Wednesday, February 15, 2012

UN calls for urgent action on soil carbon measurement

We’re all in this together.”

The UN has called for urgent action on soil carbon. It wants a method for measuring soil carbon so farmers can be paid to capture and store it. Specifically, it wants “the development of universally agreed and reproducible field and laboratory methods for measuring, reporting and verifying changes of soil carbon over time,” says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program. It is a timely call because in June this year the CSIRO is scheduled to report on the Soil Carbon Research Program - a $20m project that started in 2009. When it was announced we were called by CSIRO's Dr Jeff Baldock, the scientist charged with spending the money. His call was to thank us for our part in getting the funds allocated to soil carbon. We then petitioned the Minister for a collaborative role in deciding how the money would be spent. We wanted the practical barriers to trading soil carbon offsets removed. We wanted the money spent on methodologies for direct measurement - which would maximise returns to the farmer and maximise their interest in storing carbon in soil. Instead the CSIRO decided to spend the money populating a model that would 'predict' the amount of carbon that could be stored by climate zone and by soil type as a result of changed land management. The model under-estimates the impact of soil biology. Unfortunately this would have the effect of minimising the return to the farmer because of the "Norton Effect" - the failure of scientists to replicate the soil carbon performance of experienced Carbon Farmers. (Named after Professor Ben Norton who discovered the condition.) If, after three years and $20million, we are not one centimeter closer to a soil carbon methodology that would deliver the promise of restored soil health, regenerated farm landscapes, increased biodiversity, reduce farm input costs, improved water holding capacity, and climate change mitigation, etc. we can’t blame scientists for obeying their science. The decision was made –based on the only available science – that a direct measurement methodology was not possible and that a model was the only way forward. We discovered that this was the case only recently: “SCaRP was not set up to baseline carbon contents on paddocks or farms," said Jonathan Sanderman, Jeffrey Baldock,, NATIONAL SOIL CARBON RESEARCH PROGRAMME: FIELD AND LABORATORY METHODOLOGIES CSIRO Land and Water, 2011. Why not? Because the scientist is a prisoner of his paradigm. Instead of dismissing the reported increases achieved by experienced Carbon Farmers as 'anecdotal' (even though they use the same measurement techniques and the same laboratories as official scientists), a more fruitful line of enquiry would be to assume for a moment that these farmers aren't lying and study how they consistently report rates of increase in soil C up to 10 times faster than conventional scientists. A purely scientific approach will not work. Scientists have been unable to supply a solution for direct measurement. We have submitted a methodology to the Government's expert panel that addresses the measurement difficulties and solve the problems by actuarial methods commonly used in the insurance industry. The FAO, the World Bank, the UN have all called for action on soil carbon.
Until political decision-makers take the time to learn the issue they will suffer by outsourcing their power to one group of professionals who, on their own, will never provide the answer. There will be many millions of dollars misallocated until the collaboration between science, actuarial science, market economics and carbon farmers. “We’re all in this together.”

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