Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Scare campaign against trading scheme

There is a scare campaign underway to spook farmers about emissions trading and what it will do to them.

There has been an almost unanimously negative response to the prospect of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from officials and industry leaders.
Nothing but bad news and predictions of doom. The Landcare Groups Conference at Yass on 9 April 2008 saw farmers almost rise up in revolt when the message sank in that the official position was they would pay for methane and nitrous oxide and be denied access to soil carbon credits. The Australian Farm Institute audience in Maroochydore (21/22nd April, 2008) had so few farmers and so many ‘middlemen’ and 'officials' that it swallowed the bad news whole. The worst case scenario was presented as the most likely outcome.

This is intellectually dishonest and damaging to the morale of the farm community at a time when they need hope. And there is hope, but the message is beng drowned out by the wailing of the ignorant.

Firstly, the science on soil carbon is not yet officially “in”. While common wisdom has it that our soils can sequester tiny amounts of carbon at best, the Department of Climate Change has admitted that the relatively new land management techniques known as “carbon farming” that are designed to maximize carbon build-up have not been assessed for sequestration potential. Trials are underway and early results indicate levels of sequestration that will surprise many.

Secondly, most people at the AFI conference were not informed that under a cap and trade system the farmer would not be asked to buy carbon credits to cover their entire emissions each year. Only the gap between the cap set and the level to which the farmer can bring emissions down by all available means would need to be offset. No allowance in official projections is made for solutions already coming through, such as methane inoculants, natural fertilizers, etc.

Thirdly, no allowance in the bad news projections is made for on-farm innovation, ie. farmers' natural ability to invent solutions to reduce emissions. (There is a solar ute under construction in the Central West. ) All other sectors of the economy affected by emissions trading have developed ways to reduce emissions that don't involve buying carbon credits.

If farmers are left to carry the can on methane and nitrous oxide with no access to the soil carbon they can grow and trade to pay for their liabilities, it will be gross negligence on the part of the their industry representatives who refused to engage with the issue until it was too late. If the energy that has been put into denigrating the concept of soil carbon trading had instead been put into finding ways to make it happen, we'd be trading it today. The question remains: why are so many people in official roles so passionately against what is clearly in the interests of farmers, climate change management, restoration of farm landscapes, and the health of rural communities?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New Ag Research Supremo declares Soil Carbon the “Hot Topic”

Soil Carbon was not listed as a special topic at the Australian Farm Institutes Agriculture, Greenhouse and Emissions Trading Summit last week – but it got more than a fair go, with many speakers referring to it and a strong contingent of Carbon Coalition members attending..

“Soil Carbon – the Hot Topic!” said Michael Robinson, Executive Director of Land & Water Australia. He revealed a stunning statistic that shows soil carbon has long been neglected and forgotten. Of the 404 projects his team identified as currently underway, only 9 are investigating soil carbon offsets opportunity. This is a direct result of the bad image imposed on soil carbon by the AGO’s misrepresentation of the science.

Michael Robinson has been placed in charge of the National Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries (CCRSPI) which brings under one authority all State and Territory and Federal Governments’ research and development activity. Soil carbon emerged as a ‘hot topic’ during the consultation process for CCRSPI.

Soil carbon has a bright future under CCRSPI for several reasons: 1. Its research strategy focuses on areas of common interest across industries. (Soil is shared by most agriculturalists.) 2.”Offset creation is essential” says one of its 6 areas of focus, “based on full understanding of life cycles and processes.”

Michael made a telling point about the conference participants: huge knowledge gaps and people making many false assumptions. We believe that this ignorance reaches up into all levels of Government.

Rudd Government wants soil “in”

The Government wants soil carbon to be a starter when the Australian scheme starts in 2010 – if we can get our act together and overcome the ‘practical difficulties’ we always hear about when soil carbon is mentioned.

Sources within the Government say that the Government wants the ETS to cover as many sectors of the economy as ‘practicable’ because it allows for the lowest cost abatement in every sector covered. “Maximum practical coverage” is the policy*. What is ‘practical’ depends on what tolerances you have for deviations between estimates of emissions versus the actual emissions taking place. Every type of emission source is estimated. What makes the difference is what degree of uncertainty is acceptable.

The Government believes that all measurement of emissions across both international greenhouse gas inventories reported to the international community and in emissions trading schemes around the world use estimates rather than direct measurement. Even with direct measurement, you take a sampling approach then extrapolate up to the total amount of emission.

