By Michael Kiely, Carbon Farmers of Australia

Cities in Danger

3 July 2009 FAVOURITES: No city in the world has been built to withstand extreme weather events predicted by Climate Change scientists. But there will be more of them and they will be more violent. Three-quarters of the world’s large cities are built on coastlines. Cyclones, storm surges, wind storms,  and flooding will become more common, according to insurance companies’. The number of’ “great natural catastrophes” rose by 300 per cent between the 1960s and the 1990s. Cities are vulnerable because  the  infrastructure needed to deliver the necessities of life – food, water, sewerage, energy and communications  –  must rely on brittle, centralised systems.  New Orleans taught the world how quickly civilisation can break down when the infrastructure is shattered by a natural disaster.

The Real Cause of  Climate Chaos

The cause of the extreme weather events is NOT the Greenhouse Gases everyone is arguing about as they try to agree on how to curb future emissions. The gases doing all the damage are already in the atmosphere, some released more than 100 years ago.  Author of The Weather Makers and The Future Eaters, Dr Tim Flannery, says the load of this gas is massive: “The standing stock of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is around 200 gigatonnes.”  We call this “the Legacy Load”. Many scientists have recognised that it exists.

A report from the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains a chilling observation: “Twenty-first century anthropogenic (human) carbon dioxide emissions will contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the timescales required for removal of this gas.”

“The carbon dioxide that’s in our atmosphere today – even if we were to stop emitting it tomorrow – would live for many decades, centuries and beyond,” said Dr Susan Solomon, senior scientist of the of the Global Monitoring Division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Britain’s Chief Scientist said that, “even if humanity were to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, temperatures will keep rising and the impacts keep changing for 25 years.”

No short term, no long term

Neither governments nor scientists have a plan to deal with the Legacy Load because they focus entirely on future emissions. They all agree that there is no silver bullet, that we will need to use every option, but they fail to understand that some mitigation techniques must be deployed as they come available. The ‘”vintage” CO2 that is doing all the damage cannot be captured by “clean coal” technology and immobilised by geosequestration, the solutions favoured by the Australian and US Governments. Nor is it the CO2 that will be avoided when power is generated by solar or wind turbines or hot rocks or nuclear power.

The damage is being done by GHG that can’t be captured at source or substituted. It has to be scrubbed out of the atmosphere by the only means possible: by the natural processes that lock carbon up in trees and soils. photosynthesis.

When Climate Change moves from being a long-term problem and becomes an emergency, and our leaders finally focus on the problem, they will have two very fashionable options and plain old soil. The obvious candidate is forest plantings. Another option, as fashionable with scientists as soil is unfashionable, is Biochar. But while both have important roles to play in the mid-to-long-term, nothing can compete in short term (20-30 years) impact on “stalling” Climate Change, the reason the IPCC was formed.

Are Forests The Answer?

Trees have an important role to play in Climate Change Mitigation and Landscape Reclamation. Most farms need more trees. There is not enough shelter for animals nor enough vegetation for native wildlife to travel to their breeding and feeding grounds in most Australian properties. But saying “Yes” automatically to trees is not good carbon policy. Most “forests” sold as carbon sinks are plantations or tree farms that are less effective than natural forests. Tree farms start their life emitting tonnes of carbon because they tear up the vegetation that covers the soil, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Then herbicides are used to kill off other plant species that the birds and wildlife rely on. Despite their attempts to add species mix, the result of the promoters of these schemes is a biodiversity desert. Not an Australian forest.

Typically a tree farm will be a monoculture – a one species environment – which lacks the resilience to resist parasite and insect attack. This makes them susceptible to fire, which would release tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Tree farms are also a bad investment when it comes to storing carbon, when compared to the natural forest. A study reported in New Forests concluded that, “An area covered with a plantation managed for maximum volume yield will normally contain substantially less carbon than the same area of unmanaged forest”.   A similar study in Oregon found that a 450-year-old natural forest stored 2.2 to 2.3 times more carbon than a 60-year-old douglas fir plantation on a comparable site.

