily include trading offsets - for three reasons: 1. The entire science community has been unable to record carbon and biomass increases that farmers have achieved. (Explained by the Norton Syndrome, explained in the upcoming first issue of Carbon Farmer magazine.) So they don't believe such increases are possible. We know two important things about the gap between farm and lab reality: no farmer uses just one management practice; they tend to use two or three together; this creates a level of complexity because of the interaction between the practices and the ecological nature of soil carbon's networks and multiple levels of relationships. Scientists tend to study one management change in a vacuum. Therefore they always have small amounts to report. 2. Almost all scientists believe that direct measurement is too expensive and consequently we will rely on models. "We're gonna have to trust the models, even though they aren't perfect," said Prof. Bill Parton from Colorado State University who specialises in modeling and has done so for 40 years. Conclusion: The models are being populated with this discounted data, which is further discounted by an uncertainty factor because it is not direct measurement, it's several steps away from reality, hence a discount for risk. The end point of this could be that only small amounts are offered to farmers in return for a change in culture and business practice and the demand they personally remain liable if the carbon escapes at any time during the next 100 years. No farmer is going to want the risk at those prices. Even at A$100/tonne - according to Prof. Lal the amount being budgeted for by geosequestration advocates - a farmer could expect to make $25/acre, which implies small amounts. 3. As reported in CSIRO’s magazine ECOS (September 2010), there is a consensus among scientists that soil offsets trading is inappropriate. It is common to hear the following: "The benefits of increased soil carbon levels are so great that farmers shouldn't need offsets." This was said from the podium at the Summit without challenge. Many scientists have trouble understanding farmers. You never hear a farmer saying such things.

But the bigger issue is this: NO FARMERS, NO OFFSETS... NO OFFSETS, NO DRAW DOWN.... NO DRAWDOWN, NO SOIL SECURITY... NO HOPE. Instead of obsessing the details, the powers that be should set themselves the goal of getting as many farmers as possible to sequester as much soil carbon as possible, as fast as possible. If soil is as important as they say, they would do whatever it takes to achieve the change en masse. The cost of measurement can and has been solved. By creative thinking... something Prof.Alex McBratney pleaded for from his colleagues. When there is a decent return from soil carbon sequestration, the innovations will flow. If it is left to education and extension about the benefits of soil carbon (respectfully, why has it not worked already?) or direct payment by government (which will last until the next election, maybe, or the next minister), it will resolve itself in the way Dr Andrew Rawson suggested during the panel session (pictured above): "I've heard it all before and nothing has happened of lasting value then. Why should this be different?" To meet those big hairy goals, there is going to have to be some out-of-the-box thinking. Einstein said we can't solve a problem using the same paradigm that caused it in the first place. To break through we must step out of the box and break the rules governing normal thought about the issue. Smash the paradigm. Dr Jeff Baldock declined our invitation to ‘break the rules’ and join us in stepping outside the box, citing the need to maintain integrity. (The event was expertly organised by Andea Koch.)

Farmers have little input into these deliberations. Their advisers (associations and institutes) take science at face value and recite lists of problems when what is needed are solutions. Which is why we have founded the Carbon Farming & Trading Association... to see soil carbon traded and farmers paid fairly for what they grow.

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