The Government will publish a “Green Paper” for comments in July – so now is the time to shout for soils.

*The following slide was presented to a CSIRO conference in October 2007 by Dr Stephen Bygrave who is Assistant Secretary, Emissions Trading Platform Branch, Department of Climate Change:

* Achieving Wide Coverage
• Maximum practical coverage of all
sources, sinks and greenhouse gases
• Agriculture and forestry not liable parties
– Brought into scheme as practical issues are

Why we want Agriculture “in” the first stage of trading

This is the first of a series of reports on the Australian Farm Institute’s “Agriculture, Greenhouse and Emissions Trading Summit” this week.

While a communiqué from the attendees at the Conference claimed that they were committed to being “in” the trading scheme, they put so many caveats and conditions on entry that Agriculture could not be ready in time for the 2010 start date. Ironically, participants complained that agriculture was seen as bellyaching and asking for handouts and special deals. They then went on to ask for special consideration: transitional arrangements in the form of the old AGO’s “Best Management Practices” rewarded by payments from the Government.

Tim Wiley (who was not officially tattending, but we can reveal that he is Development Officer with the Department of Agriculture WA) met Justin MacDonnell from the Cattle Council of Australia. Justin was amazed to meet the negativity he encountered in official circles after attending the Coaliton's Carbon farming Conference in 2007.

As the Coalition suspected when this BMP ‘Trojan Horse’ was first produced by the AGO in 2007, it could deliver farmers into the hands of the Government. There is some evidence for this:

1. Best Management Practice means Carbon Farming without the returns. You capture and store the carbon, but you cannot sell it. Instead the Government may have access to it for meeting its considerable Kyoto liabilities. (Remember what happened to the 1 million hectares of ‘avoided deforestration’ used to meet the Howard Government’s targets.)
2. Transitional arrangements can easily become permanent, especially when their duration depends on the ability of science to solve the traditional ‘difficulties’ surrounding emissions. (And its enthusiasm for the job. Michael Robinson)
3. Stewardship payments always come with shackles, with the Government able to stop the flow at any time. A change of government and all bets are off. Whereas carbon is something you grow and sell. The farmer stays in control of the transaction.

Mick Keogh ran a tight ship and delivered a good platform for soil carbon.

The communiqué from the AFI Conference was driven by fear based on ignorance: Many of the people in the discussion groups seemed to believe that farmers would be forced to offset all their emissions from Day 1, which is wrong. Under a cap and trade system, the emitter commits to reducing emissions in stages, not all at once. And if the farmer has access to the soil carbon to offset their methane and nitrous oxide liabilities, we remain confident that Agriculture will survive and thrive as it transitions to the Carbon Age.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The PUSHBACK: You are needed

While this brave rearguard action is on, we need to simply and calmly get our message out. You can help:

1. Scan the media for Soil Carbon Sceptics attacking soil carbon and alert us to them.
2. Write a letter to the editor or producer of the show asking for balance and offering a Coalition spokesperson.
3. email/mail your networks to alert them to the struggle that is going on.

If you need help, we are here: (02) 6374 0329 or louisa@carboncoaliton,

Friday, April 11, 2008

THE PUSHBACK*: Australia's dangerous knowledge gap

Australian officials are suffering from a dangerous knowledge gap over Climate Change and soil carbon. This was revealed at the Yass Area Landcare Groups' seminar called "Climate Change: Carbon Farming and Trading" on 9 April, 2008.

The speakers included the head sherang of Minister for Environment, Penny Wong's department, David Borthwick who told us how bad it was going to be when Climate Change really starts to bite. He was followed by a stream of high profile speakers from significant Canberra-based organisations who read chapter and verse from the official IPCC predictions about how bad things will be. The ANU, CSIRO, ABARE, etc. gave depressingly similar stories using the same data in many cases.

There as one thing missing from all their calculations: soil carbon. None of the IPCC's projections or the AGO's predictions re accurate because none of their models includes the impact of increasing levels of soil carbon and what they would do to water availability, ambient on-farm temperatures, productivity of soil, etc. The IPCC projections for parts per million increases in Greenhouse Gases make no allowance for the impact of 5.5 billion hectares of agricultural soil coming on line to start sequestering.