Tree farms are good for city investors but bad for rural communities. Large industrial-sized operations have been known to buy up 10 neighbouring farms and put them all under trees. While the farmers who sold out were happy, the plantation pulled 10 families out of the local schools, 10 incomes out of the local economy. In most small districts this would mean the end of services like local medical and banking services.

A forest isn’t the safest place to lock up your carbon. If the climate scientists are right when they say Australia will have more bushfires of the type that have been ravaging forests all summer. Trees cannot lock up CO2 for 100 years, as promised, because they start emitting CO2 as soon as they drop limbs and leaves which decay. Trees stop sequestering carbon when they reach maturity. Pro-forest green groups Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth have given tree farms the thumbs down.

“It Would Take Seven Planets Covered With Trees”

Finally trees aren’t going to save the world. We can’t plant enough of them in the time we have left, and not all soils are suitable. The UK Department of Energy estimates that to offset the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions would require the planting of a new area of tropical forest about 1.5 times the size of the UK.  “We don’t have enough land to make up for all our emissions; you would need seven planets,” say Tim Cadman, a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania who has spent years researching the forestry industry and government forest policy.

The World Rainforest Movement claims that to compensate for the eight gigatonnes of carbon we currently release into the atmosphere every year would require planting four times the area of the United States with trees, never letting these trees die and decay thereafter. Millions of hectares of land would have to be taken over for carbon sequestration to have even a small impact on overall emissions.

Pasture is Faster

But farmers can provide a solution. Given that 60 per cent of the earth’s surface is grazing land, farmers have critical mass. They can sequester carbon at rates higher than tree farms using a combination of native perennial grasslands, new methods of growing crops, new soil treatments, and regrowth of native vegetation as part of their farm plan. In certain circumstances, pasture can store more carbon than forest. And the best tree solution is native forest.

Only Soils Can Do It

Dr Tim Flannery, is one of a very few scientists to understand the potential role of soil.  It is the “fastest way of sequestering carbon”.  And we need a fast solution because,  he says, we only have a short while to solve the problem: “Unless it is resolved in the next two decades, it will destroy our global civilisation.”

The Soil Carbon Solution is fast. If farmers were given sufficient incentive, they could change their soil management practices from those that emit GHGs to those that sequester them – almost overnight. The capture and storage of GHGs could start immediately, at massive capacity. Dr Flannery points to the sheer size of the area of the Earth’s surface covered by agricultural soil. There are four billion hectares of rangeland used for grazing and a further billion for cropping. “The strongest prospect of very large draw-down of atmospheric carbon lies in changes to our global agriculture and forestry practices,” he says. Increase soil carbon in the “world’s dry rangelands by a mere 2 per cent… we could pull down around 880 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.”

Each year  8 per cent of the Legacy Load of Atmospheric Carbon is drawn into plants. “It would take only 12 years to draw all of the carbon out of the atmosphere.” We could pay the entire debt back by 2050,  he says. If only a small part of this could be stored “more or less permanently”, we would make great inroads into the Legacy Load.

And it can be stored “more or less permanently,”  in our agricultural soils. Carbon Farmers acknowledge that carbon cycles between earth and sky. Instead of trying to trap it, which is unnatural, the Carbon Farmer manages the soil to always attract more carbon to reside in it today than there was yesterday. And these farmers also have the protection of their pool partners should the individual have a reversal. The “Buffer Pool” will make up the deficit.

Soil carbon is present in litter, roots, insect life, microbes, carbohydrates, fungi, acids and humus. It is also found in soils as carbohydrates, fats, waxes, alkanes, peptides, amino acids, proteins, lipids and organic acids.

What is Soil Carbon?

