On the Monaro Plain in southern New South Wales, a farmer shows us the kangaroo grass that has reappeared on his property. Unlike many neighboring properties, this farmhouse is filled with native herbs that go up to your knees. The farmer points out kangaroo grass scattered all over the paddock, and in the distance you can see patches of the orange native that once dominated this landscape.
“Magic stuff” he calls it.
This is Charles Massey’s farm, Severn Park at Bobundara, a few miles south of Cooma. Massey is a third-generation farmer; his grandfather bought the land in the 1920s and Charles took over from his father 40 years ago after he had a heart attack. He’s a High Country farmer straight out of cast central – his weather-worn akubra looks like it’s about to fall apart, he’s worn it for so long.
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“From the Queensland border to all of this country – from Victoria to the South Australian border – at this time of year, before the Europeans arrived, the whole landscape would have been orange with this grass.”
All over the world, grasslands act as carbon sinks, their deep roots keeping the soil intact and trapping huge amounts of carbon. But they were severely degraded. In the Monaro region, pastures have been transformed and introduced grasses for livestock have largely replaced native species.
“Overgrazing, mismanagement, plowing and everything has destroyed all of that. So we’re starting to see that coming back with our management,” says Mr Massey.
The regrowth of Australian grasslands has been on the minds of many farmers and climate change experts in recent years. It provides more productive soil for cultivation and grazing, while helping to suck carbon from the atmosphere, a process known as carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is likely to be a key tool for achieving net zero emissions and preventing and reversing some of the impacts of climate change.
Mr Massey is not a carbon producer, but he has been using similar techniques on Severn Park for decades and his soil health and hydrology are in incredible shape.
“What you’re doing is laying more cover, stimulating more regrowth, putting more carbon in the soil, and you’re keeping that soil covered so you don’t lose carbon.”
But as their conditions worsen, grasslands lose their ability to store carbon. A similar process occurs on farms. European farming methods have degraded the landscape and reduced its ability to store carbon.
Conversely, improving soil cover builds this capacity, so farmers are paid to change the way they farm through the Emissions Reduction Fund. They earn carbon credits for the carbon their land stores and can sell them to polluters to offset their carbon emissions.
And the uptake has been huge – there are currently 1155 carbon projects in the country. The price of carbon has more than doubled in two years and the carbon credit industry is estimated at $2.5 billion. And it was recently announced that carbon producers themselves will get tax relief from the federal government, and the tax relief is estimated at $100 million over four years.
Rodney Royds is one such farmer. At his Jinglemoney farm, half an hour from Braidwood NSW, he runs a project to sequester carbon in his soil through land management techniques.
He has made several changes to his profitable sheep and beef farm, but he says the key is to increase and maintain ground cover.
“The most important thing to do is to increase your country’s productivity, which means you grow more biomass. And to do that, you need to fix your soil fertility.” He told me he did this by adding nutrients like lime, sulfur and phosphorus.
More than 100 million carbon credit units have been issued since the launch of the Emissions Reduction Fund in 2012. One carbon credit unit corresponds to offsetting one tonne of carbon. The price was $15 a ton a few years ago. It’s more than doubled.
Royds’ project, like most, is funded in part by carbon aggregators, companies that help farmers navigate red tape and trade carbon credits. He says he wouldn’t have thought of it if it hadn’t been for the aggregator doing the expensive basic soil testing on his behalf and absorbing the costs.
“I think it’s the expense that keeps a lot of people from getting into it. The carbon aggregators do the basic measurements and soil testing. But I think people are still sequestering carbon in the soil.”
Mr Royds’ farm is changing but he has yet to earn any carbon credits, saying ‘in a year or two I hope to see some benefit from it. But at this point it’s all been a cost of entry. And there have been a lot of cost of entry.
For Royds, the money he could make from carbon in his soil is actually less important than increasing the water-holding capacity of soils that contain more carbon.
“The payoff is in the increased productivity you’re going to gain by increasing water holding capacity. All the research done so far indicates that you can increase soil holding capacity by 30%. And I think it will prolong the production phase of my pastures.”
He’s not sure he would recommend carbon farming to his neighbors without a huge amount of research on their part.
“It has to be economically viable to do it, otherwise I can’t justify it. I run a business and farming is all about math and science.”
Dr Kate Burke, founder of agricultural consultancy Think Agri, also advises caution before people rush into new ventures.
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She argues that carbon farming is not a silver bullet to climate change.
“There is a big risk of misleading both the farming community but also city dwellers who care about our environment and climate change mitigation. This could give them false hope. In the end After all, to achieve carbon neutrality, we must reduce emissions.
“Carbon sequestration is not going to absolve us of our emissions sins.”
Measuring soil is difficult and time-consuming to collect samples and analyze in a lab, and the framework for paying people is a meticulous process that requires you to prove increased carbon. It’s a slow process and, like Rodney, you might not see a profit for years.
“It’s very difficult to get an accurate carbon reference,” says Dr. Burke. “There are huge errors associated with it. So it’s probably a bit oversimplified by some of the carbon aggregators. And I would really point out that it’s a wary buyer in terms of farmers wanting to get involved. in the culture of carbon.”
Dr Burke is skeptical of relying on farmers and relying on carbon farming to cut emissions, she says climate change politics could cloud the science.
“I think it’s easier to look for a soft answer, something like carbon sequestration rather than tackling the really hard issues of how to stop emissions in the first place.”
There are also fears that the system is not working and people are being paid for unnecessary credits. New research from the ANU suggests that despite the government issuing millions of carbon credits worth tens of millions of dollars for projects in Queensland and New South Wales to restore forests, the total forest area has actually decreased in some areas and overall has not increased much.
And while Mr Massey of Severn Park thinks paying farmers to increase the carbon in their soil is a positive step, he thinks the time for incremental changes is over.
“Recent droughts, bushfires, massive wet seasons like this make it very difficult to manage. Even if you get a lot of growth, it ruins crops at harvest time and all those sorts of things,” says -he.
“I just don’t understand this complacency or fearlessness and the pace of what is humanity’s greatest problem of all time.”
The story Will carbon culture absolve us of our emissions sins? first appeared on Canberra time.