Friday, 1 July 2011

Soil is a good place to store carbon. Or at least agricultural land is a good place to store carbon. Not only does Australia have a lot of it, but we have a history of using farmland to sequester carbon starting with negotiations surrounding the Kyoto protocol which led to an easy-to-meet target that was entirely met by reducing land clearances across the continent.

Now there's legislation about to be introduced that allows farmers to offset costs associated with the planned carbon tax - rises in fuel and fertiliser prices, for example - which is tied to a plan called the Carbon Farming Initiative. Farmers are starting to pay attention to how they will be allowed to help mitigate climate change (despite a high level of scepticism in the bush about the cause of global warming).

The NSW Department of Primary Industries is kicking off the process of understanding just how this can be done by asking  farmers to place tenders for work they will conduct on their farms in order to study carbon sequestration. This work is essential for the purpose of learning how our farmers should in future be paid by the government for any carbon storage efforts they conduct on their farms.

The project is restricted to a small area in central NSW to the west of the town of Orange. It is being led by NSW DPI which has a long track record of sequestration research that includes looking at how biochar can store carbon in the soil. The current project needs at least 30 farmers to be involved so that it can begin. Farmers are being asked to put in tenders stating how much their work - to be conducted over a period of years - will cost the NSW government. Tenders will be run by the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority and paid for by NSW DPI.
Farmers will be paid for land use changes that sequester soil carbon. Such changes would include reducing cultivation, sowing permanent pastures or planting trees.
There's no mention of biochar in the story but I expect that NSW DPI will be anticipating some work done using this carbon sequestration method. If not, maybe they can suggest it to some of the participating farmers. Use of biochar in trials at NSW DPI's Wollongbar Research Station further north in the state have been going on for years. The main problem with it at the moment appears to be the high application rate required to achieve soil amelioration and also a shortage of available supplies. Biochar is made by burning organic matter in an oxygen-depleted environment at high temperatures, so the carbon it contains is 'fixed' and does not escape into the atmosphere through decomposition. It is an ideal storage method, but appears at the moment to be a bit dear.

I have written about biochar before and it's something that interests me as it possesses a dual efficacy: not only does it sequester carbon away from the atmosphere it also helps build soil structure. Soil structure is essential for healthy soil and for improving water use. We'll see how the NSW DPI and its collaborators go with this new project, if they get some biochar action happening, and whether they get a solid take-up from local farmers in the Orange area.

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