Papers show an official abundance of caution persuaded New Zealand to downplay soil as a carbon sink, instead of bringing it into the ETS, as a carrot for farmers

You know the old cliche, about wood, and trees.

Carbon build-up, in the atmosphere, is worrying; we talk and talk and talk, globally and locally, about how to incentivise tree-planting to offset it. What about the biggest carbon sink of all, in the ground under our feet?

Soil is said to hold more carbon, from dead and decaying things, than the world’s atmosphere and trees combined. If it could be altered for the better by land management, the idea is that it might be a carbon sink, in the same way as planting trees — a no less fruitful option for managing greenhouse gas levels.

Alternatively, managing it badly could be a bit of a problem.

Article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol allowed parties to voluntarily account for soil carbon changes from productive land management: cropping, grazing, and so on.

Farming savvy New Zealand did not sign up to this bit of the Protocol.

Nonetheless, it’s an option farmers are reportedly interested in. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) says there has been interest and speculation by farmers that they may be able to use carbon stored in their soils to offset future emissions trading scheme (ETS) liabilities. Right now, though, this is not in the ETS, which focuses on our Kyoto obligations; and nor, of course, are farmers.

In other words, then, a much-needed carrot for agriculture’s entry to the ETS has been spurned, out of an official abundance of caution.

But for every bean-counting official, there is a soil scientist keen to dig the dirt. A soil carbon conference convenes in Wellington tomorrow. Presumably, like last year’s, it will try to demonstrate that this is real science, worth real money, that could help to solve climate change, and benefit the environment in other ways. To demonstrate, in short, that this is a good option for New Zealand.

I am very excited. I have a media pass.

Officials, a naturally cautious breed, cannot afford another ‘billion dollar Kyoto bungle’. The reasons for their caution are set out in 2009 briefings from MAF to the Minister of Agriculture “on recent science on soil carbon changes on farmland”, and from the official Emissions Trading Group to the Emissions Trading Scheme Review Select Committee. (The ‘billion dollar bungle’ isn’t mentioned.)

The first reason: it was all too hard. “The methodology for accounting for soil carbon is complicated.” “New Zealand does not have data to establish 1990 baseline soil carbon levels.” “There are technical barriers related to measurement and monitoring.”

The second: national self-interest (my emphasis).

There was a high degree of uncertainty as to the cost/benefit implications of accounting for these activities due to incomplete knowledge of what was occurring in soils across New Zealand (for example, in erosion areas). Once a country starts accounting for these categories they are obliged to continue to do so.”

The science was uncertain, and might backfire economically; if it did, we would be unable to wriggle out of our international accounting obligations.

According to these papers, although “soil carbon losses appear to be associated with higher land-use intensity”, all of the factors are not fully understood. But one possible trend is emerging: two independent recent studies showed that land used for intensive dairying, in particular, has lost more carbon than land under other uses.

There are also quite high soil carbon levels in New Zealand, relative to some other countries, perhaps making it hard for us to sequester any more. This seems to be more about luck than management, with possible factors including the relative youth of the country (recent deforestation), and rainfall.

So officials know how much we don’t know, and their conservatism isn’t surprising, even if it seems yet another example of bureaucratic fiddling while Earth burns.

However, hints are that under post-Kyoto protocols, if negotiated, this sort of accounting may be compulsory; therefore, whether we like it or not, this is one to watch.

It’s on the work programme of our hub for the global agricultural research alliance. If I was the government, I’d be pursuing it with stealth, but speed, as a useful way of chivvying farmers into the ETS.

Even though soil scientists may not yet understand all the factors, or may struggle to measure them, the likelihood, or the hope anyway, is that what is good for carbon storing, will also be good for the environment and productivity:

“The focus is on supplying oxygen, water, food and comfort to the most important farm livestock — the underground ones … Active soil humus means more fertile and friable soils, better water utilisation, reduced need for fertilisers and pesticides, and greater nutritional density of the food produced. This translates to better animal health, less erosion, no leachate, greater profit, and more satisfaction for the farmer.”

[Source: BioAgNZ "Biological agriculture examples" (May 2007), given to me by Simon Terry, Sustainability Council.]

If carbon science backs up this emphasis on building soil organic matter, we might, in the end, find that soil carbon farming is really just big organic gardening. How cool is that?

Comments (11)

by stuart munro on September 14, 2010
stuart munro

Dyson, an envirosceptic, has:

The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil. To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere.

