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Soil Carbon: What Role Can It Play in Reducing Australia’s Emissions?

The Morrison government is backing soil carbon – drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the land – as a major part of its response to the climate crisis.

The idea isn’t new, and at times has been derided as “soil magic” due to exorbitant claims about what it could achieve. But it is receiving renewed focus after the government listed it as one of five priority areas under its so-called “technology, not taxes” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, has flagged that farmers should expect more support for soil carbon and other carbon farming projects in the May budget. Meanwhile, other Nationals MPs have rejected any steps to tackle the climate crisis and called for agriculture to be exempt from a target of reaching net zero emissions, should the government ever commit to one.

So what is the truth about soil carbon? What role can it – and agriculture generally – play in reducing emissions?

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Carbon is not the problem

Author: George King

I recently had the privilege of flying Walter Jehne from the southern temperate zone of New South Wales, through the deserts of Central Australia to the subtropics of the Northern Territory.  About 20 hours of return flight time looking at and talking about Australia’s environments.  Walter is a soil microbiologist and probably the most intelligent and knowledgeable person I have ever met.  He is immensely patriotic to Australia and has the clearest understanding of environments.

Here is the layman’s version of some of what I learnt.  Carbon is not the problem, it is certainly a major symptom of the problem though.  Even if we cut our carbon emissions to zero right now it will take hundreds of years for the carbon levels to fall to pre-industrial revolution levels.  And no developed country is going to cut their standard of living so drastically.

The root problem is that on a local level we have adversely affected the hydrological cycles of the environment.  The world population and distribution is at such a saturation now that human local land management is catastrophically effecting the global environment.  The good news is that we have the ability to reverse any damage we have done to the hydrological processes, it is simple, it is affordable and we will produce more food in the process.

For the past 420 million years soils have been the foundation for the evolution of life on land, it stands to reason that the soils will hold the solution to turn around our current practice from damaging soils globally to growing them again as nature has been doing for millennia.  Almost without exception every nation’s greatest export by volume and value is eroding soil.

Our soils are formed and are governed by the microbial processes which regulate much of the Earth’s critical carbon, water, nutrient, heat dynamics, cooling and climate cycles and more importantly their interconnected balance.  The natural hydrological processes govern 95% of the heat dynamics and balance of the blue planet.  We have been damaging these hydrological processes for more than 10,000 years but particularly in the past 300 years.

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