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.

diagram. showing arms, money, laptop and leaves over world map
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:
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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.

Swimming with whales: you must know the risks and when it’s best to keep your distance



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Chantal Denise Pagel, Auckland University of Technology; Mark Orams, Auckland University of Technology, and Michael Lueck, Auckland University of Technology

Three people were injured last month in separate humpback whale encounters off the Western Australia coast.

The incidents happened during snorkelling tours on Ningaloo Reef when swimmers came too close to a mother and her calf.

Swim encounters with humpback whales are relatively new in the Australian wildlife tourism portfolio. The WA tours are part of a trial that ends in 2023. A few tour options have also been available in Queensland since 2014.

But last month’s injuries have raised concerns about the safety of swimming with such giant creatures in the wild.

Close encounters

Until recently, you had to travel to Tonga, Niue or French Polynesia for similar humpback whale encounters in Oceania. Or you could swim with other species, such as dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef.




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But when we interact with wild animals there is always a risk to safety, especially in challenging environments such as open water.

Whales, like other wildlife, may behave unpredictably. Active surface behaviours such as breaching, tail and fin slaps present a significant risk for swimmers and whale watchers.

Four drawings of a humpback whale.
A humpback whale (1) breaching, (2) head lunge, (3) tail slap and (4) pectoral fin slap can all be a danger to people close by.
Chantal Denise Pagel, Author provided

In one of the WA encounters, the nursing female was reported to display pectoral fin and tail slaps. These are potentially threatening due to the size (up to 16 metres long) and power of humpback whales.

These behaviours are frequently observed in social interactions between humpback whales and can present a severe risk of injury to anyone close by, with potentially life-threatening results.

A recent study of the impacts of swimmer presence on humpback whales off Réunion Island (on Madagascar’s east coast in the Indian Ocean) confirmed a high occurrence of aggressive and/or defensive whale behaviour.

The researchers observed flipper and tail fluke swipes and thrashes – sudden movements of a whale’s extremities – especially in mother-and-calf pairs.

A humpback whale slaps its pectoral flipper and splashes the water
Active whale behaviour is exciting to observe, but that flipper can pack a powerful punch.
Flickr/Michael Dawes, CC BY-NC

Keep your distance

While the reasons for the Australian incidents are still unclear, a possible explanation could be that the swimming groups approached the whales too closely and ignored the signs the whales did not welcome visitors.

Maintaining a safe distance should be required of any tourists interested in seeing or getting close to unpredictable wildlife, especially in unfamiliar environments.

We cannot expect tourists, who are often first-time whale swim participants, to be able to read and interpret whale behaviour. So it is vital that crew members are skilled and experienced and can end an encounter if it needs to be.

Knowledgeable in-water guides are indispensable in commercial swim-with-whales programs. Yet this is often not a requirement by organisations issuing licenses for such activities.

For example, permits in New Zealand require “knowledgeable operators and staff”, but there is no requirement to have guides in the water during the encounter. People interested in swim-with-whale encounters should choose tour companies that provide in-water guides who join them in their adventure.

We should also question whether interactions with female whales caring for newborn calves should be allowed. Best-practice guidelines advise against interactions where calves are present.

A mother humpback whale underwater with her calf.
We need to be extra careful when near a mother humpback whale with her calf.
Shutterstock/Lewis Burnett

Recent research in the popular whale-swim destination Tonga showed mother-and-calf pairs avoid about one-third of tour vessel approaches by diving for longer periods.

Yet surface resting times are critical for calves. Any decrease in time spent resting for mother-and-calf pairs can affect a calf’s growth rate, overall fitness and chances of survival.

Similar observations were made in Réunion. Three out of four (74%) mother-calf-pairs changed their behaviour to avoid swimmers.

Safety first: for whales and swimmers

The Pacific Whale Foundation is undertaking a study to assess the impact of swimming with humpback whales in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia.

This research is to monitor the behaviour of humpback whales, providing critical insights into whether tourism activities add stress to this recovering population.




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But research into the suitability of wildlife species used for commercial tourism operations and their health and safety provisions still lacks fundamental depth.

In highly interactive tourism activities such as swim-with-wildlife programmes, tourists should receive education about the risks involved in these “bucket list” experiences. This should include information on animal behaviour and the potential consequences for swimmers.

