Down and Dirty: Farm Soil Will Offset Emissions in Australia's Carbon Cut Scheme

Gregg Borschmann in Copenhagen and Guy Pearse
Monday, December 14, 2009

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald

It was a candid remark in a private briefing. But unfortunately for the Government, comments by an Australian climate negotiator late last week in Copenhagen have pretty much let the cat out of the bag on where Labor intends to find any ambitious cuts to Australia's 2020 greenhouse gas emissions.

Ironically, it will be in exactly the same places that the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, goes looking for his ''practical measures'' to solve climate change.

And they will not be anywhere near the smokestacks of dirty coal-fired power stations or the big polluting industries. They will be in the rolling back paddocks, grazing lands and grasslands of rural Australia - a green pot of carbon gold.

The premise is that simple changes in how we manage agricultural land - reducing tillage and fertiliser use or improving fire management - help return carbon to the soil. It is hard to put a dollar value on the bonanza but the numbers are enough, some say, to make Australia carbon neutral for the next three or four decades - all without having to impose a nasty tax, set up a complicated emissions trading scheme or clean up a single polluting pipe.

The climate change negotiator reportedly told an NGO group at a Copenhagen briefing that Australia would be able to commit to 25 per cent greenhouse gas cuts by 2020 - if land use rule changes driven by Australia and other developed countries are accepted as part of a new global climate deal.

The changes are highly contentious in Copenhagen, as developing nations recognise the potential for countries such as Canada, the US and Australia to offset industrial pollution against carbon sequestration in rural landscapes. Put simply, because these countries have hundreds of millions of hectares of land, very small increases in soil carbon could generate huge reductions in their net emissions.

But they have been accused of cooking the books on their emissions and there are huge divisions between developed and developing countries over how emissions from agriculture, grazing, grasslands and forestry will be counted in any new Copenhagen climate deal.

The row comes as latest figures show that Australia's greenhouse gas emissions have soared 82 per cent since 1990. The overall jump - reported to the United Nations in September - has been caused by a blow-out of 657 per cent in Australian land use emissions between 1990 and 2007.

There is a wild natural variation in these emissions from year to year - for example, there was a massive spike in 2002-03 from bushfires - and as a result Australia has chosen to opt out of reporting most of them against its Kyoto 2012 greenhouse target.

But in an effort to unlock the huge potential for ''carbon sinks'' in agricultural and grazing lands as part of any new Copenhagen climate deal, Australia has driven controversial rule changes that would exclude the impact of ''extraordinary events or circumstances'' such as bushfires and drought.

This would then make it easier for developed countries to claim offsets or carbon credits from agricultural and grazing lands.

Environment groups and NGOs at the climate talks say it is so difficult to accurately measure these emissions that it opens up the possibility of "accounting frauds" which could mask real increases in industrial emissions.

Paul Winn from Greenpeace International, who has closely followed negotiations over ''Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry'' at recent climate negotiations, said the push to get the land use rule changes into a new deal might mean the ''greenwashing of Copenhagen''. "These are basically accounting frauds, they're shuffling the cards ... it's just a changing of the figures and the atmosphere doesn't see any difference to the emissions or removals that occur."

Dr Payal Parekh, a climate scientist for International Rivers, said: "The effect that these loopholes will have on the targets is that it will water them down.

"It essentially means that developed countries including Australia could actually increase their emissions in the next few years ... it is a total scam. It appears as if something is [being] done, but it is not. The best way to sum it up is that it is a get-out-of-jail- free card."

Last year, in his official climate report to the Government, the economist Ross Garnaut estimated that increasing soil carbon in grazing areas and croplands could store 354 million tonnes of CO2 a year for 20 to 50 years (equivalent to more than half of Australia's present annual emissions).

Christine Jones is a renowned soil scientist who argues that holistic management of agricultural land can make Australia carbon neutral for decades.

If accurate, that's enough to soak up Australia's entire post-industrial contribution to climate change - with simple landcare practices.

Many farmers already see it as a big win and at seminars across the country are signing up to sell their soil-carbon credits. Farmers agreeing to reduced tillage, bio-fertiliser use and other soil conditioning are told to expect a 1 per cent increase in soil carbon in the top 150 millimetres of their soils - up to 55 tonnes of carbon dioxide credit per hectare.

But there's one big problem. If storing carbon in rural soils is seen as a substitute for burning less fossil fuel, scientists say that the global climate is in deep trouble. Some scientists argue the only really safe level for carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million or less. It is presently at 387 ppm.

The suspicion we may be comparing apples with pears when measuring carbon at the smokestacks and in paddocks is confirmed by an insider who knows how Australia does its greenhouse gas accounting. This source said there were huge problems trying to account for carbon in rural landscapes. "This is all about paper shuffling. It's not about reducing emissions. It's about being seen to be complying [with targets] for political reasons.

"Whatever the outcome, I would not be confident it will be effective in doing what it's meant to do - cutting emissions".

The source said that land use accounting was so important to the Government it had been kept in-house when almost all other greenhouse accounting - including transport and energy - was done by consultants. ''It makes you wonder what they're up to.''