Soil Carbon is that part of the soil that is or has been alive. It is present in litter, roots, insect life, microbes, carbohydrates, fungi, acids and humus. It is also found in soils as carbohydrates, fats, waxes, alkanes, peptides, amino acids, proteins, lipids and organic acids. Soil carbon is produced by biological activity of microbes and fungi, stimulated by the action of roots of plants as they push down through the soil, retreating when the foliage above ground is grazed or harvested, then pushing down through the soil again as the foliage regrows. (There is also mineralised Carbon in the soil which is not organic.)

Soil carbon is created when CO2 is absorbed by vegetation, the Oxygen is released and the Carbon is used to make living tissue, such as vegetation, animals that eat vegetation, and humans that can eat both. Some of the retained Carbon returns to the atmosphere as CO2 from respiration (eg. plants ‘breathe out’ CO2 at night). Some of the retained Carbon returns to the atmosphere as CH4 or Methane from the rotting of dead vegetation. But much of the Carbon taken in by the plant enters the top layer of the soil and is held there as humus, and some of it is carried further down to deeper layers of the soil where it can be held for hundreds of years.

Depending on what is grown in the soil and how the soil is managed, it can store large amounts of Carbon or it can release large amounts of Greenhouse gases. It is the landholder who decides what the soils contribute to Climate Change.

Perennial grasses manufacture soil carbon through the impact of their rootmass on the microbial communities in the soil.

Soil Carbon Dynamics

Few people can imagine the world that exists beneath the surface of the soil.  There are communities of bacterial, fungi, insects, and other microbial life forms. There are highways and byways and millions of kilometers of root fibre beneath every hectare of plants. The drama of this community is best seen in the celebration of life that takes place when the roots of perennial grasses respond to grazing.  When a plant’s foliage is grazed or harvested, the roots die back, leaving the rotting remains of roots to provide food for the microbial community. A party ensues. Then – if the plant is given time to recover from the graze – the roots stretch out their piercing fingers and push new pathways down into the deep levels of the soil. They aerate the soil and make it better  able to hold water. They interact with the old rootmass and stimulate a feeding and breeding frenzy among fungi and other microbes. This complex community celebration creates soil carbon.

Soil’s Capacity As A Sink

Soil is the largest carbon “sink” over which we have control: “Soil organic carbon is the largest reservoir in interaction with the atmosphere.,” says the FAO (United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation). Vegetation holds 650 gigatonnes,  the Atmosphere 750 gigatonnes, and Soil holds 1500 gigatonnes. Only the ocean holds more: 36,000 gigatonnes.

Carbon Farming Basics

Carbon Farming is not a new practice. It is a new way to describe a collection of techniques that can increase soil organic carbon in agricultural land. There are many benefits linked to increases in soil carbon:

•    Higher fertility
•    More secure soil structure
•    Better usage of  water
•    Reduced  evaporation
•    Reduced hard panning
•    Reduced salt scarring
•    Reduced top soil erosion
•    Reduced silting on waterways
•    Higher species diversity
•    Higher ecological resilience

Increased soil carbon also has the effect of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. It has been estimated by soil carbon specialists that close to 200 tonnes of CO2 can be absorbed in a single hectare with only a 1% increase in soil carbon in the top 30cm.  An increase of 2 per cent would double the amount of CO2 absorbed. These levels of increase in soil carbon are achievable, and have already been achieved, by landholders practicing regenerative cropping and grazing practices.

What is Carbon Trading?

Carbon trading is the system adopted by the nations of the world to bring down emissions of greenhouse gases and remove existing emissions from the atmosphere. There are two markets for trading “carbon offsets” – the Mandatory or Compliance Market and the Voluntary Market.

The Mandatory Market was created when the United Nations negotiated targets for emissions reductions with each country under the Kyoto Protocols.  The nations then issued targets for industries and companies. Australian companies became liable for their emissions under this system when the new Commonwealth Government ratified the Protocols.

