CSIRO study erodes credibility of key carbon model

02 Nov, 2015 04:40 AM
Without accounting for the soil erosion, the accuracy of the carbon accounting is undermined

AUSTRALIA'S method of measuring how much carbon is being stored in its soil is flawed, undermining the credibility of government programs to pay farmers to sequester the climate change inducing element, a new study by CSIRO researchers has found.

The Carbon Farming Initiative begun by the Gillard government and the Abbott-Turnbull government's Direct Action climate policy have spent millions of dollars to encourage farmers to boost carbon levels in their soils to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the productivity of the land.

However, the model used in Australia and elsewhere in the world to calculate carbon storage fails to account for soil and wind erosion, which means the carbon sink is as much as 17 per cent over-estimated over a century, according to the peer-reviewed research published last week in Nature Climate Change.

"The omission of [soil organic carbon] erosion in crop production models has implications for potential...sequestration in Australia and elsewhere," the authors, led by Adrian Chappell, a principal research scientist with CSIRO's Land & Water division, wrote.

Without accounting for the soil erosion, the accuracy of the carbon accounting is undermined and the uncertainty in estimates of how much carbon is being trapped is unnecessarily increased, Dr Chappell said.

Some farmers, for instance, may see no detectable increase in the carbon being stored even though they follow standard practices because their soil is being eroded, and the carbon is ending up elsewhere.

The 2009 "red dawn" that saw a huge region of eastern Australia cloaked in a dust storm.

The 2009 "red dawn" that saw a huge region of eastern Australia cloaked in a dust storm. Photo: Quentin Jones

"They will turn around and blame the management system," Dr Chappell said. "A whole lot of misleading outcomes will be signalled."

Likewise, farmers downwind or in valleys may inadvertently be rewarded for carbon washed or blown on to their land.

Government auction pending

The report comes just days before the Turnbull government is due to hold its second auction under the $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund.

Sequestration projects such as carbon farming accounted for 28 million tonnes of the 47 million tonnes of abatement during the first auction. The payout for all winning bids totalled $660 million.

A second auction is due to be held on November 4-5, with carbon farming again likely to feature prominently among the bids.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the government was confident in the integrity of its modelling.

"Our soil carbon methodologies are world leading and have been verified and endorsed by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]," he said. "This occurred as recently as September."

Shrinking profit margin

Dr Chappell said the Environment Department was "aware of the significance of soil erosion" for Australia's National Carbon Accounting System.

"I don't know if they are in the process of doing anything about it," he said.

Dr Chappell said measuring the loss of soil could be done by tracking changes to caesium levels as a proxy for erosion.

While fairly inexpensive, the detection of the trace element along with carbon would increase the cost for farmers and would most likely undermine the economics of the process for some.

"There's not enough of a profit margin to make it worthwhile."

The government's website uses an illustration of carbon farming as its main promotion of the ERF.

'Respect science'

The Greens deputy leader, Larissa Waters, said the apparently flawed models used to pay for carbon abatement raised further doubts about the government's Direct Action policy.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday "said our country's success depends on respecting science", Senator Waters said.

"To live up to that rhetoric, the Prime Minister needs to take note of CSIRO's study and amend the accounting methods," she said. "More broadly, the Turnbull government needs to bring its climate policy in line with science, including by increasing [former prime minister] Tony Abbott's woeful climate targets before Paris."

Mr Turnbull will present Australia's target to cut 2005-level emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 at this month's climate summit in Paris.

Fairfax Media also sought comment from the ALP.

'Red dawn'

The CSIRO team is studying soil erosion not only for carbon changes but also to understand how the productive capacity of Australia's farmlands is changing.

Major dust storms, such as the "red dawn" event of 2009 that blanketed a region from Sydney to Brisbane and reached as far as the snowfields of New Zealand, are examples of how vulnerable soils are to erosion.

Not only are important nutrients and carbon being blown or leached away, the remaining soil is also more susceptible to further erosion because it can typically hold less moisture and support less vegetation, Dr Chappell said.

The prospect that future climate change will make heavy rainfall events more intense and increase the gustiness of winds will most likely exacerbate the erosion of soils in Australia and elsewhere even as populations and food demand continues to swell, he said.

