Friday, November 04, 2011

Only Diamonds Are Forever: Sequestration, Permanence and the Carbon Cycle

Soil Carbon faces institutional barriers to being traded as an offset, despite its potential role as a bridge to a low carbon future and the many co-benefits for which it is famous. These barriers can only be understood in the light of history: The creators of the Kyoto Protocols were more at home with the concept of avoiding emissions than sequestration. Agriculture was seen through the lens of emissions to be a major source rather than as a potential sink. The science used to establish the Australian National Greenhouse Gases Inventory focussed on the ways in which soil lost carbon after clearing, ie. emissions. Sequestering carbon in soil was not a process much studied by government departments (a) because it isn’t a problem and (b) because ‘Carbon farming’ was a fringe activity, not expected to become mainstream.[1] Therefore the National Carbon Accounting System did not recognise that Carbon Farming existed and the view developed that Australian soils were too ancient and degraded to sequester carbon in significant amounts.

To be included in the cap and trade system – which was designed for ‘avoided emissions’ – biosequestration was made subject to a set of “integrity standards” to bring it into line with ‘avoided emissions’ as a quality offset. These standards are based on a false interpretation of the permanence of ‘avoided emissions’ and a false view of the nature and role of soil carbon sequestration.

[1] AUSTRALIAN GREENHOUSE OFFICE, “Estimation of changes in soil carbon due to changed land use” (National Carbon Accounting System technical report ; no.2) November 1999

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