The impact of human activity on the environment
It is now widely accepted that climate change is driven by human activity, triggered by increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. It is also widely recognised that the management of vegetation and soils is a critical tool for reducing the future impacts of such changes.
This includes the sequestration, or removal, of carbon into soil and vegetation (via improved agricultural management and revegetation), and the management of vegetation to reduce emissions from forest clearing and/or to increase sequestration by managing regrowth. A key challenge is the development of sequestration technologies that are cost-effective, and that produce meaningful abatement at national-to-global scales.
The key political drivers are international agreements that mandate the reporting of, and actions to reduce, greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors of the economy. These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the 2016 Paris Agreement, both of which Australia is a signatory.
Within Australia, the key domestic policies are the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory that annually reports all greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, and the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), which provides the financial mechanism to incentivise industries to either reduce emissions, or increase sequestration, contributing to the emission reduction targets set under the Paris Agreement. Currently, over 70 per cent of the contracted abatement under the ERF (excluding Savanna Burning), valued at over $1.6 billion, comes from soil and vegetation management.
Reducing the cost of sequestration activities
The research team undertakes projects to develop cutting-edge technologies for quantifying carbon sequestration in Australian vegetation and soils, and has extensive experience in field survey design and data collection, development of statistically robust sampling strategies, novel instrumentation for on-site soil carbon measurement, development of empirical models of vegetation biomass, models for the spatial prediction of soil carbon and other soil properties at different spatial scales, and biogeochemical modelling and prediction of sequestration at local to national scales.
To support our research, the team collaborates widely with state and federal government agencies, non-government organisations, universities and the private sector. These collaborations facilitate national-level coordination in research effort, provide opportunities for accessing and sharing key infrastructure, and allow the development of nationally-significant databases on soil and vegetation carbon.
CSIRO and its partners have developed a range of science innovations that seek to reduce the costs of land managers participating in soil and vegetation-based sequestration activities, that seek to improve the accuracy and implementation of the national carbon accounting system, and that provide science-based evidence in support of land-based carbon management policies under the Emissions Reduction Fund. Specific innovations include:
- National-scale databases and analytics to support improvements in UNFCCC greenhouse gas emissions accounting
- National scale digital soil mapping, to support the Australian Government’s carbon accounting software tool ‘FullCAM’ in the Australian Greenhouse Gas Inventory
- Biomass mapping, and empirical databases of vegetation biomass and growth to support the FULLCAM in the Australian Greenhouse Gas Inventory
- Development and testing of a suite of novel mathematical models for predicting vegetation growth and biomass
- New techniques to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of carbon measurement in soil and vegetation
- Quantification of the co-benefits associated with carbon farming
- Integration into the FullCAM with new data and algorithms to support national accounting and ERF methodologies
- Improved soil sampling and measurement methods for soil carbon accounting
New methodologies and profitable revegetation programs
Collectively, work in this area has resulted in:
- The development of two new Emissions Reduction Fund methodologies (‘Measurement of Soil Carbon Sequestration in Agricultural Systems’ and ‘Reforestation by Environmental or Mallee Plantings—FullCAM’), stimulating new land-based abatement activity to a value of approximately $110 Million (as of April 2018).
- Resulted in an approximate doubling of the profitability of revegetation programs involving mallee and Eucalypt plantings, through updates based on CSIRO research to the FullCAM model leading to more accurate sequestration predictions.
- Improved scientific basis and transparency of the National Carbon Accounting System, satisfying UNFCCC requirements for ongoing improvement and facilitating smoother international review of Australia’s accounting methods.