US scheme used by Australian farmers reveals the dangers of trading soil carbon to tackle climate change


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Aaron Simmons, University of New England; Annette Cowie, University of New England; Brian Wilson, University of New England; Mark Farrell, CSIRO; Matthew Tom Harrison, University of Tasmania; Peter Grace, Queensland University of Technology; Richard Eckard, The University of Melbourne; Vanessa Wong, Monash University, and Warwick Badgery, The University of MelbourneSoil carbon is in the spotlight in Australia. A key plank in the Morrison government’s technology-led emissions reduction policy, it involves changing farming techniques so soils store more carbon from the atmosphere.

Farmers can encourage and accelerate this process through methods that increase plant production, such as improving nutrient management or sowing permanent pastures. For each unit of atmospheric carbon they remove in this way, farmers can earn “carbon credits” to be sold in emissions trading markets.

But not all carbon credits are created equal. In one high-profile deal in January, an Australian farm sold soil carbon credits to Microsoft under a scheme based in the United States. We analysed the methodology behind the trade, and found some increases in soil carbon claimed under the scheme were far too optimistic.

It’s just one of several problems raised by the sale of carbon credits offshore. If not addressed, the credibility of carbon trading will be undermined. Ultimately the climate – and the planet – will be the loser.

sunset on farm with cattle and trees
The integrity of soil carbon trading must be assured.
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What is soil carbon trading?

Plants naturally remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the air through photosynthesis. As plants decompose, carbon-laden organic matter is added to the soil. If more organic matter is added than is lost, soil carbon levels increase.

Carbon trading schemes require the increase in soil carbon levels to be measured. The measurement methods are well-established, but can be costly and complex because they involve collecting and analysing large numbers of soil samples. And different carbon credit schemes measure the change in different ways – some more robust than others.

The Australian government’s Emissions Reduction Fund has a rigorous approach to soil sampling, laboratory analysis and calculation of credits. This ensures only genuine removals of atmospheric carbon are rewarded, in the form of “Australian Carbon Credit Units”.

Farmers can choose other schemes under which to earn carbon credits, such as the US-based carbon offset platform Regen Network.

Regen Network’s method for estimating soil carbon largely involves collecting data via satellite imagery. The extent of physical on-the-ground soil sampling is limited.

Regen Network issues “CarbonPlus credits” to farmers deemed to have increased soil carbon stores. Farmers then sell these credits on the Regen Network trading platform.

Regen Network video explaining its remote sensing methods.

‘A number of concerns’

It was Regen Network which sold Microsoft the soil carbon credits generated by an Australian farm, Wilmot Station. Wilmot is owned by the Macdoch Group, and other Macdoch properties have also claimed carbon credits under the Regen Scheme.

Regen Network should be applauded for making its methods and calculations available online. And we appreciate Regen’s open, collaborative approach to developing its methods.

However, we have reviewed their documents and have a number of concerns:

  • the dry weight of soil in a known volume, also known as “bulk density”, is a key factor in calculating soil carbon stocks. Rather than bulk density being measured from field samples, it was calculated using an equation. We examined this method and determined it was far less reliable than field sampling
  • Estimates of soil carbon were not adjusted for gravel content. Because gravel contains no carbon, carbon stock may have been overestimated
  • The remote sensing used by Regen Network involved assessment of vegetation cover via satellite imagery, from which soil carbon levels were estimated. However, vegetation cover obscures soil, and research has found predictions of soil carbon using this method are highly uncertain.



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Wilmot increased soil carbon, or “sequestration”, through changes to grazing and pasture management. The resulting rates of carbon storage calculated by Regen Network were extremely high – 7,660 tonnes of carbon over 1,094 hectares. This amounts to 7 tonnes of carbon per hectare from 2018 to 2019.

These results are not consistent with our experience of what is possible through pasture management. For example, the CSIRO has documented soil carbon increases of 0.1 to 0.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year in Australia from a range of methods to increase pasture production.