Furthermore, training tour operators to identify behaviours that may indicate disturbance or have the potential to be harmful to clients is an important additional step towards safer interactions.The Conversation

Two images of a humpback whale breaching the water and one of a whale tail raised above the water.
Humpback whale breaching and tail slap.
Flickr/Grant Matthews, CC BY-NC-ND

Chantal Denise Pagel, Doctoral student | Marine Wildlife Tourism Professional, Auckland University of Technology; Mark Orams, Acting Dean, Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology, and Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, Auckland University of Technology

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

Wealthy nations overlook the dangers of climate change


Alex Lo, University of Hong Kong

Do rich countries care more about the environment that poorer ones? In a recent study I found that’s not necessarily the case. The reason comes down to danger: poorer nations are more worried about risks such as flooding, so are more concerned about environmental impacts that might increase these risks, such as climate change.

But even that’s not the full story.

Social scientists have long argued that public support for environmental protection increases with wealth, an outcome of “post-materialism”.

Recent cross-national studies have shown that people in wealthier nations are more likely to take actions to protect the environment, such as paying higher prices or taxes to ensure better environmental quality. Those in lower-income countries are less likely to do so. It is not difficult to see why. Resource constraints and education are key factors affecting intention to contribute.

Others argue that environmental concern in affluent societies is not higher. Put it this way: economically disadvantaged societies are equally and perhaps increasingly concerned about nature. This may be related to income growth, but this would mean the most affluent societies would still do better on the environmental concern scale than the less fortunate ones (not necessarily the poorest).

Is this really the case?

Mixed concerns

There is no single answer.

Take climate change as an example. Certainly Australians have done quite a lot to mitigate climate change, such as installing solar panels on rooftops.

But would the average Australian care more about climate change than, say, an ordinary Vanuatuan? Yes and no.

Yes, because Australians, with higher incomes, have more resources for supporting their action and are therefore more willing (or able) to act.

No, because climate change is an everyday threat to the livelihoods of Vanuatuans, whereas Australians have greater capacity for managing bad consequences and reducing climate risks to acceptable levels.

The “no” tells a different story. Action, or intended action, is one thing. Danger, or perceived danger, is another. Environmental concern can be defined in both terms, but they respond to national income in opposite ways. This means wealth has mixed effects on environmental concern.

My report shows that the richer are indeed relatively less concerned about the danger of environmental problems than the poorer.

As gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases, concern about environmental risks goes down, across 35 countries worldwide. Wealthier nations include Australia and the United States, while the lower-income ones include South Africa and the Philippines.

The latter group tend to see potential threats to the environment caused by human interventions (such as air and water pollution, genetic modification of crops, climate change, nuclear power plants) as more dangerous than the former group do. People in affluent societies see these environmental risks as lower.

Poorer nations more vulnerable

One reason for this is that people in wealthier nations tend to see these risks as manageable and therefore not a matter of great concern relative to how the rest of the world sees them. The report also shows that environmental risk perception decreases with adaptive capacity, which refers to a country’s ability to attract and mobilise resources to cope with changes in future conditions.

Richer countries have better infrastructure, technologies, social security systems, emergency supplies and community supports to help their citizens cope with catastrophic events. Greater capacity to cope gives people a stronger sense of collective security – they feel protected from environmental changes.

This is just like households with insurance which might see themselves at lower risk from flooding, as they assume themselves to be financially protected.

People with multiple residential properties in disparate locations are less likely to worry about forced relocation or homelessness as a result of flooding or other disruptive natural hazards. Without such protection, people living on margins see themselves as being at higher risk (of almost everything). So they are more concerned about the consequences of environmental stresses.

This is the case even if we only look at “remote” sources of danger, such as GM food and climate change. Not all poorer nations are directly and significantly affected by these changes; some wealthier ones are actually under greater threat.

However, GDP per person is still negatively related to perception of these risks. Australians and Dutch, both well informed of and highly exposed to climate change impacts, are the least likely to see temperature rises as very dangerous among the 35 countries.

This could be a recipe for bad adaptation to environmental change. The knowledge of better protection among the richer populations could elevate a collective self-assuring attitude.

This might prematurely undermine their caution about impending threats and consequently reduce motivation to strengthen or maintain capacity for dealing with environmental stressors.

Although Third World countries are not included in the study, these findings have implications for upper- and middle-income countries. This will be a bigger issue for emerging economies as people’s incomes and the capacity to cope are increasing, and their people feel more secure about changes in environmental conditions.

But the reality is that we live in an increasingly dangerous world as climate change accelerates.

The Conversation

Alex Lo is Assistant Professor, The Kadoorie Institute at University of Hong Kong.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.