Soil carbon and direct (in)action

Last week on the 7.30 Report we were treated to a debate between Mark Butler, the climate change minister and his Opposition counterpart, Greg Hunt, that just did not work. Leigh Sales tried a hard-edged questioning style, but unfortunately did not come close to being familiar with the topic. So large parts of the LNP agenda were unaddressed, such as their dismantling of the institutional framework of the the Climate Commission, the Climate Change Authority, the incorporation of the Climate Department into the broader environment department and the dismantling of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

One issue canvassed was the sequestration of carbon in soil, which comprises a large part of the LNP’s mitigation strategy.

Mark Butler said the cost of such abatement was higher than previously thought, the potential for sequestration less and given the problems and uncertainties there “may be some opportunity to abate carbon pollution through soil carbon initiatives in the future, but it is grossly irresponsible to make it the centrepiece of a nationwide carbon pollution policy.”

Hunt dismissed those concerns, quoting the CSIRO but when he was pressed on whether he was talking about just soil carbon he said he meant the full range of green carbon initiatives – mallee and mulga revegetation, reforestation, avoided deforestation, soil carbon.

A recent article in Nature (paywalled) came to the conclusion that:

considering carbon storage on land as a means to ‘offset’ CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels (an idea with wide currency) is scientifically flawed. The capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to store carbon is finite and the current sequestration potential primarily reflects depletion due to past land use. Avoiding emissions from land carbon stocks and refilling depleted stocks reduces atmospheric CO2 concentration, but the maximum amount of this reduction is equivalent to only a small fraction of potential fossil fuel emissions.

That article was by Brendan Mackey and six other scientists from Australia and the UK, including Climate Commissioner Prof. Will Steffen. David Spratt at Climate Code Red has more and links to reports on work done by the CSIRO plus evidence given by Climate Change Department officials to a Senate estimates hearing.

Spratt points out that soil carbon sequestration seems to be front and centre in the LNP’s plans which otherwise lack credible policies for deep cuts in new emissions. So too in Abbott’s mind is the 15,000 strong green army, whhich, mercifully, Hunt didn’t mention.

Spratt’s post has a link at the end to one by Alex White, a member of The Wilderness Society (Victoria) committee of management, and a director of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Tony Abbott’s climate policy is a deniers’ figleaf:

Abbott’s direct inaction policy would condemn Australia to even worse heatwaves, extreme floods and bushfires

Tony Abbott is the alternative prime minister of Australia, and later this year he will face an election presenting a climate change policy that is frankly insulting and potentially dangerous.

The post, originally published in The Guardian, links to an opinion piece of 7 December, 2009 by back bencher Malcolm Turnbull Abbott’s climate change policy is bullshit which describes the direct action policy as “a farce” and

“…the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change.”

Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are now without integrity. We have given our opponents the irrefutable, undeniable evidence that we cannot be trusted.

Needless to say this piece is now missing from Turnbull’s website.

There’s more, quite a lot more, at Climate Citizen on soil carbon, and, sadly, a piece on Rudd’s axing of the $1 billion Biodiversity Fund in the carbon pricing shake-up, which in the maelstrom of those days unfortunately I missed:

This relegates Australia’s funding of biodiversity programs to the same level as many third world countries like the Congo and Iraq. Well done Prime Minister. A real race to the bottom on conservation.

If the bottom is where Rudd is headed, and I don’t think it is, then it has long been occupied by this man:

Australia's opposition leader Tony Abbott Photograph Stefan Postles/Getty Images from The Guardian

44 thoughts on “Soil carbon and direct (in)action”

  1. Suggest that staff and funding cuts at the ABC over the years leaves little time to prepare well for such an important discussion …. add to that the commercial stations’ 5-second thought-bubbles and their catering to the lowest common denominator …. and so we have a new low standard of discussion in the infotainment media.

  2. GB, I don’t particularly blame Leigh Sales on this one, but the net result is that a policy which is a joke and would be taken internationally for what it is – avoiding any effective action – looks to the voters as more credible than it deserves to be.

    It’s Rudd’s fault, as mentioned elsewhere, for not nailing Abbott on this one, but then I don’t think he understands the detail and range of Labor’s policy and isn’t across the issue in depth. Ironically in the parliament Turnbull and Hunt probably understand it best on a personal level, apart from Milne and some of the Greens.

  3. Avoiding emissions from land carbon stocks and refilling depleted stocks reduces atmospheric CO2 concentration, but the maximum amount of this reduction is equivalent to only a small fraction of potential fossil fuel emissions.

