Farming of carbon is not carbon farming

Ask any farmer about his soil carbon and he will tell you all about it. He knows it as critical to soil health and recognises it as the good stuff that smells just that bit peaty on the fingers.

Successful farmers pay attention to their soil and know how to maintain its carbon content during good times and bad. They keep vegetation cover everywhere, encourage deep-rooted perennials on their pastures, reduce tillage on their arable fields, retain stubble, and apply animal and green manures whenever they can.

These ideas apply in general, whether the farmer is growing food for his family in the mountains of New Guinea, or in an intensive high-yield commercial operation south of Geraldton.

Good farmers are carbon farmers because they know that looking after soil is the foundation of their business.

And here you can read up on why soil carbon is so important.

In 2011 the Australian government put the Carbon Farming Initiative Act into law. At first glance the CFI sounds like some help for the farmer to maintain and improve his soil, an initiative for carbon farming. And there is some logic in this thought.

If around 10% of the farm businesses in Australia, who between them care for over 46 million hectares of land (or 6% of the land mass), added an achievable 0.2 tonnes of carbon per hectare to their soil, then that would be a removal of 34 million tCO2e from the atmosphere — equivalent to 5% of Australia’s 2011 emission reduction target of 755 mtCO2e, and 15% of the current 2016 target.

Not only that but farmers would get a boost in production efficiency and resilience from the carbon sequestered into the soil.

All good you would think.

And perhaps this was the original intent. The CFI was designed as an offset mechanism that would support on-farm activities that generate emission reduction or carbon removals and a means to credit farmers for that effort in the form of Australian Carbon Credit Units or ACCUs. Credits can be banked or sold to those who need to offset their emissions.

In this scenario carbon farming would actually be the farming of carbon as a product — carbon in the atmosphere is pulled out into soil and vegetation and retained in the landscape for the benefit of meeting emission reduction targets.

So rather than farm for production, the land is farmed for carbon with the saleable commodity being carbon credits.

Fast-forward to 2016 through five years of political vacillation over what to do about greenhouse gases.

The CFI concept of credit trading was replaced in 2014 with the Emission Reduction Fund, although the CFI Act remains on the statute. The idea is still to support farmers who create carbon offsets and the same accounting tools (methodologies) developed for the CFI are used to decide how much carbon could be offset in vegetation and soil.

Only under the ERF a farmer who wants to farm carbon as an emission reduction has to bid against all comers in an auction.

He still has to account any emission reduction or removal with complex GHG accounting tools to estimate the carbon volume, then put a price on it and tender that price at the auction.

So far under the ERF 177 million tCO2e of abatement has been purchased across four auctions at an average price of $12 per tCO2e with 32 million tCO2e currently issued as ACCUs.

Around half of issued ACCUs are for sequestration into vegetation, 40% have gone to the waste sector, and less than 1% to agricultural activities.

This is not carbon farming. The land that was farmed is now a carbon offset, a different land use altogether, held in perpetuity as woody vegetation. It is not farming anymore but a form of land sparing.

Australia is fortunate. It has a lot of land and can afford to set some of that land aside to bank carbon as part redress for its high per capita emission intensity. There are, of course, co-benefits to this farming of carbon. Revegetation and avoided deforestation have significant conservation benefit and contribute to ecosystem services. So putting carbon into the landscape as untouchable vegetation has some value, but there is little or no production to be had from this land.

It’s just that carbon farming by farmers on their fields and paddocks would be a much smarter option. It engages farmers with what they do best. Does not ask them to just park land. Instead it supports them to develop land sustainably for both their business and the collective benefit.

Recall that a modest 10% of farmers managing to deliver 0.2 tC per ha into soil would remove 34 million tCO2e from the atmosphere. Coincidentally this volume is close to the amount of ACCUs issued after four auctions.

The CFI and ERF are not about this type of carbon farming at all. There are three projects under a soils methodology with no ACCUs issued but this is at best an afterthought. The idea of actually modifying and developing farming systems to achieve emission reductions or sequestration whilst improving

There are three projects under a soils methodology with no ACCUs issued but this is at best an afterthought. The idea of actually modifying and developing farming systems to achieve emission reductions or sequestration whilst improving soil to grow more food is an opportunity missed.

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