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Bill Pounder
6/11/2015 10:17:08 PM

"Major dust storms, such as the "red dawn" event of 2009 that blanketed a region from Sydney to Brisbane & reached as far as the snowfields of New Zealand, are examples of how vulnerable soils are to erosion." Yeah right, from the Woomera food bowl. That dust storm event is on the record as starting west of Moomba: http://blogs.abc.net.au/sa/2009/0 9/dust-storm-hits-moomba.html Australian Museum Mineralogist Ross Pogson said, "it is believed to come from the general central Australia region" http://australianmuseum.net.au/bl ogpost/science/sydney-dust-storm- analysed-by-museum-mineralogist
9/11/2015 5:43:49 AM

How do you know Bill Pounder has an overt political agenda Nico ? What is it ? Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.
9/11/2015 6:17:41 AM

Food Producer, please look at the science. It's not as simple as you think. Enhanced CO2 can benefit some plants in some circumstances. Weeds are both C3 and C4. Ongoing research suggests that on balance, increased atmospheric CO2 will have profoundly negative effects for humanity. For a non-technical report (with comprehensive technical references) see: http://www.mdba.gov.au/kid/files/ 2264-ClimateChangeWeedsPestsMDB1. pdf
9/11/2015 7:15:26 AM

Ah Bill Pounder, don't let the truth and the facts get in the way of a good story. That's how it has been working for AGW all along.
Food Producer
9/11/2015 10:55:22 AM

There are no profoundly negitive effects of increased atmospheric CO2 but there are profoundly negitive effects of less atmospheric CO2, plants don't grow as well which means less food on the table and if the CO2 rate drops to far , plants die. Then there will be a real profoundly negitive effect on humanity because we will all die too. No plants means no food means no humans. ATM the atmospheric rate of CO2 is at the bottom end of the ladder for optimum plant growth. This is not rocket science , just simple primary school stuff. I would suggest you go back to school Nico.
9/11/2015 11:52:48 AM

Food Producer, please read the paper about the Murray Darling Basin which I cited (http://www.mdba.gov.au/kid/files / 2264-ClimateChangeWeedsPestsMDB1. pdf) . Have a look at the scientific references too. If the paper is wrong, please let us know where and in what respect it is wrong.
Bill Pounder
9/11/2015 12:23:57 PM

At dinosaur school one would learn that Jurassic Park dinosaurs relished their CO2 1500ppm. Similarities with our Present World. "Global Temperature and Atmospheric CO2 over Geologic Time" - graph is found here. http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils /Carboniferous_climate.html
9/11/2015 1:53:22 PM

And Pounder does it again. A reference to a wildly unreliable denialist website belonging to a mining engineer called Monte Hieb, which Pounder offers as evidence that dinosaurs lived in a high CO2 environment. This is a half-truth at best, and suggests only that the CO2 content of the Jurassic atmosphere supported damp hot tropical environments - not recommended for present-day Earth agriculture! For a look at the Jurassic (but beware of the giant crocodiles) see: http://science.nationalgeographic .com/science/prehistoric-world/ju rassic/
9/11/2015 2:15:56 PM

Nico you are becoming more idiotic with your comments every day and I quote, " the Jurassic atmosphere supported damp hot tropical environments - not recommended for present-day Earth agriculture!" So Nico are you suggesting that the damp hot tropical environments of today don't support present day Earth agriculture. I would venture to suggest that they support way more agriculture than the colder areas nearer the poles. And for your required evidence, GO TAKE A LOOK. Pounders half truths, as you call them, are way in front of your manipulated adjusted figures and outright untruths.
Food Producer
9/11/2015 3:29:45 PM

'' Not recomended for present-day earth agriculture'' says Nico, the biggest load of waffle you will ever hear. C3 plants today will benefit from higher CO2 rates just like they did in the past. If they didn't , why do they enhance the air in greenhouses with it ? Why are the earths deserts greening from the improving atmospheric CO2 rate ? Most C3 plants which are nearly all our food stocks see a %50 growth improvement and an increased WUE with a doubling or 800ppm of atmospheric CO2. What could be wrong with that ? Nico , one can come to only one conclusion, your anti-life.
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