What do we now know about soil carbon?

Eric Barker, 29/06/2023

IN LIGHT of last week’s large-scale issuance of soil carbon credits to two Queensland producers, it is worth looking at how much is known about the relationship between soil, carbon, agricultural management and the weather.

Soil carbon has become an incredibly popular field of study in recent years, with the industry tipping in million-of-dollars to better understand it and more than 470 soil carbon projects signed up to Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund.

It is little wonder that last week’s issuance of more than 151,000 Australian Carbon Credit Units to two projects facilitated by Carbon Link drew plenty of commentary from people in the agricultural industry and scientific communities. Carbon Link and the industry’s biggest operator Agriprove are expecting to earn more soil carbon credits soon.

Some applauded the regulator for finally rewarding the early adopters who were prepared to take a risk and others said more research was needed before soil carbon farming was considered an industry on its own.

While there is plenty of excitement about the potential of soil carbon, one of its skeptics is well-known agricultural scientist Richard Eckard who shared some of his concerns on Twitter last week.

“Should ACCUs be issued for what could be just 3 years good rainfall?” he said.

Dr Eckard has made the point about rainfall before and raised concerns about the possibility of producers needing to buy credits if their soil loses carbon – more on how this works soon.

Beef Central asked some other soil scientists about Dr Eckard’s Tweet, who did not want to comment on the Carbon Link projects without more information.

However, one said it was likely that many properties increased in soil carbon after the last three wet years and reiterated the concern that factors outside the control of producers could send soil carbon backwards.

Safeguards in place for soil carbon

While the soil carbon projects have been able to yield credits in five years, they are subject to regular infield soil re-testing and compliance audits for 25 years – where they will need to prove the carbon is still in the soil. There is also an opportunity for them to earn more credits in this period.

The Australian soil carbon methodology has a lot of safeguards against a reversal in carbon, it takes a 25 percent deduction before issuing credits.  

After the first five year period, there is an independent audit. As part of the audit process, project holders have to prove they have changed their management practices to build soil carbon in keeping with the ‘Land Management Strategy’ submitted by the landowner to the Clean Energy Regulator at the start of the project.

Carbon Link and its founder Terry McCosker have for a long time insisted that management is a significant determinant of soil carbon sequestration, along with weather and soil type.  

The company says it measures the amount of soil carbon down 1.2m, as opposed to 30cm, and 44pc of the carbon increase that was awarded ACCUs was measured at depth.

Soil carbon issuance important to the industry

Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Jason Strong said he supported having a market for soil carbon and the credit issuance was a testament to the producers involved, Carbon Link and RCS grazing.

Jason Strong

“The beauty of activities like this is that they demonstrate a direct link between improved environmental and business outcomes,” Mr Strong said.

“MLA supports the expansion of market opportunities that deliver benefit back to the farm business and the environment.”

Mr Strong said it was important to recognise the limitations of soil carbon and different capacities of different landscapes.

“MLA recognizes that soil carbon is product of many external variables, such as rainfall, natural limitations of soil type and prior land use,” he said.

“Landholders will have differing capacities to alter and, importantly, maintain soil carbon levels through management practices.”

Asked what role soil carbon will play in industry’s target to become carbon neutral by 2030, Mr Strong said it was one of the focus points.

“We will continue to invest in R&D in the carbon storage space, with sequestration in agricultural soils being one of the focus points of the (CN30) roadmap,” he said,

“The CN30 goal is about working on a range of initiatives together to reach the CN30 target. The industry has already made significant progress since CN30 was announced in 2017, reducing emissions by 65 percent since the baseline year of 2005.”

  • Beef Central understands more research into soil carbon is coming
















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