    Do they give a ballpark figure for how much CO2 could be stored using soil carbon techniques in Australia? eg is it small compared to world emissions or small compared to Australia’s emissions?

  4. Chris, from memory it’s less than Australia’s annual emissions. Takvera has a couple of blog posts with lots of links

    Looks as though taking up all of Australia’s annual emissions using the most optimistic numbers from the CSIRO would take about 75 million hectares (that’s 2 tonnes/hectare/year) but that assumes that all land clearing and soil degradation is either excluded or stopped. If they count loss of soil carbon (which they must for this to work) then every farm, not just the carbon farmers, will need to measure soil carbon changes.

    But the Liberals are talking about making land clearing easier, not adding paperwork and permits (presumably to clear land you’d need to plant offset forests). See the comment above about “avoided deforestation”… tricky to do when the Liberals want to devolve responsibility for that to the states. Or perhaps a really handy lever the states can use to get more money out of the federal government, by being paid every year not to chop down the same trees 🙂

    We’re not going to talk about the $35-$86/tonne that this will cost. Or the short to reidiculously short timeframe that it will work for (it amounts to putting lost carbon back into the soil, so once that’s done you’re SOL).

  5. The problem is Rudd. He doesn’t care about the amount of deadly carbon in the atmosphere if it won’t push up his polling. At least Milne and Gillard seemed to get the urgency of the problem. As discussed in the other thread, all mining profits need to be confiscated now. There’s no other way,and if temperatures continue to climb like they have for the last decade, the problems will be impossible to handle.

    Rudd doesnt nail Abbott because he sniffs a polling point or two in it. He is worse than Abbott because he has flipped even more times. Remember it was Rudd who first dumped the ETS, and Rudd who is promising to scrap the carbon tax to save families a few measly dollars.

  6. Graham @1
    “Suggest that staff and funding cuts at the ABC over the years leaves little time to prepare well for such an important discussion”

    Except ABC funding has kept up with inflation for as far back as I bothered looking (1996). Approx 3% p.a

  7. Thanks for the post Brian and to moz for that link. As Abbott’s PM chances waxed, waned and waxed I have been increasingly curious of how this blood oath climate-madness will play out. Now there is a very good chance we will end up with an NLP government led by Tony Abbott. The question to ask now is with what majority will he win, because this could make for some very interesting possibilities in politics.

    There are three distinct possibilities, one where he will just make the mark, the inherited karma of a hung parliament, a stable majority or a landslide. I very much doubt that there would be an effective opposition after Sept 7, after having had my Queensland experience of majority voters sentiment. Therefor in a stable majority, with pragmatic heads prevailing in a future LNP cabinet, there will have to be a lot of broken promises. Alternatively in a landslide, it very likely will turnout that TONY13 will be doing a KEVIN10, respectively a TONY MMXVI. It is either that or we will experience a Abbott-led Liberal Government which could make the Whitlam period look like a time of political tranquillity.

  8. None of the major parties has a credible plan for meeting their already not very ambitious targets. What I really want to see are credible plans that set out:
    What emission reductions are required to meet their 2020 target?
    What they are proposing to do to meet this target?
    What action are they going to take over the next three years as part of this plan?
    At the moment neither party has anything like a credible plan.

  9. I am fighting inside to comment.There are other growth oppurtunities besides seeing feral CO2 the enemy.CO2 bricks as mentioned the other day.Algae fuel and CO2 fuel.Maybe charcoal doesn’t always be in the ground.Beneficial chewing on CO2 atmospheric bacterias dropping in for a spot of lunch from a man made remote control drone.That is multi functional once in the atmosphere.Don’t discount biochar and favourable atmospheric bacteria in combination as Aerosol types,both industrialied and part of enhancing bacteriorological processes.And always have a jar of molasses handy.It may set your mind off.Every year there is a burn off in our parts. Syngas component input fuels are but everything that is neither the science or those that wonder about democracy and science policy.

  10. Brian @ 2: No, no, not blaming Leigh Sales either.
    Duncanm @ 7: A bit like Aboriginal health or Austrade or Defence, I suppose; heaps of money poured in but how little got to the sharp end.
    John D @9: Agree!

    Look. Why don’t we tell the rest of the world to take a running jump …. and go it alone …. I’m fed up with all the convoluted excuses for doing nothing unless the rich-and-selfish can enrich themselves even more grossly with carbon trading rackets and sequestration swindles. I’m also fed up with the fairystory that we can’t do anything without international agreement.