And of course to those who are familiar with Fukuoka's no till management, or use The Press mulch in their organic gardens, none of this seems particularly difficult, much less far-fetched.

by Judy Martin on September 14, 2010
Judy Martin

Thanks for sacrificing your spring planting days to report on this for us. Lots of details please. Ever since I first read about terra preta I have had an unreasonably optimistic sense that this could be a broad-based low tech solution to increasing soil carbon and decreasing atmospheric, as well as the good husbandry techniques Stuart has mentioned. I'd much rather see something like that attempted than the sort of monkeying with the atmosphere that this entails.

by Gary Cranston on September 16, 2010
Gary Cranston

While industrial agriculture and livestock farming has depleted soil carbon (and other nutrient) content worldwide and contributed largely to climate change, your article did not point out a fatal mistake many well-intentioned farmers and soil scientists made due to ignorance about the nature of carbon markets.

Every ton of carbon that is  sequestered by improved farming techniques, when sold to the carbon market as carbon credits, will simply enable someone else (a polluter) to emit an equivalent ton of carbon from their smokestacks, while the country claims to meet its emission reduction targets. I.e., farmers are doing the carbon reductions for the polluters, so polluters can continue business as usual. That's not a climate solution.

Soil carbon sequestration is non-permanent (wildfire, drought, flood, infestation all increases with warming), while smokestack emissions are permanent.

NZ's Global research alliance isnt aimed at stopping climate change, its about engineering climate policy loopholes for Fonterra.The main aim is to get soil carbon into carbon markets and make a business out of it while fundamentally unsustainable mega-scale-dairy production continues as usual.

For more information on ways for Industry to cheat their way out of taking responsibility for climate change, and a good history of land based carbon sink loopholes see:

and for a good overview of false and real solutions to Agricultural greenhouse gases see the following report Agriculture and Climate Change: Real Problems, False Solutions

by Gary Cranston on September 17, 2010
Gary Cranston

I would appreciate a reply from you on this Claire. This is too important to be overlooked by journalists and commentators as the NZ agricultural PR machine wriggles its way out of its responsibilities.

You can contact me directly on


Gary Cranston

withoutyourwalls - climate justice infoshop

by Rob Mida on September 17, 2010
Rob Mida

Soil health is very important for our health and the climate.  Find out more information on  Biomass Energy
or download our Biomass Fact Sheet. There are many drawbacks to our modern efforts of "Terra Pretta" with incinerator in disguise technologies like pyrolysis or gasification.

Also see our relevant page on Incineration technologies.

by Claire Browning on September 17, 2010
Claire Browning

Gary. My interim reply is: just breathe. It helps.

You posted your first comment, I believe, some time between 4 pm and early evening yesterday. I was offline. It is now 10.30 am.

Yes, I will come back to you. In the meantime, though, you've made your point. And here on the thread will do; I don't think we need to elevate this to the level of a private correspondence.

by Claire Browning on September 20, 2010
Claire Browning

Gary, returning to your comments. Of course, there's much truth in them. From my admittedly (relatively) superficial knowledge, I don't believe you're quite correct on the permanent/non-permanent thing: I had understood atmospheric emissions were long-lived, as opposed to permanent (although perhaps, 'permanent' within the human timescale, and particularly so once we bugger up the biosphere, get into feedback loops and so on); and that the challenge is to find methods of soil carbon sequestration that are similarly durable (with biochar one possible example). Part of the debate is about exactly the point you make: how can we count on anything so variable? And on the potential for gaming: absolutely, but that's a problem with international emissions accounting more generally, not specific to soil carbon.

That said, your belligerence is totally unnecessary ... and provoking. Far from 'overlooking' the issues, I hope you spent the intervening couple of days having a look around Pundit, figuring out who is the enemy here, or not, as the case may be -- first rule of combat, surely. 

In short, it wasn't a post about the nature of carbon markets in general, or whether our own ETS is robust. It was attempting, for better or worse, a few other things:

  1. a backgrounder to last week's soil carbon conference;
  2. what turned out to be a 100% accurate heads up for Pundit readers (without having to pay $700-odd to hear the MAF presenter) on where NZ government is on this issue, as revealed in papers released to me under the OIA;
  3. an implicit question about why soil carbon is being treated with more suspicion by NZ than other ETS solutions, equally open to gaming, when it is highly relevant to us, could have such environmentally-positive potential irrespective of emissions trading, and might also help achieve the positive result of leveraging farmers into the ETS.

The problem of making sure our policy response (with or without soil carbon) is meaningful in climate terms is a related-but-separate one.

In particular, that seems true for soil carbon, which offers so many other benefits: it deserves its own discussion on environmental grounds, even though in each of last week's three posts, I did link it to climate change.

