SEVEN years after the first soil carbon project was developed under Australia’s carbon trading framework, only one has been awarded credits – leaving some to ask, where are the rest of them?
Soil carbon sequestration has been heavily backed by the incumbent Federal Government, with energy minister Angus Taylor announcing a $54 million package to support baseline testing on farms and a $50 million package into research and development.
The agricultural industry seems to be taking the message with more than half of the almost 300 projects registered under Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund signing up since the start of last year – 60 have those projects have started this year. The government is hoping that increases to 5000 by 2025.
But the early-adopters of soil carbon farming started seven-years-ago, with 15 projects starting in 2015 and only one project from Victoria has received credits.
Something is wrong here
Professor Richard Eckard from the University of Melbourne said when soil carbon methods were first being developed, concerns were raised about their ability to deliver.
“You had politicians being convinced by a non-scientific audience that soil carbon can save the day,” Professor Eckard said.
“Meantime, they had the science community saying ‘it’s almost impossible to measure the difference within five years’.”
Professor Eckard described the original carbon method as a “policy master-stroke,” where the government could push the responsibility onto farmers.
“Policy makers were squeezed between enthusiastic politicians and scientists who were saying ‘it’s really hard’ and the best way get out of jail was to come up with a policy that doesn’t obligate government,” he said.
“The farmer has to spend the $200 a hectare on day one and again five years later to see if they qualify for carbon credits. Then you see only one farm has generated carbon credits, so something is wrong here.”
Professor Eckard recently told Beef Central the soil carbon methods were some of the highest integrity. But he said there was issues with the regulation underpinning it.
“There’s a lot of corporates who are involved in this and a lot of them are doing the right thing. But there’s nothing stopping them from making false promises to farmers,” he said.
High hopes for soil carbon
The soil carbon industry has developed a lot since the first method used by producers in 2015 – with two updated methods aiming to make it more user friendly and to attract more landholders to the scheme.
Simply put, they all landholders to take a baseline measurement of soil carbon, then change management practices like switching to cell grazing and take another measurement in five years to see if there has been an increase in soil carbon – for every extra tonne of CO2 an Australian Carbon Credit Unit is awarded.
“There is great opportunity to ensure win-win outcomes for farm productivity and emissions reduction is soil carbon,” Minister Taylor told a recent Carbon Market Institute webinar.
“That’s why I’ve been so relentlessly focused on addressing the costs of measurement. Mainstreaming activities that’ll increase soil carbon will undoubtedly be good for Australian agriculture.”
Projects due to report, Clean Energy Regulator
In response, the a spokesperson from the Clean Energy Regulator said registered projects had the option of delaying some of their reporting.
“Under the ERF soil carbon methods, participants can report to earn carbon credits between every 1 to 5 years after the project start date,” the spokesperson said.
“Project proponents can apply to defer their start date by up to 18 months and have 6 months to submit their report from the end of the reporting period. This means that only projects registered before 21 April 2015 are now due to report.
“The Clean Energy Regulator has up to 90 days to assess crediting applications before credits are issued and reflected in the project register.”
“The CER works actively with potential and actual soil project proponents to assist them to understand the requirements of the method. There are simple method guides as well as other guidance on the CER website.”
Soil organic carbon (SOC) is very difficult to measure over extensive paddocks common to most Carbon Estimation Areas (CEAs) – especially in the semi-arid woodlands/shrub-lands of western NSW, SW Qld and the drier southern half of WA. This is because the SOC is not uniformly distributed, either horizontally or vertically in these soil profiles. Yet any changes in SOC content must be measured (sampled) with sufficient accuracy and precision, on at least two separate sampling occasions, to support claims that over the monitoring period the changes (fluxes) were real and not merely a consequence of the methodology employed. For example, in these systems the error in measurement (uncertainty) is commonly greater than the actual SOC flux that might be claimed. This is not to say that it is not possible to measure such changes with acceptable accuracy and precision. However this is not practical/economic to do at scale; and especially by relying on ground based sampling in such extensive and highly variable environments.
Monitoring SOC changes over time using computer models (e.g. FullCAM) does not escape similar challenges. This is because all model outputs need to be validated by the same ground based methodologies critiqued above. In other words one would still need to check that any model output matches actual field measurements. If the latter does not apply than the model would be unfit for purpose.
I have a more serious criticism of the various methodologies promoted by the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) for abatement calculations via Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs). This is that as far as I can see most ERF Methodologies used to estimate ACCUs are only based on partial carbon budgets for each nominated CEA. This means that, apart from the sampling problems listed above, there could be significant errors in the ACCUs that might be claimed because important carbon pools and flux pathways are not being evaluated in the methodology e.g. spill-overs, leakage, deep drainage, losses in rainfall run-off and erosion, decay of litter and coarse woody debris, respiration losses from microorganisms and termite activity etc. Ignoring some or all of these pathways in biological systems can only result in inaccurate ‘carbon accounting’. Analogous to a Company judging its profits solely on sales while ignoring operating costs; or estimating Brisbane’s total population by only counting the people living on the south side of the Brisbane R.
None of this is to say that I believe that all rural landholders should not be managing their holdings to optimise SOC in their soils. It’s really a no brainer for enhancing soil health and productivity. But claiming carbon credits on only partially measured pools and fluxes on any particular land parcel is misleading at best. Yet I hasten to add that this is not the fault of the individual landholder, who has simply accepted (at face value) advice from bureaucrats and politicians (via Labor’s CFI and the LNP’s Direct Action Plan) that getting ERF projects approved for their rural holding will enhance income diversity. I hope this is true – but who audits the auditors?