We believe inaccurate methods have led to the carbon increase being overestimated. Thus, it appears excess carbon credits may have been awarded.

Many carbon trading schemes apply rules to ensure integrity is maintained. These include:

  • an “additionality test” to ensure the extra carbon storage in the soil would not have happened anyway. It would prevent, for example, farmers claiming credits for practices they adopted in the past
  • ensuring sequestered carbon is maintained over time
  • disallowing double-counting of credits – for example, by preventing a country claiming credits that have been sold offshore.

The Emissions Reduction Fund and other well-recognised international schemes, such as Verra and Gold Standard, apply these rules stringently. Regen Network’s safeguards are less rigorous.

Responses to these claims from Regen Network and Macdoch Group can be found at the end of this article. A full response from Regen can also be found here.

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Carbon trading is a way for farmers to make money by changing their land management practices.
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Not in the national interest?

Putting aside the problems noted above, the offshore sale of soil carbon credits generated by Australian farmers raises other concerns.

First, selling credits offshore means Australia loses out, by not being able to claim the abatement towards our own government and industry targets.

Second, soil carbon does not have unlimited emissions reduction potential. The quantum of carbon that can be stored in each hectare of soil is constrained, and limited by factors such as land availability and climate change. So measures to increase soil carbon should not detract from society’s efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use.

And third, ensuring carbon remains in soil long after it’s deposited is a challenge because soil microbes break down organic matter. Carbon credit schemes commonly manage this by requiring a “buffer” of unsold credits. If stored carbon is lost, farmers must relinquish credits from the buffer.

If the loss is greater than the buffer, credits must be purchased to make up the difference. This exposes farmers to financial risk, especially if carbon prices rise.




Read more:
We need more carbon in our soil to help Australian farmers through the drought


farmer sits on rock
Poorly managed carbon trading schemes can put farmers at financial risk.
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Getting it right

Soil carbon is a promising way for Australia to substantially reduce its emissions. But methods used to measure gains in soil carbon must be accurate.

Carbon markets must be regulated to ensure credit is awarded for genuine abatement, and risks to farmers are limited. And the extent to which offshore carbon markets prevent Australia from meeting its own obligations to reduce emissions should be clarified and managed.

Improving the integrity of soil carbon trading will have benefits beyond emissions reduction. It will also improve soil health and farm productivity, helping agriculture become more resilient under climate change.


Regen Network response

Regen Network provided The Conversation with a response to concerns raised in this article. The full nine-page statement provided by Regen Network is available here.

The following is a brief summary of Regen Network’s statement:

– Limited on-ground soil sampling: Regen Network said its usual minimum number of soil samples was not reached in the case of Wilmot Station, because historical soil samples – taken before the project began – were used. To compensate for this, relevant sample data from a different farm was combined with data from Wilmot.

“We understand the use of ancillary data does not follow best practice and our team is working hard to ensure future projects are run using a sufficient number of samples,” Regen Network said.

– Bulk density: Regen Network said the historical sample data from Wilmot did not include “bulk density” measurements needed to estimate carbon stocks, which required “deviations” from its usual methodology. However the company was taking steps to ensure such estimates in future projects “can be provided with higher degrees of accuracy”.

– Gravel content: Regen Network said lab reports for soil samples included only the weight, not volume, of gravel present. “Best sampling practice should include the gravel volume as an essential parameter for accurate bulk density measurements. We will make sure to address this in our next round of upgrades and appreciate the observation!” the statement said.

– Remote sensing of vegetation: Regen Network said it did not use vegetation assessment at Wilmot station. It tested a vegetation assessment index at another property and found it ineffective at estimating soil carbon. At Wilmot station Regen used so-called individual “spectral bands” to estimate soil carbon at locations where on-ground sampling was not undertaken.

– Sequestration rates at Wilmot: Regen Network said while it was difficult to directly compare local sequestration rates across climatic and geologic zones, the sequestration rates for the projects in question “fall within the relatively wide range of sequestration rates” reported in key scientific studies.

