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The Soil Carbon Sins of Mark Dreyfus

Former Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change Mark Dreyfus revealed a startling lack of knowledge of the soil carbon issue in his last interview broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing on Sunday 25 February.

Mr Dreyfus questions whether soil carbon trading will ever become part of the carbon farming scheme because of problems with measuring carbon in the soil: “The fact that one line of projects, one type of projects, proves to be not sufficiently able to be tested, not able to be measured, might mean that that can't be pursued.” But the scientific research report he was relying on – the Soil Carbon Research Program (SCaRP) – specifically ruled out measurement as an issue, under the heading “The scientific Issues beyond the scope of SCaRP”. CSIRO’s chief soil carbon scientist Dr Jeff Baldock’s first slide states clearly: “• The sampling methodology used in SCaRP was not appropriate to: • quantify soil carbon stocks in a paddock • quantify rates or amounts of carbon sequestration in Australian soils”.

Mr Dreyfus seemed to be unaware of the two recent breakthroughs in soil carbon measurement: the scanning technology from CarbonLink and the CSIRO and the NSW Department of Primary Industries publication of a paper called “Soil testing protocols at the paddock scale for contracts and audits: Market-based instrument for soil carbon”. Both bring simple, low cost measurement dramatically closer.

Mr Dreyfus also seemed unaware of vital detail of his portfolio when he said large amounts of money were already flowing into the pockets of farmers from the CFI when in fact no farmers have seen a single cent. The money has gone to landfill gas projects. Yet the minister presents himself as the farmer’s friend: “'The Clean Energy Regulator has issued 350,000 Kyoto Australian carbon credit units and assuming a price of $22.50 for a unit, which is one of the reported trades, that represents a benefit to Australian farmers and landholders of more than $7.8 million,' he said.

Is Mr Dreyfus’s rush to abandon soil carbon political? 'Scientifically it hasn't been proved up yet to be producing the very substantial reductions that had been hoped for it.” Carbon Farmers of Australia’s Michael Kiely has an answer for this: “They were looking at the wrong thing. It was like trying to study how fast human beings can run by leaving the fastest runners out of the study,” he said. The CSIRO’s Jeff Baldock’s report points in this direction:
In his presentation of the results of the Soil Carbon Research Program, Jeff Baldock pre-empted the shift in the paradigm: that it is not the management practice were must study to understand its potential, but the particular farmers in whose hands the practice can produce the results led Professor Ross Garnaut  to estimate that soil carbon could account for 40% of Australia’s emissions.

Baldock: "We need to catch and analyse samples that do not fit current calibrations" This refers to the way skilled carbon farmers cannot fit the models which have been built using conventional farming data. Sometimes when a sample measures off the scale it will be disregarded.

Baldock: "Sampling was not comprehensive • Some important regions, managements, soil types were not included • New management strategies have not been assessed"

This refers to the broad way management strategies are defined. "Management strategy" means farmer impact - the only soil carbon we can claim is that resulting from farmer impact. The 'strategies' included in the study were not the leading edge biological practices , nor we're hydrological innovations included. (Limited budget.)

"Many regions did not show a statistically significant effect of defined management practices on soil carbon stocks"
This means that the study was unable to detect any difference between farmer behaviour patterns. Jeff Baldock realised that it doesn't make sense and looked for reasons:

•"At least partially due to variability that existed within management classes"
Here he identifies the existence of high performance carbon farmers. Farmers don't perform uniformly within a management class - some very poorly, many are average, and some a very good. When you average them the result tells you nothing about the potential of the class. There is no allowance for skills, time spent learning the technique, incentive of carbon offsets, etc.

Baldock: • "Are we doing the right thing by binning up on broad management classes –
should we be considering alternative metrics?"

"Binning up" is lumping together.  It appears that "Broad management  classes" has not revealed any new knowledge. "Alternative metrics" means new ways to slice the data. Skilled carbon farmers.

The lack of urgency about soil carbon offset trading methodologies.

After $20 million Soil Carbon Research Program, are we any closer to having a system that rewards farmers for protecting and enriching our greatest natural resource, our soils?

When will we see the results of this Program?

Why is it that 3 years and $25m later we still don’t have an agreed protocol for measuring soil carbon?

Who are the members of the Department’s  Soil Carbon Working Group?
How often has it met since it was established?
Why does it work behind closed doors?
Why has the pursuit of a methodology for soil carbon sequestration been put on the backburner?

A trading system requires more than just science. Does the Soil Carbon Working Group contain other disciplines such as actuaries, marketing, commodities trading, etc.

Research  invariably finds that farmers have little effect on rates and degrees of soil carbon sequestration. But only a small minority of farmers are skilled carbon farmers and fewer still have  long experience and  only a precious handful have data that indicates their success? Is it  these we should  be studying? Will successful carbon farmers be studied?

Could the same gap in the science outlined above have led to the conclusion that Australian soils have limited potential  for increasing soil carbon levels and those that do soon lose the carbon captured,