    Let’s warn the pampered business community in Australia: start a massive reduction in your greenhouse-gas emissions and atmospheric pollution by 1200 AEST, Monday, 2nd September, 2013, OR we will close down your operations, seize your assets and put you in mandatory detention without trial (along with your SCs). Dictatorial? Of course. But aren’t these the very same people who turned Australia into a “banana republic” to suit their own greedy schemes? It would be poetic justice if their own style of doing business came back and bit them.

    Cost? To hell with all the whinges and grizzles about “cost”! The cost of failing to take resolute action will turn our whole world into a deathtrap where no amount of money will keep anyone alive. That’s the real cost.

  11. duncanm @ 11:
    Alright, Defence has had real cuts …. but that should have been an incentive to get more bang for the buck – and to be more frugal and innovative rather than to blow their dough like drunken sailors.

    Funny thing, the ADF has shown itself to be more aware of the need to be careful with the environment and more ready to adapt to adverse climate change than have most other government or corporate organizations.

  12. I gather from Rudd that he felt he had to ‘correct’ the carbon tax error of his predecessor because Labor had no mandate for the action taken. He very noticeably does not refer to climate change action when praising Gillard’s policy legacy.

    He could have admitted verbally that it was an error if he wanted to, but said, it’s done now and done for the better. He paid too high a price in dollars and made himself look weak on climate change.

    Pwilson @ 6, Rudd is nowhere near Abbott in the number of times he has flipped. I think it was something like 8 times back in 2009, to become the self-described weathervane.

  13. @graham: why warn the community of fatcats and foreign mining companies? Rudd still is in power for a other 10 days. Use some emergency powers to confiscate mining property now. It would make Murdoch livid with rage but at least Rudd could show he has some backbone on climate change, which he once declared to be the moral challenge it is. Either he is serious about saving the very planet we are on, or he is kowtowing to the opinions of the brainwashed masses who don’t understand the peril they place themselves in every time they sit in front of their energy guzzling plasma TVs.

    Like others here, I’m fed up with waiting while things get worse every day. It’s time to bust open the old ways of doing things and take real action – which probably means arrests and property seizure. Better a little instability now before the next ten years of climate degradation takes hold like the last ten.

  14. pwilson @ 16: Although some departments of mining, manufacturing and energy corporations have behaved responsibly, overall, these corporations have been allowed off the leash for far too long and in that time have mauled all-and-sundry.

    The myth that they are to source of everyone’s prosperity needs to be exposed and the public told why it is only a plausible myth.

    Suggest these firms be confiscated – as you said – and their decision makers be interrogated (without torture!) and then detained. As each firm or plant or mine is cleared for non-destructive activity, it can be returned to its rightful owners without monetary compensation and without recourse to the law courts. As each of its decision makers is “re-educated” and becomes sufficiently respectful of the rights of others, they can be released back into the community. Outright nationalization would be a waste of time, resources and opportunities; we can’t afford that.

    “Self-regulation” is an oxymoron. Legislation has been just what they ordered; enforcement a joke. These people have had ample opportunities to clean up their act and have only made things worse.

    Of course such a bold action would make Australia a pariah state – temporarily – and there would be the threat or the actual use of military force in a fairly standard “debt collecting” operation pretending to have some righteous intent; many countries have experienced that. However, by not nationalizing and by being seen by the rest of the world – bypassing Murdoch and his ilk to get the story out – that we really are returning firms and facilities to their rightful owners as swiftly as possible, we would win support throughout the world.

    If Australia got away with that it would inspire other governments to stand up for the best interests of their citizenry instead of protecting the crooks who are hell-bent on turning Planet Earth into Planet Venus Mark II or something equally horrific.

  15. Pwilson@16

    Use some emergency powers to confiscate mining property now.

    What emergency powers does the government have to do this?

    Then there is the small matter of s 51 (xxxi) of the Constitution which requires that the acquisition of property by the Commonwealth be on just terms, or do you propose that the prime minister disregard that?

  16. @gregm : what is parliament for if not to change the laws? If a referendum is needed, then so be it. We can’t just abandon the earth because Murdoch might run a scare campaign on behalf of his rich mates. Make it a double issue referendum with emergency climate powers and media regulation to fix both problems at once. Once Rudd has thrown the election by flip-flopping and hands it to Abbot and Murdoch on a platter, it will be too late.

  17. Graham @11

    Cost? To hell with all the whinges and grizzles about “cost”! The cost of failing to take resolute action will turn our whole world into a deathtrap where no amount of money will keep anyone alive. That’s the real cost.

