Friday, December 07, 2012

Blaming soil carbon for N2O emissions?

There is a movement afoot to blame soil carbon for nitrous oxide emissions from soils. You might have read this somewhere recently: “The carbon (organic matter) content of a soil is a major driving factor in the amount of N2O it can emit. Farming systems that produce large amounts of carbon, either as pasture or crop residues, have the potential to emit higher levels of N2O. This is because the carbon provides energy to bacteria that carry out the denitrification process. Preliminary research from the Nitrous Oxide Research Program has found that in some regions retaining crop residues can lead to high N2O emissions.”

Are they recommending to farmers that they stop building carbon rich soils? Are those naughty N people trying to burst soil carbon’s balloon with yet another reason Why Increasing Soil Carbon Is Bad For You? Well, here is another perspective from a group of eminent scientists that includes Prof. Peter Grace from QUT: To date the vast majority of evidence supports nitrogen input as the most robust and reliable default proxy for calculating N2O emissions.”* So it is the amount of N applied that determines how much N2O emitted.

It wasn’t an increase in soil carbon levels that caused the N2O curve to climb steadily for 40 years, obviously. Soil carbon levels has been falling ever since the first plough bit into the virgin soils of the Great South Land. It was inputs of N that caused the N2O spike, not soil carbon. The fact that reducing application of N is standard advice now in outreach and training programs. American farmers are even now still being encouraged to over-use N fertiliser “with the common practice of producers to apply N fertilizer rates based upon recommendations derived from yield goal calculations known to overestimate crop N needs.”

Yield goal estimates? What are they? “Since the 1970s it has been common practice… for producers to apply rates of N fertilizer based on recommendations derived from yield goal estimates. The agricultural departments of land grant universities and state agricultural organizations have typically endorsed yield-goal N fertilizer rate recommendations. These organizations are the most common source of external information and advice for producers,” say Millar et al. The practice of over-prescribing N inputs by advisers was so widespread that the Methodology for reducing N fertilizer use on crops is accepting these levels as a Business As Usual scenario for proving Additionality.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

*Millar, N, G.P. Robertson, A. Diamant, R.J. Gehl, P.R. Grace, and J.P. Hoben. 2012. Methodology for Quantifying Nitrous Oxide (N2O) Emissions Reductions by Reducing Nitrogen Fertilizer Use on Agricultural Crops. American Carbon Registry, Winrock International, Little Rock, Arkansas This methodology developed by Michigan State University (MSU) with support from the Electric Power Research Institute.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Carbon Farmers ain't Carbon Farmers

Tho first reports are coming in from the $20m Soil Carbon Research Program. The results are profoundly interesting: “No individual management practice has the same influence on soil carbon stocks across all agricultural regions. And significant differences in soil carbon stocks often were not detected despite strong variations in management practices.” Dr Jeff Baldock of CSIRO is to be congratulated  on the completion of the SCaRP program. It will provide a powerful platform for developing future knowledge of this substance that is so important to our future as a society. Jeff delivered a paper Australian soil carbon stocks: a summary of the SCaRP program results at the Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries (CCRISPI) Conference in Melbourne this week.

The value of a piece of research in not always in the answers it delivers, but more so in the questions it suggests. These questions come to mind: Could there be other variables that were not considered in the analysis of the SCaRP data? For instance, the skill level of the farmer in the agricultural practice that they nominate will affect the result. That skill level could be directly related to the length of time the practitioner has been practicing. Another issue that could influence the outcome would be the combination of practices, which is common. Eg. grazing management and pasture cropping and/or compost tea inoculant applied to the same paddock. Every successful practitioner will tell you that it took several years to get their system right. It is not a matter of simply applying a ‘practice’ to an area of land to get a standard response.
Did the subjects of the trials self-nominate?What do they define as rotational grazing, time controlled grazing, cell grazing and continuous grazing? They are not all names for the same thing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Zero take-up and its cause

"There are circumstances in which it is reasonable to assume that the take-up rate is low... where... there are significant impediments to adoption for all potential participants... impediments [that] may indicate that take-up of an activity is unlikely." 
(Carbon Farming Initiative, Positive List guidelines, Common Practice, October 2011)

Climate Change is our Napoleon

Portugal, 1812 - The 1st Duke of Wellington writes to the National Office in London.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London

or, perchance,

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


Re-blogged from

Soil C sequestration causes emissions and degrades soil - Scientific Report

Believe it or not! Sequestering soil carbon is environmentally hazardous, and causes CO2 emissions, according to a report released this month in Soil Research. Working over the chemistry of discontinued 25 year trials of cropping practices, the conclusion was reached that 'there is an environmental and C cost associated with C sequestration'. It works like this: to increase C you must use N. When you add N  you reduce pH and make the soil acidic. To counter this degradation of the soil you have to add lime. Adding lime costs money, releases CO2, and causes emissions during mining, processing and transport. The paper runs the numbers on the additional costs for N and Ca vs the tiny amounts of C anticipated to be sequestered and it's just not worth it. Theoretically.

