Coalition's soil carbon plan 'unviable', study finds

18 Jul, 2013 05:52 AM

THE Coalition's plan to store carbon dioxide in soil as a central plank of its climate policy has been thrown into further doubt by new research showing Australian soils are unlikely to offer low-cost emissions cuts.

A University of Melbourne survey of hundreds of Australian studies going back three decades found that using the country's soils to offset a significant proportion of national greenhouse gases “is technically limited and economically unviable at the present time”.

Published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, it suggests farmers would lose out through soil-carbon projects at carbon prices backed by both the government and the opposition.

Report co-author Rick Roush, the Dean of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment, said most active soil scientists thought it would be "a stretch” for farmers to use the Carbon Farming Initiative – a policy that encourages soil-carbon projects and is backed by both major parties.

At the current carbon price – $24.15 per tonne – farmers would stand to lose at least $12 per tonne for carbon farming under normal soil conditions, the researchers found.

The shortfall under the government's plan would be even greater if its decision to move to a floating carbon price from next July is implemented. At Tuesday's announcement of the plan to shift from a fixed to a floating carbon price a year earlier than scheduled, the government estimated the price would drop to as low as $6 a tonne.

The impact of the study, though, may fall harder on the viability of the Coalition's rival Direct Action plan.

In 2010, the opposition described carbon farming as “the single largest opportunity for carbon dioxide emissions reduction in Australia”, accounting for about 60 per cent of emission cuts.

"The Coalition will use the Emissions Reduction Fund to deliver about 85 million tonnes per annum of CO2 abatement through soil carbons by 2020," the Coalition said in a media release. The plans include paying farmers $10 per tonne for carbon farming.

“Our analysis showed that these strategies would result in only 53.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent sequestered in soil and would therefore not meet the 85 million tonnes targeted in the Coalition's Direct Action Plan,” Professor Roush said.

The opposition's climate spokesman, Greg Hunt, said the carbon farming figures were always indicative figures for both price and quantity, with the market to set both. The budget had not changed and emissions reductions would be achieved within it, he said.

"Having met with Greening Australia and major carbon-farming participants throughout the country in the last few weeks, the potential for reducing land-sector emissions is greater than we ever expected,” Mr Hunt said.

Sequestering carbon would likely be restricted to the top 10 centimetres of soil, and be limited by low-nutrient levels and water scarcity. Application of fertiliser would boost the sink capacity of soils but at a rising cost to farmers, Professor Roush said.

Carbon is slow to accumulate in the soil, and the agricultural methods mostly likely to encourage it, such as no-till farming, are already widely used, he said.

While the survey focused on Australian studies, Professor Roush said carbon bio-sequestration may not have much greater promise overseas.

“Our gut suspicion is that it will also be disappointing even in areas that have better rainfall and better soil fertility to start with, for the same reasons,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s difficult to keep soil carbons accumulating when you continue to plough and cultivate annual crops.”

However, additional research by another of the report’s authors, the University of Melbourne's Professor Deli Chen, into keeping nitrogen fertiliser in the soil may be much more promising not least because some of it converts into nitrous oxide with 300 times the greenhouse potency of carbon dioxide.

“It would be a far better investment to focus on managing nitrogen fertiliser use than soil carbon, per se.”

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18/07/2013 12:19:10 PM

Obviously the authors of this study are not aware of what has happened in the area of soil carbon over the last 5 or so years. Studies dating back decades ago are not relevant, as they were not studying holistic farming practices. Most active soil scientist seem to have made up their mind on soil carbon. There was a study just recently that showed there was a huge amount of soil carbon at depth, much more than near the surface, which would mean there would be a definite upside to increasing soil carbon. Some soil scientist need to have another look, they will be surprised.
18/07/2013 6:14:06 PM

What about focusing on the farming benefits of building carbon levels in our soils? There will certainly be no harm in that process. In any event, I would much prefer the Coalitions plan which will remove the Tax on carbon dioxide and the latest fake swap by Krudd to the ETS. Under Krudd's plan we will still be paying a useless price for CO2 with absolutely zero benefit to our atmosphere or environment and destruction of industry and development of our nation. It will be a money making rip off for traders at the cost of Aust taxpayers least able to afford it.
18/07/2013 6:44:16 PM

If Prof Roush is such an authority on carbon sequestration which he clearly isn't then maybe he can also comment on his so called area of expertise being GM technology and explain why there is no evidence that GM crops are better for the environment and have no yield advantages just more chemical use. He has clearly not gone very far outside his incredibly narrow area of focus to write this article and sadly because of his title people think it is gospel. He is still in the dark ages on this one and sadly this garbage sees the light of day in rural media and yet no one gets to write the truth.
Michael Kiely
19/07/2013 1:34:32 AM

Fundamental mistakes: Not one of the hundreds of studies analysed is relevant because genuine carbon farming is not about applying a single “improved management practice”. It involves combinations of practices orchestrated by the farmer whose expertise and experience determine the outcome. This was the lesson of the largest and latest research effort: SCaRP. Genuine carbon farming has yet to be widely adopted because there are no credits to be earned until the Government produces an approved "Methodology" - which will take at least another 12 months.
Michael Kiely
19/07/2013 1:57:07 AM

Five years ago carbon was bringing 40 euros on the European Carbon Market. Few market analysts would risk predicting the price in 2020. The carbon farmer is not likely to have carbon to sell for at least 5 years. And soil carbon offsets are 'bankable' - i.e, farmers can decide when to take their carbon to market. In the real world the process of commercialisation will shrink the costs. CSIRO has a soil C measurement solution that eliminates the need to know spatial variation. Sydney Uni has a solution. Markets drive innovation. Economics is the 'dismal science' but it is useful sometimes.
19/07/2013 6:50:18 AM

Michael Kiely pulled the article apart better in three to four hundred words than Prof Roush did in a whole article that went global. Well put MK. Sadly we have to defend complete ignorance constantly on this one.
John Deere
19/07/2013 8:11:47 AM

Another act of futility. The human race could disappear off the face of the earth today and the difference it would make to the climate would be next to nothing.
the lorax
19/07/2013 3:33:28 PM

Dalby - the coalition plan will cost 3.2 billion over 4 years - funded by the taxpayer
21/07/2013 5:43:19 AM

lorax, I could not care less about your claim. All I know is that the Krudd plan is just a political ploy which has yet to pass through and will probably never pass parliament. In any event we have seen all Krudds past promises disappear after the election and will doubtless do so again. Nothing he has ever done has been reliable. His ETS will be just like his Pink Bats as will his Manus Island flawed and fake idea on illegal immigrants. He is not a PM. He is just a megalomaniac wanting to be loved while he whizzes wildly around believing he is King and Emperor of all. He loves only himself.
Climate Change is real and demands urgent action
22/07/2013 4:54:12 PM

So Dalby, you don't care about $3.2 Billion. You must have more money than sense.
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