Regen Network said its methodology “provides a conservative estimate on the final number of credits issued”. Its statement outlines the steps taken to ensure soil carbon levels are not overestimated.

– Integrity safeguards: Regen Network said it employs standards “based both on existing standards of reputable programs […] and inputs from project developers, in order to come up with a standard that not only is rigorous but also practical”. Regen Network takes steps to ensure additionality and permanence of carbon stores, as well as avoid double counting of carbon credits generated through their platform.

A more detailed response from Regen Network can be found here.


Wilmot Station response

Wilmot Station provided the following response from Alasdair Macleod, chairman of Macdoch Group. It has been edited for brevity:

We entered into the deals with Regen Network/Microsoft because we wanted to give a hint of the huge potential that we believe exists for farmers in Australia and globally to sequester soil carbon which can be sold through offset markets or via other methods of value creation.

Whilst we recognise that the soil carbon credits generated on the Macdoch Group properties in the Regen Network/Microsoft deal will not be included in Australia’s national carbon accounts, it is our hope that over time the regulated market will move towards including appropriately rigorous transactions such as these in some form.

At the same time we have also been working closely with the Australian government, industry organisations, academia and other interested parties on Macdoch Group properties to develop appropriate soil carbon methodologies under the government’s Climate Solutions Fund.

This is because carbon measurement methodologies are an evolving science. We have always acknowledged and will welcome improvements that will be made over the coming years to the methodologies utilised by both the voluntary and regulated markets.

In any event it has become clear that there is huge demand from the private sector for offset deals of this nature and we will continue to work towards ensuring that other farmers can take advantage of the opportunities that will become available to those that are farming in a carbon-friendly fashion.The Conversation

Aaron Simmons, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, University of New England; Annette Cowie, Adjunct Professor, University of New England; Brian Wilson, Associate Professor, University of New England; Mark Farrell, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Matthew Tom Harrison, Associate Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, University of Tasmania; Peter Grace, Professor of Global Change, Queensland University of Technology; Richard Eckard, Professor & Director, Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, The University of Melbourne; Vanessa Wong, Associate Professor, Monash University, and Warwick Badgery, Research Leader Pastures an Rangelands, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cramming cities full of electric vehicles means we’re still depending on cars — and that’s a huge problem


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Kurt Iveson, University of SydneyThis week, the NSW government announced almost A$500 million towards boosting the uptake of electric vehicles. In its new electric vehicle strategy, the government will waive stamp duty for cars under $78,000, develop more charging infrastructure, offer rebates to 25,000 drivers, and more.

Given the transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, it’s a good thing Australian governments are starting to plan for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

But transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.

So, let’s look at these problems in more detail, and why public transport really is the best way forward.

Mounting disadvantage and health issues

EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.

But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.

Let’s start with a few of the social issues. This includes the huge amount of space devoted to car driving and parking in our neighbourhoods. This can crowd out other forms of land use, including other more sustainable forms of mobility such as walking and cycling.

There are the financial and mental health costs of congestion, as well, with Australian city workers spending, on average, 66 minutes getting to and from work each day. Injuries and fatalities on roads are also increasing, and inactivity and isolation associated with driving can impact our physical health.

Car-dependent cities also contribute to disadvantage for people who don’t have access to cars, and uneven financial vulnerability associated with the high costs of car ownership and use.

Indeed, some of these problems could be made worse — for instance, subsidies for EVs could end up favouring wealthier people who can afford new cars.




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Mining for resources

A mass global uptake of EVs will generate major environmental problems, too. Most concerning of these is the use of finite mineral resources required for their construction, and the environmental and labour conditions of their extraction.

This was recently highlighted in a recent report by the International Energy Agency. As the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol said, there’s a

looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.

Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper are key ingredients required to make EVs.

As the report noted, EVs use double the amount of copper than conventional vehicles. EVs also require considerable amounts of lithium, cobalt and graphite that are hardly required at all for conventional vehicles. And it expects demand for lithium to grow 40-fold between 2020 and 2040, driven by EV production to meet climate targets.

