Some members of the National Carbon Accounting team with their Eureka Prize.

Some members of the National Carbon Accounting team with their Eureka Prize.

Australia's National Carbon Accounting System Leads the World

The Department of Climate Change, CSIRO and the Australian National University have jointly developed a world-leading National Carbon Accounting System that won the 2008 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

  • 22 October 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011

The Australian-developed National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS) monitors and predicts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and uptake from land-based activities covering all of Australia.

The innovative environmental research behind NCAS makes it more comprehensive and reliable than systems developed elsewhere in the world. It is at least five years ahead of GHG accounting systems developed by other countries.

NCAS was selected in an international search by the Clinton Climate Initiative as the basis for a Global Carbon Monitoring System which, through carbon trading, will not only benefit the environment but help alleviate poverty in developing nations.

Partnership

The project is led by the Department of Climate Change. CSIRO and the ANU have contributed much of the research needed to underpin such a system.

Nearly ten years ago, the Department of Climate Change (then the Australian Greenhouse Office) provided the vision and impetus for developing a reliable national monitoring system to accurately address questions like:

  • how is Australia progressing towards its Kyoto target?
  • what are the national implications of committing to optional international greenhouse commitments?
  • how are reductions in land clearing or greater tree planting contributing to the GHG balance of the Australian land sector?

The project is led by the Department of Climate Change. CSIRO's Sustainable Agriculture Flagship and the Australian National University (ANU) have contributed much of the research needed to underpin such a system.

CSIRO provided expertise in:

  • use of satellite imagery for creating a reliable time series of spatial change in woody vegetation across the entire continent
  • methods for estimating the effects of land use change and management on temporal change in biomass and soil carbon.

The ANU provided expertise in:

  • generation of historic climatic surfaces for the continent
  • modelling of forest growth in response to environmental drivers and management practices.

Goals

About 25 per cent of Australia's GHG emissions come from land use change and management practices such as deforestation, forest harvesting and grazing sheep and cattle. However, the vastness of our continent, the extent and diversity of our land systems and of agricultural management has made accurate fine-scale monitoring or estimation of GHG emissions difficult.

A solution is offered by remote sensing technology linked to models describing changes in carbon and the exchange of methane and nitrous oxide.

One goal of the research was to create environmental monitoring and planning tools for landholders to take a range of practical steps through reforestation, environmental planting and modified agricultural practices that reduce GHG emissions.

Specific requirements included:

  1. serving the Australian Government reporting obligations related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
  2. guiding policy formulation on the mitigation of emissions from land-based sources by allowing accurate comparison of emission reduction benefits of various policy actions.
  3. translating the capacity of the national system into a user-friendly farm and forest-scale tool (National Carbon Accounting Toolbox or NCAT) so land holders can estimate emissions from various land use and land management options.
  4. providing comprehensive, accessible data and information to support further environmental research and development.

CSIRO's role

CSIRO provided specialists in:

  • remote sensing and mathematical and information sciences
  • forest ecology and management
  • methods for estimating change in biomass carbon
  • modelling of soil carbon dynamics.

Some of the innovations to which CSIRO contributed were:

  • development of an overarching and integrative modelling framework that allows the simulation of the effects of land cover change, land management, and climatic variation on GHG balance
  • generation and analysis of an archive of satellite data from 1972-2007 involving 14 national coverages in a consistent time series that enables understanding of the historic rates and patterns of change in land cover and forest condition
  • refinement, calibration and testing of soil and biomass carbon models for important Australian land systems
  • generation of data bases that describe the historical change in forest and agricultural land management
  • development of a national Forest Productivity Index that can be used to estimate forest biomass at maturity and to scale rates of forest growth.

Awards

The NCAS project and its developers have received the:

  • Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, 2008
  • Recognition of scientific contributions to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leading to the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore (Dr John Raison of CSIRO and Dr Gary Richards of the Australian Government Department of Climate Change), 2007
  • Carrick Australian Award for University Teaching, Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning (Dr Cris Brack, ANU), 2007
  • CSIRO Chairman's Medal (Dr Peter Caccetta and team, CSIRO), 2004.

The future

NCAS will provide the GHG accounting methods for the land sectors that will form part of Australia’s approach to reducing carbon pollution. This may provide a significant income stream for many land managers and result in improved and more sustainable production systems.

The Toolbox has also been used to raise awareness and understanding of greenhouse issues throughout Australia. So far about 7000 copies of the Toolbox have been distributed and many hundreds of people have attended training workshops run throughout regional and rural Australia.

On an international level, the partnership between the Australian Government and the Clinton Climate Initiative is expected to generate a number of outcomes that will improve the global natural environment.

This research is delivered through CSIRO's Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.

Learn more about CSIRO's work in Climate Change.