This dangerous gap was caused by the false conclusions made by the now-defunct Australian Greenhouse Office based on incomplete, out-of-date, wrong data. These myths have taken hold in official circles and given a kick along by the Australian Farm Institute. Despite its usual rigor and independence, it has made no attempt to correct the distorted version of the "soil carbon trading will be bad for farmers" line put forth by John Carter, author of the original AGO soil carbon report that suffered from huge gaps in the datasets which led naturally to the poor advice given to governments.

The Farm Institute's Mick Keogh made a presentation at Yass that found many technical and administrative reason why soil carbon shouldn't be traded. However the urgency of equipping farmers with some way of addressing the Methane and Nitrous Oxide issues, both of which will crush farmers if they have no soil carbon offsets to trade against them.

It s difficult to imagine the cause of such opposition, given the extraordinary benefits soil C offers the world:
* Restoration of degraded soils and landscapes.
* Vast capacity to reduce Greenhouse Gases already in the atmosphere.
* Give other Climate Change responses time to achieve criticla mass over 15-20 years.
* Help the world feed itself in 50 years time when it will need to produce twice as much food with the same water and land.
* Give farmers another revenue stream which doesn't require losing productive land to forests.
* Low input farming becomes the norm and spiralling prices are avoided.

*THE PUSHBACK is a counter-attack by the loose alliance of "soil carbon sceptics" who occupy influential positions in government, industry associations and companies. Since PM Rudd's statement they have been preparing for the last desperate fight. We need to be resolute and believe in ourselves and fight back.

THE PUSHBACK: why does GRDC attack soil carbon?

The "Soil Carbon Sceptics" are becoming active again. Even the discredited "Australian soils are too ancient and degraded to sequester much carbon" furphy has been given another airing recently by the research director of a respected industry body. The facts: age and degree of degradation are irrelevant to carbon storage capacity.

The GRDC's Alan Umbers has warned farmers about thinking of carbon sequestration as an income source at an Agribusiness Crop Updates event in Perth in February. Mr Umbers said that there is no scientific evidence to support our view that croppers can sequenter carbon in significant amounts.

Mr Umbers is a victim of the same out-of-date AGO data that has misled governments and policymakers for a decade.The lag time between the start and completion dates of trials being between 3 and 5 years, the only data available to him is conventional cropping data. But Dr K Yin Chan, Principal Research Scientist (Soils), NSW Department of Primary Industries, (one of the world's 10 most influential researchers) believes we can recover the 25 tonnes per Ha of soil carbon lost under cultivation since 1770. He calls it the "Soil C Sequestration Potential".

Here is some more scientific research:

•The NSW DPI, DECC and CSIRO are currently evaluating an increase in soul carbon recorded on grazing and cropping land from 2% to 4% recorded on “Winona”, Gulgong, between 1995 and 2005.

• There was a 0.46% carbon difference between a paddock managed by conservation farming techniques (stubble retained/no-tillage) and a paddock heavily grazed and conventionally tilled over 10 years at Greenethorpe, NSW translated into a difference of 185 tonnes of carbon per hectare (or 675 tonnes of CO2e.)

• A CSIRO study (unpublished) in Albany WA found a significant difference in organic matter between two paddocks, one stubble-burned 3 years previous then no-tillage treatment for three years (3.35% OM), the other managed with no-tillage (5% OM).

Something many critics of soil carbon trading misunderstood is the value of what appears to be small amounts of carbon.One percent of carbon is a significant amount. It can translate into 48 tonnes of soil carbon which equates to 176 tonnes of CO2e per hectare (at Bulk Density 1.6 and 30cms depth). A 1% increase in soil carbon per hectare – at $25/tonne – in this situation would be worth $4440. Multiply by a thousand hectares and you have a significant figure.

Senior CSIRO soil scientist Jeff Baldock says there is today no technical barriers to a fully-functioning market in soil carbon, and that such a market could make it ‘more economic to farm for carbon than to farm for yield.’

Mr Umber's statement that “these soils will require continued inputs of organic carbon at high levels just to remain at an elevated organic carbon level...[which]... may lead to the areas involved becoming ‘uneconomic’, as the cropping and grazing systems would have to be dramatically altered to retain the levels of organic matter needed to sustain higher soil carbon levels..." is further proof that we need to educate industry commentators about the basics. All carbon sequestration is based on changed land management. Minimum or No Till, Stubble Retention, Pasture Cropping... these techniques are becoming popular among Australian croppers.