I hope that helps. More than you deserve, frankly.

by Gary Cranston on September 21, 2010
Gary Cranston

Thanks for your response Claire,

I would have emailed you direct if your contacts were available, and would have mentioned that I was hoping for a response to my comments in my first post if it were possible, but it isnt, so I had to write a separate one leaving you with the impression that I was being 'belligerent'. Sorry about that, I didn’t write to take the piss out of you, I wrote because this is a really important topic that needs to be talked out and understood. I recon its important to mention that emissions trading is rotten at its root if you’re going to write an informative article on soil carbon sequestration, but you didn’t and so I wrote that response to fill in the gaps for the readers who all too often have been left without the full story on issues related to climate change, especially where emissions trading is concerned. Isnt that what the comments section is for?

I wrote my post because throughout the decades of debate around climate change, the companies causing and profiting from emitting greenhouse gases have spent horrendous amounts of money on public relations campaigns engineered initially to deny climate change itself and more recently, to deceive the public about whos side they are on, and those promoting Biochar and soil based carbon trading from on high are no different. Last week, the International Biochar Initiative which is the biggest Industrial lobby group for Biochar in the world had their biggest conference to date in Rio de Janiero sending waves of misinformation throughout their global networks and into green movements and green politics. The IBI was responsible for getting Biochar into the COP15 draft text [before the summit thankfully fell to pieces] as a way of generating cheap and meaningless carbon credits for industry. They have a particularly strong lobby in this country with the NZ Biochar Network reaching into Massey University and the Global Research Alliance for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on finding ways for Fonterra to cheat their way out of dealing with climate change. Just like all the rest of the false solutions to climate change promoted by industry, there is no chance whatsoever that Biochar as a climate solution will get off the ground without all that carbon trading / offsetting funding and the programme for the NZ Soil carbon conference and similar conferences around the world shows how much of an emphasis is being put on achieving that.

The New Zealand government has been particularly aggressive in its attempts to bust open loopholes on behalf of its wealthiest and highest agricultural emitters. In turn, many concerned environmentalists and social justice campaigners are being quite successfully won over by these distractive and opportunistic campaigns, as are many commentators on the issue. As most damaging of all - so are the public.

The reason the NZETS, or should I say carbon trading itself, was not criticised for being the fundamentally flawed and big polluting business designed mechanism it is, is because the public were not given the right information by journalists, commentators and even the major voices of the major green NGOs and political partys who either didn’t do their research, or naively and unsuccessfully tried to use it as political leverage in one failed way or another. As a result the public here in New Zealand have been caught in the crossfire of all this spin.

It up to the rest of us to counter their claims whether they come straight out of the mouths of their PR departments and even more importantly, when they are promoted by the people who the public are supposed to get objective information from. And so it has been left to others to provide this information. We cannot afford to let the same thing happen with soil based carbon trading as it will inevitably result in fraud, distraction and destruction wrought by greenwashing companies tearing down rainforests, removing indigenous peoples from their lands and leading a new wave of colonisation of land in the majority world in their search for carbon credits.

Like it or not, climate change isnt a win-win situation, its a lose-lose situation for almost all of the worlds inhabitants whos best chance of survival is to collectively confront the types of vultures who decended upon the NZ Soil Carbon conference and the companies who continue to destroy the climate with their help rather than giving them a hand with their deceptive PR.

I know your on the right side of this debate Claire, and I’m sorry if It seems aggressive when I’m pointing out these things, but this is an important conversation and I’m glad we're having it because unlike what the IBI and the rest of them would have us believe, we're not all in this together and there are no short cuts around the real political organising we have to do on the ground to stop climate change. Leaving it up to their markets is suicide, and if we don’t have this conversation, thats exactly whats going to happen here in NZ.

I put my contacts on the end of my post because if you contacted me directly I could send you more information & reports etc from people who are watching these happenings closely and critically, but if you’re not interested then that’s fine. Theres plenty of information in the reading section of if you are.

Thanks again for your article and your response.

-Gary Cranston

withoutyourwalls - climate justice infoshop

by Claire Browning on September 22, 2010
Claire Browning

I would have emailed you direct if your contacts were available ...

They are, though it's not exactly self-explanatory. Click on my name. Click on Pundit profile. Click on the 'contact' tab.

Isnt that what the comments section is for?

Yes. I appreciated the comments, and the need for the conversation. I was just a bit baffled, really, trying to figure out what sort of 'response' from me was needed or expected, in the circumstances; and you know how e-correspondence is notorious, for misinterpreting tone.

We ought to be clear here though. I wasn't "promoting" anything. I was saying, soil carbon looks like an issue that hasn't had enough attention; let's give it some. No doubt, there are any number of other issues that haven't had proper attention either. Give me time.

if you contacted me directly I could send you more information & reports etc from people who are watching these happenings closely and critically, but if you’re not interested then that’s fine ...

I'm interested.

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