Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tax farmers, don't pay them for soil carbon: Australia Institute

Energy and environmental lobbyists want farmers shut out of the biggest commodity market in history - and instead to pay a new tax to punish them for growing cattle and sheep.

Soil Carbon Trading was attacked recently in an Australia Institute Paper by energy expert Dr Hugh Saddler and former AGO executive and ANU Masters of Environment & Society student Helen King.

The report has at least three fundamental flaws:

Fundamental Flaw #1: Dr Saddler says farmers cannot measure the emissions from their animals or crops accurately: "To get an accurate estimate of them, you've actually got to go and make the measurements of what's actually being emitted from a cow or from a paddock of wheat and that's very, very costly and complex to do and will always be, so its not a matter of getting the science better," he said.

Dr Saddler, who is an energy industry expert, would know that measurement is not the problem, says according to Tony Lovell of SOil Carbon Australia. “In the energy industry they don’t ‘measure’ the amounts of carbon released by a coal-burning power station. They would have to capture all its emissions, separate off the GHG's, and weigh them - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Forever. They do not do this - they use regular sampling and apply generally accepted formulas to come up with reasonable estimates of the emissions.”

There is next to no "measurement" involved in this whole process - but there is a lot of "estimation". Understanding the difference between these two terms is absolutely critical.

Fundamental Flaw #2: The so-called fact that “farming contributes about 16% of Australia’s emissions” Is still widely believed, but is now out of date. Ruminant numbers are not the cause of methane increases, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a United Nations agency. “Since 1999 atmospheric methane concentrations have leveled off while the world population of ruminants has increased at an accelerated rate,” it reports at

“The role of ruminants in greenhouse gases may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting,” says the FAO.

In 2003 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the concentration of the methane in the atmosphere was leveling off at the 1999 level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged this in 2007, with “emissions being equivalent to removals.” Yet the number of new ruminant animals rose from 9m to 16m per year in the same period.

Fundamental Flaw #3: Taking the Australian Greenhouse Office’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory as a reliable guide to agriculture’s emissions. The gaps in the data sets used to make decisions on the potential for Australian soils to emit and sequester carbon have been widely acknowledged. I have an email from a former senior AGO executive admitting that the AGO was aware of the gaps all along.

Australia is heading in the opposite direction to the rest of the world on soil carbon: After attending a global gathering of soil carbon experts organised by the FAO last week, I can tell you that Australian farmers are world leaders in soil carbon sequestration. But our Government and our ‘experts’ are headed backwards while the FAO and the rest of the world are seeking to include soil carbon in the global markets.

Dr Saddler and Ms King (a former AGO senior executive and Masters student in “Environment and Society” at ANU) have been invited to the 2008 Carbon Farming Expo & Conference, on 18-19 November, at Orange NSW.

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