Soil Carbon in the Australian Political Debate (Part 2 of 2)


In the first half of this post, I discussed the means by which CO2 can be sequestered in agricultural soils while allowing continued productive agricultural land use. We looked at various estimates of the cost of this technology, for both Kyoto-compliant and voluntary offset markets. Key features of Kyoto-compliant offsets are the guarantee of permanence (defined as 100 years) and the testing and verification that permanence requires.

It was accepted that voluntary offsets, reflecting mostly the cost of getting CO2 into the ground, might be created for as little as $15 per tonne. It was argued, however, that Kyoto-compliant offsets would require an additional stewardship payment to guarantee permanence, which I estimated at $20 per tonne.

In Australia, both sides of politics have recognised the potential for soil carbon to a role in reducing overall carbon emissions, but it is the Opposition who imagines soil carbon is some kind of panacea. I will now examine their policy in detail.

Implications for the Federal Opposition

In Australia, this costing carries serious implications for the federal Opposition, which has placed itself in a vulnerable position, relying heavily on soil carbon for 60% of abatement purchased though its Emissions Reduction Fund. If this cost is significantly underestimated, the Opposition will not be able to meet their commitment on emissions reduction.

Their Direct Action Plan gives an indicative cost of $8 to $10 per tonne of CO2 for soil carbon, and budgets on an average maximum of $15 per tonne of CO2 for all purchased abatement. These figures are based on advice provided to them by a number of small companies seeking to promote the technology, but none of these companies can yet satisfactorily answer is how they can guarantee the stored carbon will be locked up for the required 100 years. Carbon Coalition, a company cited by the Opposition when they first released their policy, now says that the price paid to farmers would need to "start at $25 and head north". [i]

Another company that the Opposition quotes to back its costing is Prime Carbon. The methodology they have created makes a useful contribution to the development of a soil carbon industry. However, it is important to realize that the offsets they create are strictly for the voluntary market. As a risk management strategy, only half the increase in soil carbon will ever be sold as offsets, but there is no absolute guarantee the offsets will be permanent. While the company aims to restore soil carbon to a state of natural equilibrium which they hope will be lasting, their payments to farmers only cover 5 years. After that there is no financial or legal incentive for farmers to continue with the changed land use practices.

Some case studies do indeed suggest that $15 per tonne might cover the cost of the initial sequestration, but in limiting its proposed expenditure to this figure, the Opposition is locking itself in to only purchasing offsets on the voluntary market. It has not yet factored in the stewardship payment that would guarantee permanence. As we shall see later, there are many in the Opposition who do not believe the scientific consensus on climate change. There is not much point in paying for permanence if you are hoping the problem will go away.

If through failing to properly address the issue of permanence, the Opposition has underestimated the cost of soil carbon by $20 per tonne, then sequestering 85 million tonnes per year by 2020 will cost an extra 1.7 billion dollars per year. This will more than double the outlay under the Opposition’s scheme, and negate its claimed cost advantage over the Government’s plan.

Soil carbon is covered by article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol, an article which Australia has not signed up to because it would require us to account for soil carbon loss due to drought and bushfires. Unless Australia joins Portugal in signing article 3.4, soil carbon offsets achieved under the Opposition’s plan would not count towards meeting Australia’s commitments under the Copenhagen Accord. If we want to realize the potential of carbon sequestration in soils, and if we are serious about combating climate change, we need to address the debit side of the soil carbon ledger. Therefore, I believe Australia should consider adopting article 3.4 in the context of a carbon price high enough to produce a net reduction in emissions from Australian soils.

Another grave problem with the Opposition’s plan is that it overestimates the potential abatement of soil carbon. According to the peer-reviewed science [ii], the potential sequestration in agricultural soils is between 0.5 and 1 tonne of CO2 per hectare per year. Even if we take the higher figure, the Opposition’s plan would require 85 million hectares, or 850,000 square kilometers (km). This is a square 922 km x 922 km, a very substantial parcel of land indeed!

Any plan to mitigate CO2 emissions that relies heavily on soil carbon is risky. While land use change has the potential to make a contribution in an overall strategy to combat climate change, the heavy lifting will only be done by a switch to clean sources of energy.

Doubts about the Opposition’s Commitment

Even more disturbing than the apparent flaws in their Direct Action Plan is the rhetoric used by the Opposition in opposing the climate change policy of the Government and in casting doubt on the science. They have railed against the Government for putting a price on carbon, even though their own plan puts a price on carbon by a different means. They have constantly argued that whatever action Australia takes will make little difference given that Australia’s emissions form less than 2% of the global total. They ignore the fact that Australia is the highest per capita emitter in the OECD, and that the UK, which also generates less than 2% of the global total, has committed itself to halving emissions by 2025! They maintain Australia’s efforts should be limited until China and India commit to absolute reductions, ignoring the fact our per-capita emissions exceed those of China by a factor of 5 and India by a factor of 16 [iii]. They also ignore the fact that Australia is among the developed nations that are largely responsible for historical emissions.