There are better ways to cut transport emissions than greater uptake of electric vehicles.
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There is considerable discussion of Australia’s natural advantage as a supplier of some of these minerals, as we have large reserves of lithium and rare-earth metals beneath parts of the continent.

But before governments and mining bodies rush to exploit these reserves, they need to ensure much more is done to avoid the injustices perpetrated against Traditional Owners and their lands and heritage. The recent appalling destruction at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto’s iron ore operation is just one example of this.




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Mining also has its own environmental problems, such as land clearing and associated biodiversity loss, the pollution and contaminants it produces, and intensive water use.

The conditions of extracting these critical minerals in other parts of the world are dire. There’s the oppressive working conditions in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the conflict over Indigenous rights in Chile’s lithium mining areas, and environmental destruction associated with mining rare earth minerals in China.

Lithium mine with brine pools
Mining for rare-earth metals such as lithium comes with enormous environmental impacts.
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Broadening ideas about transport

To focus on these problems is not to suggest the new policies on electric vehicles are unimportant, or that they don’t stand to have some positive environmental impact.

The point is private EVs are not a solution to the combined challenges of reducing our urban environmental footprints and making better cities for all, and they have their own problems.

Instead, we should develop a good mass public transport system with extensive and frequent coverage. Alongside urban development with a more even distribution of jobs, services and opportunities, investing in better public transport could reduce car dependence in our cities.

This would have a range of environmental and social benefits: making more space available for people instead of machines, extending the benefits of mobility to people who can’t or don’t drive, and reducing demand for finite minerals.

Even fossil-fuelled public transport has fewer emissions than conventional car travel. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the most fuel-efficient buses and trains generate less than half the carbon emissions per passenger kilometre of fuel-efficient cars. Of course, public transport powered by renewables will be even better.

Trams on Swanston Street
Melbourne’s tram network is the biggest in the world.
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But as things stand, we are far from having such a city. The benefits of good public transport and public services are unevenly distributed across our cities.

In Sydney, for example, there are significant investments in new public transport infrastructure in some parts of the city, such as Metro West and the recently completed North West Metro. There are welcome commitments to reduce emissions in that sector, too.

But we’re a long way from planning new developments and redevelopments to make public transport a viable alternative to cars. The lack of public transport infrastructure in newly constructed, master-planned estates on Sydney’s urban fringe is the most glaring example.




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Ultimately, it’s important that a transition to electric vehicles doesn’t dominate the discussion we need to have about urban transport.

Our challenge is to simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of different forms of transport, while also thinking much more broadly about the sustainability and justice of the system of mobility that’s so central to daily life in our cities.The Conversation

Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor of Urban Geography and Research Lead, Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UNESCO has always been mired in politics and squabbling, but this shouldn’t detract from its work


Stephen Hill, University of WollongongAustralia’s Great Barrier Reef made the international headlines this week. It was not good news for the reef, described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses”.

A report tabled by the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO recommended adding the reef to the list of 53 other World Heritage sites considered “in danger” — a move the Morrison government suggested was motivated by political pressure.

The “in danger” classification matters to Australia since the reef is estimated to support 64,000 jobs and contribute A$6.4 billion to the economy per year.

If the World Heritage Committee downgrades the reef’s status as a World Heritage site, this will almost certainly damage its attractiveness as a tourism destination and thus Australia’s economic benefit.

But why does such a report from this UN agency matter so much? The reason is the World Heritage Committee has significant clout on the global stage — and politics have indeed been an unfortunate part of its operations since its inception.

The Australian government said it was ‘blindsided’ by the UN recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in-danger’.
KYDPL KYODO/AP

‘Clearly there was politics behind it’

UNESCO’s mandate to build peace through international cooperation in education, the sciences, culture and media freedom stems from its founding principles in 1945 after the second world war. The preamble to its constitution declares,

… since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.

Nations are elected to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee at a biennial conference of all 193 UNESCO member states. This committee has significant power — it is authorised to make decisions on behalf of the world. And though the UN member states may complain about its decisions, none can challenge the committee’s independence or authority.

