The Australian

By Andrea Koch

Conventional wisdom says that Australia has backed away from decarbonising the economy, exacerbated by its position at the UN climate talks in Poland. In fact, Australia is leading on greenhouse gas abatement through soil carbon sequestration.

This is important: increasing carbon in soil will provide a significant carbon sink for Australia; it increases soil productivity and resilience; and it will help the world solve a sleeping global problem for sustainability.

One of the key planks of the federal government's direct action plan is the storage of carbon in soil. Australian agricultural soil has lost more than 50 per cent of its carbon — a fact that has bipartisan acceptance.

The previous government introduced the Carbon Farming Initiative, and with it the possibility that farmers can be paid for carbon credits earned by storing soil carbon. Not a single such credit, however, has yet been paid.

With the carbon tax in place, the previous government could place a big tick against addressing climate change, and perhaps had less incentive to put the right policy levers in place to generate uptake on soil-carbon sequestration by farmers. The Abbott government, however, will not have a carbon tax, and therefore has a much bigger mandate to make soil-carbon sequestration work. But can it really work?

The Australian science sector is divided. The glass-half-empty group says it is not worth the effort. The glass-half-full group has moved from initial scepticism to say it is possible, and that indeed it should be done. Interestingly, members of the latter group would be counted among world leaders in soil-carbon science.

Three weeks prior to the climate change talks in Poland, the emerging international soil policy community met in Berlin.

From a multilateral viewpoint, soil is where water was 20 years ago. Until recently, soil has largely been ignored by pundits of sustainable development and climate change.

Over recent years, however, there has been growing awareness of global soil degradation — the decline in soil function and its resulting inability to provide economic and environmental goods and services.

The policy world is waking up to what soil scientists have known for decades: that without well functioning soil the major issues of sustainable development cannot be solved.

Up for discussion in Berlin was how to stop and reverse soil and land degradation. Finding the right policy mechanisms to address the problems will be challenging. One stream of the conference focused on how to get soil and land degradation on the agenda for the proposed sustainable development goals, commencing in 2015.

In order to change the situation it is necessary to measure and monitor it, and so discussions also focused on what should be measured. Soil carbon was consistently raised as a potential indicator, particularly if there was to be just one to bring to the world's attention.

It is well established that losing soil carbon leads to soil degradation. Conversely, increasing soil carbon through appropriate land management can reverse degradation and lead to soil security — thus underpinning the ability for soil to function in ways that are essential for life. This fact is not new to state and federal governments in Australia. Agricultural programs to assist farmers in increasing soil organic matter (soil carbon) are well established.

What is new, however, is the need to monitor and measure the changes in a way that meets the exacting standards of emissions accounting, at a cost that makes it worthwhile. Much headway has been made under the Carbon Farming Initiative. The government has indicated that a prototype soil carbon methodology will be approved for use during the first half of next year.

This will pave the way for the market to innovate and develop a range of measurable approaches that increase soil carbon. This progress has been made possible because of the soil science and agricultural expertise we have in Australia, and the government's consultative approach.

The question, then, is not can it work, but when? Australia leads on being able to measure and monitor increases in soil carbon, and to account for the abatement against national greenhouse accounts. With an international soil policy community searching for solutions, Australia will have much to offer, not only in its direct action for climate change, but also in how the world can secure its soil and achieve sustainability.

This article was originally published in The Australian