The lack of meaningful recent data leads to many mistakes: “Simple arithmetic shows that the grains industry will be a net emitter of greenhouse gasses, to the tune of approximately 700 or so kg of emissions per hectare, or 14 million tonnes over the whole Australian crop,’’ said Mr Umber. “If, under a carbon trading system carbon is valued at (say) $20 per tonne, then rather than farmers making a return from sequestering carbon, they may end up with being asked to pay around $14 per hectare, and potentially more.” Nothing is simple about Greenhouse Gasses. No figures which do take account of soil carbon realities can be relied upon.

THE PUSHBACK**: Coalition branded 'irresponsible'

"There's been a lot of irresponsible speculation about the pot of gold which sits for agriculture at the end of the offsets rainbow." This was the Farm Institute's Mick Keogh on ABC Radio late last year. NSW Farmers - once strong supporters of the soil carbon solution (or at least Jock Laurie was) - have a new position: "Farmers should be extremely cautious about pinning their hopes on sales of soil carbon as a new farm enterprise," writes the Chairman of NSW Farmers Climate Change Working Group, Richard Clark. His letter to the editor in this week's Land is as confused and contradictory as the climate change sceptics who fill the columns of Rural Press publications and dominate the debate at NSW Farmers' meetings. Both Mick and Richard would agree that soil carbon credits are important for meeting our methane and other greenhouse emissions bills. Yet they are trying to scare farmers off, by bringing out all the old boogeymen and some new ones.
"In times of drought, carbon levels run down and carbon credits may have to be bought by cash-strapped farmers in a market where their neighbours are also trying to buy out their obligations." But then he makes a plea for the inclusion of soil carbon as an offset to a farmers' methane bill.

Here is the text of our letter to the editor of The Land. As they rarely publish our material, we send it to you directly.


Thanks to the Land for giving soil carbon so much coverage over the past two years. The Carbon Coalition truly appreciates it, although it is surprising, given the coverage, that so much of what is being said in your pages by ‘experts’ lately is so wrong. For instance, the claim soil carbon trading is dangerous because farmers will be forced to buy carbon credits when they lose soil carbon in a drought or simply to pay for methane and nitrous oxide emissions from stock and fertiliser betrays a need to do some homework.

Here are the facts: Farmers trading soil carbon will be protected by a “buffer pool” of ‘credits’ that can be dipped into whenever they go backwards due to drought or natural disaster. Soil Carbon Trading is not conducted between individual farmers and buyers. Large numbers of farmers are pooled or aggregated in the same way wool is sold. The aggregator holds a percentage of all units submitted for sale in a “buffer pool” which is released for sale at various points in the time period covered by the contract. There is also a system of insurances that can be used. The system has been working for American farmers on the Chicago Climate Exchange for 4 years and our trading arm, Carbon Farmers of Australia offers the same protection. It works for forests, which are in greater danger of destruction than soil carbon.

Methane and nitrous oxide: If you made no changes to the way you manage your animals and to the way you applied fertiliser and to the way you manage your land, then yes, you could end up paying for carbon credits. But this is a distant possibility. There are many alternatives that can reduce your total “Carbon Footprint”. You can reduce methane emissions in many ways: grazing management, rumen inoculants, and genetics. Nitrous oxide can be reduced by targeted fertiliser application, a range of new biological fertilisers, and simply the introduction of dung beetles. Soon the marketplace will be flooded with alternatives. Early indications are that soil carbon increases could easily account for the methane and nitrous oxide liability in the short term while we shift to a new way of farming.

No one is forcing your readers to consider soil carbon (the only revenue positive aspect of the carbon equation for farmers.). But the Government will force everyone to confront their emissions from farming activities. Those who would deter farmers from engaging in soil carbon trading could find themselves in a tricky legal position should the day arrive when farmers who, following their advice, ignored the soil carbon opportunity and find themselves clearly disadvantaged.

I should declare an interest here: We have campaigned for two years to see the day farmers would be paid for the soil carbon they grow. There will be billions sloshing around when carbon becomes the world’s largest commodity market, and unless we fight for it, farmers will see none of it. We formed a non-profit trading arm called Carbon Farmers of Australia to start the market in Australia.

If the naysayers had spent as much energy trying to find ways to make the soil carbon market opportunity happen as they have spent trying to find reasons not to do it, we would be trading now.

Put this question to the next expert you hear listing all the reasons why soil carbon trading is impossible/bad/dangerous/etc.: “Why do you want us to face a carbon bill without any carbon currency to pay it?”

Michael Kiely
Carbon Coalition