The current chair of the World Heritage Committee is China, which adds to the reason why Australia has protested so loudly at its recommendation.

Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, and minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, were immediately on the phone to UNESCO’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, in Paris, to express their deep concerns. Ley said,

This decision was flawed and clearly there was politics behind it, and that has subverted the proper process.

The head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Program, Dr Fanny Douvere, pointed out, however, that the report was a rigorous scientific document with inputs from Australia’s own Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and official government reports on water quality — assessed and analysed by an expert team in the World Heritage Centre.

Furthermore, she said, work on the report started years ago, and the Chinese government was “not aware” of the recommendations being made.

We have yet to see how this altercation will play out, likely at the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee in China in July.

How UNESCO is structured

Behind the scenes at UNESCO, there is a complex play of international politics and UN bureaucratic processes and actions which do, at times, have an influence on the agency’s work.

I was appointed to a senior level within UNESCO from 1995–2005, working in both a field office and at its headquarters in Paris, and I played a central role in the organisation’s attempts to reform and decentralise its operations in the early 2000s. So, I have good knowledge of the beast from the inside.

The first thing to realise is there is a divide between headquarters and the field. Nearly all attention is focused on UNESCO’s headquarters. This is where member state ambassadors have their offices and all the important committees are based. As a result, decisions on international conventions and actions are the province of the officialdom in Paris.

But this is not where the most effective program action happens — this is the work of the more than 50 field offices around the world. And the UNESCO field offices do make a real difference.

In my own work in Indonesia, as examples, we reformed the country’s entire basic education system from centralised rote learning to decentralised open classroom exploration. We also helped the country move from total censorship of the media by helping pass legislation to ensure a free press and built a radio network of 32 independent stations across the country trained in investigative journalism.

Headquarters provided excellent technical assistance, but the field office ran the show and found the funding.

Much of the criticism aimed at UNESCO is focused on its over-bureaucratic structure and poor productivity. This criticism is largely fed by the attention placed on what happens at headquarters in Paris, not at the field offices in places like New Delhi, Jakarta and Maputo.




Read more:
Australian government was ‘blindsided’ by UN recommendation to list Great Barrier Reef as in-danger. But it’s no great surprise


Member states withdrawing funding

The second thing to realise about UNESCO is it is a “technical” agency, not a “funding” organisation like, for example, the UN Development Program.

Because funding is dependent on member states, this has real consequences. Sensitive political issues can cause member states to become upset, prompting them to withdraw from the organisation — with their funding.

For instance, after Palestine was added as a full member in 2011, both the US and Israel stopped paying their dues. The US, which accounted for more than 20% of UNESCO’s budget, accrued some US$600 million in unpaid dues.

The Trump administration then pulled the US out of the organisation altogether after the World Heritage Committee designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site in 2017. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called UNESCO’s politicisation a “chronic embarrassment”.

Israel and the US opposed the move to designate Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage site that was also ‘in danger’.
Bernat Armangue/AP

This wasn’t the first time the US withdrew. In 1984, the Reagan administration pulled out of UNESCO amid complaints about the way it was run and what one American official, Gregory Newell, called “extraneous politicisation”. He decried what he perceived as

… an endemic hostility toward the institutions of a free society — particularly those that protect a free press, free markets and, above all, individual human rights.

Keeping in mind UNESCO’s mandate

UNESCO’s listing of the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” is at its heart a moral decision concerned with minimising the effects of climate change and stimulating member states into action.

Because it is playing out at headquarters level, however, there is the whiff of political involvement. This is, after all, where states play power politics with their memberships, funding and influence.




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But the organisation is so much more when you move away from the glitter of the world’s capitals and into the field. Here, the agency’s business is about building trust and connecting with communities to make change happen.

This is in keeping with UNESCO’s mandate, which is important to remember when attention is diverted to self-interested squabbling among its members.The Conversation

Stephen Hill, Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.