Thursday, February 11, 2010

Soil Carbon Primer or Soil Carbon Economics 101

The following article is worth a read, as are the attached comments.

A touch of reality.

But it does not say do not build up soil carbon. More soil carbon is in the interests of the land owner, the farmer, the pastoralist as well as everyone. reality, do not expect to make anything from it in a trading sense, but look to improved soil performance and agricultural performance as the payoff.

That is very real, and there is much evidence to show it to be so. Across states, countries, horticulture and agriculture. South Australia has a very active core of producers into this right now. And carbon sources are scarce in the state, with demand for compost materials outstripping supply. Other states are tending that way.

The article highlights a few overarching problems, although a significant impediment is not mentioned - the logistical costs of getting carbon into soil. Products such as biochar / agrichar offer some hope, as does the develoment of high density organic fertilisers, based on organic residuals that will lower transport costs. As would locally based sources of these types of products.

There is progress.

When soil carbon is not in the national interest

In sporting parlance, the Coalition plan has soil carbon peaking too early.

By making soil carbon a foundation stone of its policy, and a commodity that all Australian taxpayers will be investing in whether they like it or not, the Coalition has invited rigorous scrutiny of the issue.

I’m not sure that soil carbon is ready for that scrutiny.

Taxpayer-funded soil carbon trading is a concept that needs some massaging and makeup before it is shoved into the glare of prime-time TV, and the demolition job that will now result.

That’s regrettable, because the ideal of tradeable soil carbon is something worth working on.

As a big picture concept, soil carbon is brilliant: improve farm soil and save the world.

Such crusty organisations as the United Nations agree that soil carbon is a possible panacea for many of the world’s ills, from climate change to food and water scarcity.

Dedicated individuals have shown that it is real; that soil carbon levels can be lifted, sometimes substantially, in many soils under many farming enterprises.

The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) has demonstrated that the market will pay for soil carbon credits—albeit not much under the CCX model.

But while many can see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the route to it remains hazy.
It’s one thing for a farmer to build soil carbon: it’s another to have all the nation’s farmers building soil carbon and have them each interface with an accounting system that will give them credit for their efforts.

As has been tirelessly pointed out, soil carbon levels differ from soil to soil, farm to farm, paddock to paddock, season to season. Seen as a whole, the nation’s soil carbon is a complex and ever-changing picture.

What do you measure, and when, and how? And what happens when the carbon disappears in drought or fire? These are questions that tax intelligence and science, but there is a process that will help work through them.

A carbon market

Given a framework to operate in, a market will decide how much risk it is prepared to take on, the level of accountability it needs to support that risk, and pay accordingly.

A market also provides a learn-as-you-go environment. Initially, like most free enterprise, a soil carbon market is likely to have its share of shonks and cowboys on both sides of the fence. But the more money poured into the market, the more rigour will be demanded of it. Farmers, traders and buyers have the ability to adapt to each incremental tightening of the trading framework.

The Coalition has now plunked soil carbon blinking into the spotlight, and there’s not a free market in sight.

In fact, there is very little in sight in the two lines that the Coalition dedicated to soil carbon in its press release, except for this statement: “The Coalition will use the Emissions Reduction Fund to deliver about 85 million tonnes per annum of CO2 abatement through soil carbons by 2020 with an initial purchase of 10 million tonnes of abatement through soil carbons by 2012-13”.
(The Emissions Reduction Fund is a government body, kick-started with government/taxpayer funds. Businesses that push their emissions above a “business-as-usual” level pay the Fund a penalty; businesses that go below business-as-usual emissions get rewarded from the same fund.)

Which suggests that the plan is for you and me, the taxpayer, to pay you, the farmer, for sequestering carbon.

There is no provision for a market to provide a learn-as-we-go environment: instead, we will have government laying down legislation and a bureacracy attempting to govern an unreliable and messy commodity.

Government dabbling in areas that are the natural realm of private enterprise has always ended in tears.

Soil carbon promises tears for anyone who tries to harness it, public or private, but the private sector doesn’t mind a few knocks. Especially if they are being delivered to someone else.

In the meantime, the Coalition’s plan for us all to share in the ownership of the nation’s rebuilding of soil carbon will see a long queue of critics lining up to point out flaws in the soil carbon concept.

Yes, we are shy of a few answers, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of tradeable soil carbon is wrong. It’s all in the execution. Better that we hand it over to the free market cowboys who will tinker with it, soup it up, prang it—and in the end, make it work, if it’s workable.

Only then should the Coalition consider making it part of the national interest; but by then it won’t matter.

[Posted By: MATT CAWOOD on 8/02/2010 4:00:00 AM



Market-based schemes are certainly neat in theory. In practice, organised crime has made $7.4 billion in the last 18 months on the European ETS, selling bogus credits.
Posted by morrgo, 9/02/2010 12:30:34 PM, on Farm Weekly

Inviting halfwits to trade with buckets full of mud does have a certain attraction.
Posted by Mud pie, 9/02/2010 1:34:04 PM, on The Land

There are a lot of points raised here but the basic factors that agriculture is subsidized in many countries and not in ours begs the question how do our farmers do it well a lot of them are not? People are constantly telling me how expensive food is here but really it is not it is just what it costs. We the taxpayer may have to pay for it as the consumer cannot confront the added cost. Adding carbon through improved soil management, whatever the incentive, will improve the nations' health through increased micro nutrients provided through increased microbe activity that the presence of increased carbon,which goes hand in hand indicates. Of course there are accounting issues... when are there not. Some will benefit and some will not as much but we will all benefit by better health. I have 3 books being launched today on soil carbon issues for children and lay people at the Trinity Grammar school in Kew Victoria. You are welcome to attend. Please visit my website to see the books online
Posted by jewel, 10/02/2010 6:56:17 AM, on The Land

Imagine what Australia would be like if all the farms and land holdings had been managed as carbon farms for the past 10 years. Carbon rich soil, good ground cover, well-established vegetation, moisture retained in the landscape for far longer, less erosion, heathier soil microbes hard at work manufacturing more carbon and making more nutrients available for plants to grow. The cooling influence of vegetation sees microclimates joining microclimates and expanding to include districts and regions, forging feedback loops that cascade through mineral and energy cycles, unleashing processes long hidden that have unanticipated impact on production and productivity. And all the while this same vegetation and soil are extracting vast amounts of 'the airborne fraction' - the Legacy Load, the CO2 and other greenhouse gases that are the real cause of the climate chaos battering our planet. Imagine your own version of that. Then think what the place will be like if we have to wait another 10 years for carbon farming to become widespread. If the doubters and delayers get their way. If it's 'too hard' to try. If the cynics and the deniers win. Then we lose hope. And we are left with despair.
Posted by Michael Kiely, 10/02/2010 10:24:24 AM, on The Land

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