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Professor Richard Eckard (University of Melbourne) was interviewed on the margins of the Integrative Research Group (IRG) meeting of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, held in Paris on 17-18 January 2018.
1) Professor Eckard, what was the role of research in the development of the soil carbon industry in Australia?
The Australian government invested a significant amount of money in a National Soil Carbon programme, which included a Soil Carbon research programme and a follow-up programme of about an 8-year period. This allowed to analyse soils from all across the country and was crucial to give an understanding of the role that soil carbon could play: in fact, it provides us with enough evidence to suggest that we could develop a carbon-offset method. Therefore, the federal government commissioned the development of two carbon-offset methods. And one of them is very simple: if you are a farmer setting to build your soil carbon, you can take measurements on day 1 and again 5 years later proving that there was a change in soil carbon, and therefore claim that carbon offset for having stored carbon in the soils. However, even though many farmers are interested, the amount of money they get from soil carbon credit is quite limited. In addition, this systems entails a series of obligations, in particular, that of keeping carbon in the soil. Furthermore, such obligations are strictly bound to the land: when the latter is sold, the new owner inherits all the carbon obligations attached to that land. Having said that, I think our research work was significant with the respect to the inherent productivity, profitability and sustainability benefit of having soil carbon. For instance, one of my students published a modelling study based on the simple question “Low carbon or high carbon: what is the inherent value proposition?”. She showed that in a particular region of Australia there is a 100-dollar worth of productivity per hectare difference just in the ability of a high carbon soil to hold more nitrogen and release more nitrogen. In addition, she showed that, if one just considers the soil water holding capacity of high carbon compared to low carbon, there is another 100-dollar worth difference per hectare: and that is a climate change adaptation benefit because having a soil that can hold more water enhances resilience to climate change. So, we are trying to convey a message to users, saying that perhaps they should not focus on trying to sell soil carbon and carbon credit since this is not very profitable (only 7 dollars/hectare). On the contrary, going from low carbon to high carbon can lead to substantial gains (100 dollars/hectare related to nitrogen and additional 100 dollars/hectare related to water) in just doing the right thing. I think that message is getting more attraction in Australia now, because it does not entail particular obligations and it spares users the paperwork needed to sell carbon credits. It is a lot easier to get farmers on board by saying “let’s do soil carbon right, let’s do it for a right reason” because it just makes farming more sustainable.
2) Let’s imagine we have once more to convince policy-makers and the general public of the importance of research in the field of soil carbon. What would you say? Why is this important and why should we keep invest in it?
Soil carbon is one of those areas of agriculture where there is no dispute between proactive mitigation and adaptation. We know that if you have high soil carbon, your system is more productive and that, at the same time, you store atmospheric CO2 in your soils, thus contribute to reducing GHG emissions. We also know that having high soil carbon in your soils leads to more resilience to climate variability and climate change itself because those soils can be more productive and store more water. So, this is one of those areas where there is no conflict and I think it is very easy to communicate that. Alongside that, we should start talking about methane and cattle: the only techniques we have to reduce that methane effectively is to reduce the productivity, individual performance and the number of cattle. We also need to think about reducing nitrous oxide, and here we are talking about possibly sacrificing some crop yields: that is surely a harder message to get across. While soil carbon is an easy one, there is no real conflict or trade-off, and we can clearly see a win-win strategy in that.
3) What can meetings like this one today bring? In which way they are useful in your opinion? What is their added value and what can you learn from other countries’ experiences?
One of the discussions we had is about what each country is doing on soil carbon. There is a significant global effort, and if you put all that together, it actually makes a bigger and more comprehensive story. Australia had an 8-year soil carbon program, during which 28000 soil carbon samples were collected and stored in a database. Now, that database can help with information in Australia. But if you put that database into a global effort, where you combine it with that of Uruguay, France or Norway and all the other countries’ experiences we heard today, the whole thing gets so much more powerful, as all of this can help us to tell the story of the global contribution that soil carbon trends can make to climate change.
4) With regard to your last point, it was mentioned in the meeting today that there are less capacity and less availability of data in developing countries. This makes it hard to complete this global picture. How could we tackle this issue?
This is truly an important point. I think we have not actually done our due diligence when looking into developing countries and what is being done there. I am talking about relevant experiments and I am aware of one in South Africa for example. It is a long-term experiment set up in 1959 that never had the objective at looking at soil carbon, but soils carbon sample have been taken throughout it. It was just a grazing management experiment, which was set up to compare different grazing management and different fire burning regimes in African soils. But what is of great value for us is its soil carbon database, of which very few know about. Indeed, if you look around the world for soil carbon databases, you will not find this experiment. What you actually have to look for are long-term experiments and the data collected in the framework of these experiments. This experiment diligently over a 57-year period has collected soil carbon samples and got them all stored in a warehouse. Therefore, if the IRG proposed to fund the analysis of that 57-year record of soil samples that are stored in a warehouse there in South Africa, we would realize that we actually do have some data in developing countries. To cut a long story short, we would just have to think a bit more widely about how we look for data in a country and to be ready to find these data in a larger variety of sources.