Fighting Climate Change with Efficiency and Soil

Fighting Climate Change with Efficiency and Soil

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Leader of the Opposition, announced the Green Carbon Initiative Jan. 24 at the young Liberals Convention in Canberra.

The Turnbull plan for combating climate change is basically a two-pronged approach to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It involves a bio-carbon strategy: healthy landscapes, soil carbon restoration by reversing damage from overgrazing and excessive tillage, embedding carbon dioxide in charcoal fertilizer, or "bio-char," and tree planting. The second plank aims to dramatically boost energy efficiency, particularly in buildings. Renowned scientist Tim Flannery supports the plan because soil offers a major tool for reducing existing carbon in the atmosphere.

Turnbull wants to "fast track" bio-char technology development; the process involves heating green farm waste in the absence of oxygen, transforming half of the resulting material into biofuel for electricity and the other half into bio-char, a charcoal-like substance that enhances agricultural productivity. Turnbull is also a big proponent of tree planting. "Every wind break, tree lot or hedge planted by farmers to protect pastures, crops and livestock is both sequestering CO2 and increasing agricultural production," he said.

Soil presents the largest opportunity to sequester carbon through bio-char or other techniques. Holistic management, pioneered by Allen Savoury, is another method involving natural grazing and herding techniques that restore soil carbon. Some soil carbon scientists believe the entire legacy or carbon load could be absorbed in the world's croplands if properly managed. Instead, some estimate 24 billion tons of soil erode annually.

Turnbull seems to be influenced by President Barack Obama, who so far has included agricultural offsets in the agenda of a potential U.S. cap-and-trade while pushing energy efficiency in buildings as a major White House initiative. But the current Australian plan for an Emissions Trading Scheme leaves out the agriculture and energy efficiency in buildings. 

Penny Wong, Australia's Climate Change Minister, has said the science isn't strong enough and that soil carbon, including bio-char, doesn't fit within the scope of the Kyoto Protocol. The Australian ETS, however, is modeled on the European ETS, which excludes the energy efficiency, transport and agricultural sectors under Kyoto. But the Kyoto Protocol was just the beginning, and later agreements, sometimes called "Post-Kyoto," will be concluded in December in Copenhagen for the next commitment period of 2012-2017.

The tools and methodologies needed to measure soil carbon are under development. The main reason for leaving out these activities is that they are difficult to track -- the many small-scale producers of GHG emissions in vehicle, buildings and agriculture are viewed as being too hard to independently validate, verify and monitor. But methodologies to deal with these small but numerous GHG producers have been developed, and many more are in the pipeline for different types of activities.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism is where project-based or sector activities, including energy efficiency, transport and agriculture, have been undertaken and methodologies developed. The various voluntary offset programs, such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), also include these sectors.

I know of companies working on soil carbon methodologies for agricultural offset projects under the VCS with a view that approval will pave the way for approval under a U.S. cap-and-trade. Once the Voluntary Carbon Standard approves soil carbon methodologies, they can be used by all globally.

So I recommend that Australia look to developments in the active U.S. Voluntary Carbon Market, which follows the same standards as the Kyoto protocol in terms of requiring offsets to be independently validated and verified with ongoing monitoring.

The second prong of Turnbull's plan -- energy efficiency -- is another big opportunity to achieve low-cost emissions reductions. Unfortunately, the Australian government keeps unduly focusing on carbon capture and storage, which may be part of the solution but not the only solution. Why? Vested interests. In the case of energy efficiency, the coal industry, which supplies more than 90 percent of Australian electricity, is the problem. The high dependence on coal is greater in Australia than in the U.S.  Australia also is the largest exporter of coal to China. Coal is the Achilles heel in Australia, just as oil is in America.

The time has come to include energy efficiency, transport and agriculture in any solution to address climate change. The reduction target for Kyoto was only 5 percent -- a first step. The U.S. is talking about an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions, so these sectors must be included. According to the Pew Center's sectoral estimates, agriculture produced 14 percent of global GHG emissions, transport produced 13 percent of emissions, and commercial and residential buildings generated 34 percent of worldwide emissions. Taken together, the three sources produce more than 60 percent of global GHG emissions.

There is no reason why the world must follow the original model laid out in Europe. The stage is open for all countries to influence the second phase of Kyoto and innovate concerning the sectors that can be included that will most reduce GHGs. Developed nations need to include sectors that are now covered under CDM of the Kyoto Protocol for the Post Kyoto period 2012-2017. To make the Australian ETS work, it should consider soil carbon and energy efficiency in transport and buildings, and the same is true for the U.S.

Karla Bell is a co-founder of Carbonflow Inc., a software company working to reduce the transaction costs and bolster transparency and environmental integrity of the global carbon credit market. She is also editor at, where a version of this article originally appeared. She recently began a campaign to get energy efficiency and agricultural offsets included in a future U.S. cap-and-trade program.