What does the CSIRO think? In addition to drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere, the CSIRO* lists these essential soil health benefits of increased soil carbon:

Consequences of depletion of soil organic matter:

·      Depletion of plant nutrients including N, P and S.
·      Increased soil bulk density (compaction).
·      Loss of aggregate structure.
·      Decreased water-holding capacity and hydraulic conductivity.
·      Decreased cation-exchange capacity.
·      Increased surface erosion.
·      Increased leaching of pesticides and heavy metals.
·      A decline in soil biological activity and diversity.
·      Declines in crop yields and quality.
Improving SOM levels will help reverse deleterious consequences (above). Improvements to:
·      soil structure,
·      soil fertility,
·      nutrient retention,
·      water holding capacity, and
·      reduced soil erosion.
·      soil physical properties such as aggregation, water infiltration, hydraulic conductivity and compaction
·      greater productivity and crop yields
·      reduced inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and water.

Mitigation options have numerous co-benefits:
·      food security,
·      environmental sustainability and
·      farm profitability

*Jonathan Sanderman, Ryan Farquharson and Jeffrey Baldock, Soil Carbon Sequestration Potential: A review for Australian agriculture, CSIRO Land and Water, 2010

Glad Tidings! A Soil Carbon Methodology is Born

(Glossary below)'

There is a Soil Carbon Methodology about to be ratified by the VCS - the most important standard in the voluntary market. This will mean many things: 1. We can start using it to design projects. 2. We can adapt parts of it to use with our CFI meths. 3. We can apply to the DOIC to have it recognised under the CFI.

The Earth Partners (TEP) have announced that they are the proponents of the comprehensive Soil Carbon Quantification Methodology. It "has been tested and refined on-the-ground on over twenty sites across more than four countries. The method has completed a thorough technical peer-review process and will be the first soil carbon method to complete an independent validation under the Verified Carbon Standard, and it being implemented in a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant.

The method is measurement-based, more accurate than model-based default methods. "TEP has also developed streamlined processes to screen, stratify, sample, and calculate carbon levels at a high confidence interval. As a result, TEP can utilize its aggregation models to operate at landscape-scale to cost-effectively assess projects that can generate the large amounts of potential carbon credit assets at low cost."

This methodology is modular and designed to be applicable to changes to agricultural practices, grassland and rangeland restorations, soil carbon protection and accrual benefits from reductions in erosion, grassland protection projects and treatments designed to improve diversity and productivity of grassland and savanna plant communities. The associated modules provide methods for quantifying and monitoring changes in carbon accrual in, and emissions from, soils as well as from other GHG pools and sources that may be affected by AFOLU projects.

There are 18 modules connected to the central methodology:
Module: Stratification for Validation

No one steals my "Meth"!

They sound like drugs, but these "Meths" aren't illicit, although they can cause brain-strain. Our Meths  (methodology or recipe for a carbon credits project) are about to change. EG.  The compulsory forfeiture of intellectual property in carbon "meths" has finally been identified as a disincentive to involvement in the CFI (Glossary below.) by The DCCEE.  It is one of a series of important shifts proposed in the new Draft Guidelines, out for consultation.

Intellectual property is covered in 3 places: 1. “You will retain all intellectual property rights in respect of your application, but you must agree to allow it to be copied, used and modified by DCCEE and others for the purpose of the CFI.” 2.  “Acceptable justification would include that the information should not be published if it reveals, or could be capable of revealing: trade secrets; or any other matter having a commercial value that would be, or could reasonably be expected to be, destroyed or diminished if the information were disclosed.” 3. “If you have applied, or intend to apply for a patent concerning a methodology proposal, you should contact DCCEE before you submit a proposal.”

Positive List: “The activity must be included on the positive list before the methodology proposal can be assessed. “ (This creates a chicken-or-egg confusion with the Positive List guidelines released on October 2011 which tells us that the “Activity is covered by an approved methodology.” Which comes first? Positive List or Methodology?)

The difficulty a farmer would have in taking a Meth off the shelf and using it is blamed on the Language adopted for the submission: “It is important that language and instructions are clear and unambiguous.” The Devil is in the Detail: “This item must be sufficiently detailed to allow project proponents to successfully implement the proposed activity by following these instructions. “

Instead of making up your own terminology: “…many terms are defined in the CFI glossary, the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 and the Regulations. Refer to these documents before defining a new term.”

And a new challenge for those working on soil carbon: “The process for estimating abatement is divided into 5 parts: 4) Item 11.4 – Account for cyclical variation.” This means a meth is expected to take account of the background cycles of emissions and sequestration before applying a new land management regime. You can see what it means: new levels of complexity, new layers of measurement, new costs, new hoops to jump through. New reasons for disengagement among farmers.

But there is good news: There is a Soil Carbon Methodology about to be ratified by the VCS - the most important standard in the voluntary market. This will mean many things: 1. We can start using it to design projects. 2. We can adapt parts of it to use with our CFI meths. 3.We can apply to the DOIC to have it recognised under the CFI.

DCCEE - Department of Climate Change and Energy Effciency.
CFI - Carbon Farming Initiative
DOIC -  Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee
VCS - Verified Carbon Standard