Companies in industries covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme will map their carbon footprint by measuring their emissions. They will then find all the ways they can reduce their emissions. Those that cannot reduce their emissions to meet their target (or “cap”) must purchase “offsets” or “permits” from organizations that have been able to sequester (or remove and store) CO2.  The Voluntary Market is not linked to our obligations under Kyoto. Companies and individuals who want to help with the global effort to mitigate (or reduce the effects of) Climate Change can purchase “offsets”.

Unlike the credits purchased under the mandatory system, these voluntary credits can not be used to meet a company’s  Kyoto target and cannot be traded on the open market for “abatement” of  a company’s carbon pollution reduction responsibilities.

Companies use their voluntary purchases for many reasons, including: guaranteeing a stable society for future profits;  impressing their clients and customers;  learning about the market.

Buying and selling offsets or credits is called carbon trading.

What is a “Carbon Farmer”?

Farmers can sequester carbon in soil by carbon farming. Carbon farmers are all different in most things: some grow crops, some grow grass for animals to eat, some do both, some grow trees, some are organic,  some are not.

But to be called a carbon farmer they have to manage their land to grow healthy soil. Soil health is the key to better crops and better pasture. It is the key to better usage of water. It is the key to stopping salination of soils. It also promotes biodiversity – the return of species of native grasses, flowers and shrubs, insects, birds, and small mammals like marsupial mice and bettongs – because the food chain starts down in the soil.

A Carbon Farmer believes that the biological activity in the soils is the engine room of growth. A Carbon Farm will have more wildlife and more native vegetation than a conventional farm.

Can I sell my Soil Carbon?

There is no recognised or regulated  market for Australian soil carbon credits yet. After a three-year campaign by the Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming to have soil carbon recognised and traded, the Australian Government is currently (June 2009) of the opinion that the science of measurement of on-farm GHG is not adequate for the inclusion of Agriculture in its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme when it starts n 2011.

Instead, the World will have to wait three years while more research is done.

Carbon Farmers of Australia

The Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming was formed in February 2006 to ensure Australian farmers and graziers gain maximum benefit from trading in soil carbon credits. The Convenors of the Carbon Coalition have formed a trading arm called Carbon Farmers™ of Australia to give landholders access to markets for the carbon they are sequestering.

Australian Farm Soil Credits will be offered on the voluntary carbon market once our Australian Soil Carbon Voluntary Market Standard is approved. Bundled into the Australian Farm Soil Credits is a contribution to the outreach activities of the Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming which promotes carbon farming practices and campaigns for the Australian farmers’ right to trade the soil carbon  they grow.

Carbon Coalition

The Convenors of the Coalition have been regular speakers at gatherings of farmers and graziers across Australia. They led a fact-finding delegation to the USA on behalf of Australian farmers in 2006. While there they negotiated the first order for soil carbon credits from the Chicago Climate Exchange.

They attended workshops, briefing sessions and meetings with members of three of President George W. Bush’s seven “regional partnerships” of states. They carried the flame to New Zealand and saw the NZ Government call a tender for the design of a voluntary market in soil carbon.

They discovered the gaps in the data sets used for the Australian National Carbon Accounting System, upon which the belief that Australian soils cannot sequester carbon was based. They initiated a series of ‘soil science summits’ between scientists and farmers, that culminated in the world’s first Carbon Farming Expo & Conference in 2007.

They have appeared as expert witnesses before the NSW Premier’s Greenhouse Advisory Panel, the NSW Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources & Climate Change, and the NSW Dept of Primary Industries Climate Risk Management Project. They have also been consulted by the several political parties on climate change policy.

They succeeded in getting soil carbon on the Election Platform of the ALP for the 2007 Federal Election. When the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced an inquiry into soil carbon on 4 March, 2008, Matthew Cawood, the Science and Environment editor with Rural Press, wrote: “This issue would be virtually invisible if it hadn’t been for your efforts. You barnstormed this issue into national politics. That’s as good as it gets.”

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