    This is worth further analysis. It would seem just about every professional organisation has to adhere and be accountable to risk management practices and standards – that is now stock standard. Why do we have no checks here in this blind ideological debate and at the same time loose our eye on the ball – risks and opportunities! Hard to say if this is just the political parties or system’s fault. Isn’t there some responsibility on the voters or punters in the polls to keep their wits about? To what extend is there a sentiment within the Australian voters, of taking a gamble in this issue. I have commented on in JQ’s blog while ack, arguing that there is no definition and recognition of stakeholders within the human induced climate change risk assessment, resulting in a collective passin the buck. Classic Tragedy of the Commons stuff!

  18. Pwilson, with Parliament dissolved and with less than two weeks until the election it is too late for the Prime Minister to recall a Parliament that no longer exists in order to pass laws, including for a referendum, to give him the emergency powers on climate change and the regulation of the media that you think he should have. So it is already too late.

    Unless Rudd really surprises us with next Sunday’s ALP election launch by announcing that:
    1. He has cancelled the election.
    2. He has arrested the Opposition Leader and the rest of the Opposition
    3. He has seized control of all the radio and television stations and the presses around the country.
    4. He has arrested those media people who have been unkind to him in the past (nearly all of them at some time or another, with good reason).
    5. He will rule by decree until he has had the chance to select a Parliament composed to his liking.
    6. He has arrested the members of the High Court as a precaution against them ruling against his emergency rule as being utterly without legal foundation.

    Now really, that’s not going to happen, is it?

  19. Rudd has struck a blow for commonsense and the environment by proposing to move Sydney’s Naval base hundreds of kilometres north nearer totheir operational region for “operational reasons”, ie saving the huge amount of fuel required to move the ships to an unnecessarily southern base.

    A good “direct action” move, and well defended against the predictable moans from Coalition loudmouths both state and federal.

  20. GregM @21, careful! Someone in Rudd’s office might be reading this thread and you could give them ideas.

  21. GregM @ 18:

    or do you propose that the prime minister disregard that?

    Well …. yes.

    Just on a personal note: several years ago, I was one of a small number of Australian citizens on the receiving end of a blatant misuse of administrative and political power. When we objected, we were invited to assemble a gaggle of Queen’s Counsel and run a constitutional challenge over the next several years – on a pro bono basis, of course. Yeah, right. We were no Robinson Crusoes; similar things have happened to other individuals and small groups over the years. Those with money or influence or with access to those who possess either have no such trouble.

    Governments in Australia can – and do – twist, break and ignore their own laws, regulations, contract obligations whenever they think they can get away with it. So what is so magical about the Constitution that makes it completely immune to manipulation or breach?

    If a Prime Minister really wanted to break the Constitution it would be broken. Who would stop it? A tame judiciary? Docile journalists? Fearless fearful public servants? Certainly not demonstrators in the streets (riot control would be less inhibited than usual). So who …. and who would support it with enthusiasm?

  22. Paul @24. It seems that I have given Graham ideas.

    He has certainly revealed himself as no friend of constitutional government, the rule of law or democracy.

  23. A Prime Minister has no powers beyond the Parliament. That’s GregM’s point I think.

    Rudd could make all the decrees he wanted – even the insanity proposed above that the military (presumably) must seize all mining equipment and resources – and the nation could just shrug and say whatevs dude, take a chill pill.

  24. Graham, if memory serves me right, there was a certain Julia Gillard who wanted to move … forward, who gave it a decent go with something that did look half decent … and look how far she got, how the witch got ditched by all and sundry. It takes either a fool are a very brave person to lead this sorry excuse for a Nation.

  25. Re @21, PM Rudd would also need to place Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon under house arrest for the duration of the emergency.

    Mark Latham could be executed by firing squad. This may prove a popular move.

  26. Some of the comments on this thread seem a little nutty. How much carbon can you sequester by growing nuts?

  27. If Australia had any active volcanoes, we could perhaps induce Mark Latham to aroint himself via the crater of one in an effort to prove himself immortal a la Empedocles.

  28. Ootz @ 28: Indeed. I’ll go for a brave soul if you don’t mind …. but I don’t see too many on the horizon at the moment.

    GregM @ 26: Actually, I AM a friend of democracy, constitutional government and the rule of Law. However, we have precious little of them in Australia these days.

    FDB @ 27: Decrees? No. Coup. And didn’t Steve Rambuka have one in Fiji with only slap-on-the-wrist penalties? So what are the alternatives? Continuing to stand by whimpering while the stupidly greedy operators of these firms keep pumping more and more greenhouse gases into OUR atmosphere? Self-regulation has been a failure; presenting confirmed scientific evidence has failed; asking them to be nice has failed. There aren’t too many options left for us.