High profile members of the Opposition, including the leader, constantly question the scientific consensus, preferring instead the nonsense peddled by Plimer, Carter, Monckton, and the conservative think tank Heartland Institute. Some high profiles members deny AGM outright, while the leader, Tony Abbott, has expressed his own skepticism in these words:

I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change. [...] I mean, I just think that the science is highly contentious, to say the least.[iv]

At Skeptial Science, we have previously examined Abbott's climate myths. He constantly refers to “so-called carbon pollution”.  He has also insisted that his already inadequate budget for climate change action will not be increased [v]. This means of course that the Opposition, should they form Government, will not be able to meet the 2020 bipartisan emissions reduction target which is 5% below 2000 levels, or 23% below business-as-usual.

Not only does Abbott cast doubt on the science, he also thinks he knows more than the economists. Conceding at a recent conference that most economists think a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme the best way to go, all he could say was ''maybe that's a comment on the quality of our economists" [vi].

And it Gets Worse ...

In recent weeks the Opposition's rhetoric has become surreal. Abbot has described the Government's 2020 target as "crazy" [vii], apparently forgetting that he had commited the Opposition to the same target. Then, perhaps still believing that soil carbon is a magic solution, he reneged on his commitment to close Australia's dirtiest brown coal fired power station [viii]. Finally, in an astonishing act of insincerity, Abbot's shadow treasurer has suggested that if the Opposition win the next election, they may abolish the Department of Climate Change! [ix]

Responsible Government requires keeping in step with the science and international efforts to tackle climate change. It involves taking the bold reforms that will be necessary to de-carbonise our economy. It means being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In this respect, the Opposition is demonstrating that it cannot be trusted with our future. The House of Representatives is finely balanced, with the minority Government having an agreement with independents that only just gives it the numbers. Hopefully, the Opposition's flawed plan will never be realised, at least in its current form.

Soil Carbon in the Federal Government’s Plan

There are also implications for the Australian Government, which is moving to legislate an emissions trading scheme (ETS), starting with fixed price permits (effectively a carbon tax) for the first few years. The fixed price will start at $23 per tonne in 2012, while the floating price in 2015 is expected to be about $29 per tonne. Because a national carbon market will need offsets from farming activities, over time the floating price will adjust to give farmers the incentive they require. Part of the Government’s package is the Carbon Farming Initiative, which funds 250 million dollars in agricultural offsets, including soil carbon, which for the above reason, are not yet Kyoto compliant. Although these offsets will be part of a voluntary market, they will be able to be purchased by Australian companies to meet their obligations of under the proposed carbon pricing mechanism. This gives farmers full market value for their carbon credits from 2015, and will be moving down a path that should provide them with a significant income stream. As emissions reduction targets tighten, and demand for offsets increases, this income will rise. There will be adequate incentive for farmers to guarantee permanence, and Kyoto compliance and international trading will be closer to becoming reality.


Soil carbon will ultimately play an important part in Australia and the world’s efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, though the timeframe at this point is uncertain. What is clear is that for both renewable sources of energy and agricultural sequestration of carbon to be encouraged, a robust broad-based price on CO2 emissions will be necessary. The Opposition needs to stop looking for “magic bullets”, but instead provide industry with the incentive it needs to become more energy efficient.

Lest there be any accusations of political bias, we affirm that Skeptical Science is not in the business of promoting one philosophy or ideology over another. In fact, while taking the conservative parties in Australia to task for their lack of commitment to tackling climate change, we applaud the conservative Government of the UK, led by David Cameron, for its leadership on the issue. We also applaud the conservative Government of the New Zealand, led by John Key, for its support of an ETS which it successfully introduced last year.

In Australia, the potential annual carbon offsets via agricultural activities are still much less than current industrial emissions. Sequestering of CO2 should not be seen as an alternative to reducing industrial emissions, but as supplementary. Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require us to make use of every available tool.

The planet is already well on its way to a future environment less hospitable to mankind. Australia, as the OECD’s highest per-capita emitter, must at least make a proportionate effort towards realizing the global goal of stabilizing, and then reducing, total emissions. I believe that carbon farming, including soil carbon, has a bright future, but it requires a realistic carbon price, and at the moment, only the Government’s proposals are offering that.


[i] The Age of 3 March 2011, Experts doubt coalition carbon plan
[ii] R. Lai, Soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, published in Geoderma, Volume 123, Issues 1-2, November 2004, Pages 1-22
[iii] Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, Version 8.0, World Resources Institute, 2010
[iv] Interview on ABC Television 7.30 Report of 27 July 2009
[v] ABC Television - The Drum Opinion of 21 July 2011, A close look at Abbott's Direct Action plan
[vi] The Age of 2 July 2011, Carbon price: Abbott at odds with economists
[vii] Sydney Morning Herlad of 19 July 2011, Abbott pans own "crazy" pollution target
[viii] Sydney Morning Herlad of 21 July 2011, Coalition U-turn on coal power station closures
[ix] Th Age of 4 August 2011, We'll axe Climate Change Department: Hockey

Posted by alan_marshall on Thursday, 18 August, 2011

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.