Storing carbon in land can’t solve climate change: new report

28.09.16 By

Australia should develop a ‘firewall’ between its policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions and those designed to increase carbon uptake on land, a new Climate Council report has recommended.

The Land Carbon: No Substitute for Reducing Fossil Fuels report recommends banning offsetting fossil fuel emissions by increasing land carbon.

It finds that while increasing carbon in land systems is important, Australia is muddying the waters by combining land carbon and fossil fuel reduction policies which is giving an inaccurate picture of Australia’s progress in tackling climate change.

The Australian Government’s Direct Action Scheme has focused on the land sector. About $670m has been paid to buy 51 million tonnes of land sector greenhouse gas abatement through Australia’s Direct Action Scheme, with much of it going to avoided tree clearing.

However, little effort has been spent reducing emissions from coal, oil and gas – the burning of these fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change.

Climate scientist and Climate Councillor Professor Will Steffen said it was vital that Australia’s emissions reduction policies reflected the scientific differences between carbon from fossil fuels and carbon stored in land systems.

“Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is ‘new’ carbon that has been locked away for millions of years, whereas storing carbon in land is a redistribution of carbon already in the active carbon cycle. For instance as trees grow, they take up carbon and when they die the carbon goes back into the air. Whereas coal is deep underground,” he said.

“Taking up carbon into land systems simply means we are putting back some of the carbon that was earlier transferred from land to atmosphere. We are not reducing any of the ‘new’ carbon added through burning fossil fuels.

“While storing carbon in land systems is important and should be encouraged, it should not be used as offset for fossil fuel emission reductions.

“Unlike fossil fuels left in the ground, carbon stored in land systems is very vulnerable to being returned to the atmosphere through bushfires, land clearing and other means. In fact, the land sector greenhouse gas abatement purchased through Direct Action could be reduced or even wiped out through a relaxation of land-clearing regulations in Queensland and New South Wales.”

The report finds:

Professor Steffen said the true test of a climate policy was whether it reduced fossil fuel emissions.

“To tackle climate change, Australia needs to be reducing its emissions and they’re currently continuing to rise.

“Electricity emissions rose 1.8% in Australia last year while in the US, emissions from the electricity generation sector fell 18%,” he said.

“Sequestering carbon in land systems is still very useful but it has to be done in addition to reducing fossil fuel emissions deeply and rapidly.”

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