  29. Brian and all: A real worry is that the LNP’s political stunts could give soil carbon sequestration a bad name.

  30. Ootz @ 22.. re: your climate risk article link – I got as far as

    For example, in my job as an environmental risk assessor, if a contaminated site poses a cancer risk to humans of more than 1-in-10,000 to 1-in-1 million, that added risk is deemed unacceptably high and must be reduced

    and stopped.

    If the writer doesn’t understand that his job is protecting a corporation (or other organisation) from litigation – not saving people from cancer – and tries to compare that example to assessing a risk to the general population, then whatever else he concludes is likely to be equally idiotic.

  31. I stand corrected Jules.

    I’m not sure Rudd could legally declare war on mining companies within our borders though.

  32. Paul Norton @ 31 – Australia does have one volcano under its jurisdiction. Big Ben on Heard Island.

    Although I suspect you need a lava lake for the ceremony you suggest – the nearest one could be Mt Erebus’ phonolite lake. It’s in the Ross Dependency but you could probably just kick the Kiwis out or whatever.

  33. duncanm@34, do you really think skilful professionals in this land can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, what sort of business are you in?

  34. Three days ago, I made the exasperated suggestion that the Prime Minister plough some virgin soil by taking the bold move of confiscating the assets of those who continue to ignore all reasonable warnings and who continue to do us all harm for the sake of their own short-sighted greed and vanity.

    As I said to Alfred Venison, on the Overflow thread, sometimes I do say something that is a little bit beyond my usual point-of-view. When I do that, it is usually to stimulate further discussion. I’m rather disappointed that many of you LPers have not come up with more practical solutions than mine of simple confiscation.

    If I am making that sort of exasperated suggestion here in this public forum, you can bet there are a lot more who are thinking along those same lines – or maybe even doing serious planning towards such an end.

  35. Three days ago, I made the exasperated suggestion that the Prime Minister plough some virgin soil by taking the bold move of confiscating the assets of those who continue to ignore all reasonable warnings and who continue to do us all harm for the sake of their own short-sighted greed and vanity.

    Graham, you are far too modest about your proposal @17. It also included detention without trial or resort to habeus corpus.

    But why stop there when there are so many other social ills that can be cured with a bit of the dictatorial bullwhip by a Prime Minister prepared apply the moral strait-jacket for the good of us all?

    I know it will take bravery but your cri de coeur is for our Prime Minister to show bold leadership and pick up that bullwhip.

    First he could start with the entertainment industry, a cesspit, I know you will agree, dominated by the Mephistophles Murdoch and urgently in need of a herculean effort to send the waters of the river Alpheus through its Augean stable.

    Inspiration and example is at hand from a bold leader of another country, with which we have diplomatic, if not warm, relations who has acted decisively when moral corruption wormed its way into his country:
    http://www.theage.com.au/world/kim-jongun-north-korean-leader-reportedly-has-exgirlfriend-11-others-executed-20130830-2suqx.html

    Nothing namby-pamby there.

    I am sure that you would approve of such boldness in improving the moral climate and earnestly wish that our Leader would show the same couage and vision.

  36. Tim@41
    Yep although sand is pretty easy to scrape up aluminium production is enormously energy intensive. ALCOA’s Portland smelters consume 8 – 10% of Victoria’s GHG intensive brown coal generated electricity. But as we get a lot of our collectors from Germany where the solar component of their energy mix is high and increasing I guess this offsets the emissions involved in manufacture somewhat. On the other hand a lot of our collectors are Chinese also and this must be less positive. Best of all though if we made the things here but that doesn’t seem to be in the thinking of our elected political masters at the moment.

  37. Tim Mackney @ 41:
    I’m not anti-mining at all. I’m anti-pollution, anti-stupidity and anti-suicide; that’s all.

    GregM @ 42:
    Since all appeals to decency and to enlightened self-interest over many many years have been dismal failures – and since our political and business leaders have been so extraordinarily inventive in making excuses for doing nothing about environmental threats – what else is left?

    I would prefer to see someone wielding a bullwhip than just to wait patiently to fry and die because of the arrogance, greed and stupidity of a small number of others.

    Not a choice I like but because our actual survival depends on resolute action being taken – and soon – it is a choice I have to put up with..

    And I’ll be happy to supply a copper cracker for that bullwhip too.

    Douglas Evans @ 43:

    Best of all though if we made the things here but that doesn’t seem to be in the thinking of our elected political masters at the moment.

    Not just making things here but inventing things to be made here – using less energy and materials, with a high priority given to making them without pollution and without emitting greenhouse gases and with inbuilt easy recyclability as well as durability …. oh yes, and making only what is actually needed or foreseen as being needed. Isn’t that the sort of thing that terrifies our business and political leaders?

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