There’s lies, damned lies, statistics and then there’s carbon accounting

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

It’s February and the September quarter 2013 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures have just been released but are getting rather less coverage than in the heady days when Kevin Rudd pronounced climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time … etc.

The big issue at present is of course whether (or should this be “weather”) the carbon tax has done anything. Peter Hannam in The Age sketches the position of the players. Christine Milne pointing to the cuts in electricity emissions to claim yes, and Greg Hunt using the same figures to belittle the impact. Of course, we have an academic Frank Jotzo pointing out that what matters is what the emissions would have been without the tax. Ah! That’s obviously correct but rather tougher to estimate.

In total, our emissions have increased by 1.2 percent and Hannam singles our land-clearing as the culprit, because its gone up.

What the hell is land clearing? It’s easily the most complex of all the emission categories and it’s worth considering in some detail, because almost nobody ever does.

Land clearing is the sum of some other categories. Cutting stuff down is called deforestation and growing stuff is called either afforestation or reforestation depending on whether there was ever anything there before you started to grow stuff. The three terms are formally defined in the September Quarter document with afforestation and deforestation being formally defined as: “new commercial and environmental forest plantations by direct human action on land not forested in 1989.” It notes that net emissions are typically negative because growing stuff exceeds cutting stuff.

It all looks rosy until you go digging through the actual data. At which point things get very murky. The formal spreadsheets Australia submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are extremely detailed … as they should be. And we find that rather more categories are used to generate the three subtotals.

Basically, land is considered to be in one of a few states: Forest Land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements, and two categories of Other. In each category, land can either be entering the category or remaining in it. If Forest becomes Grass (via clearing), then typically it stores less carbon so we get a positive carbon emission. That’s easy. That same land might emit carbon for some time after the initial clearing, so there is a category of “Grass remaining Grass”. That’s not so easy. And what about Forest remaining Forest? Well that’s also easy, if you don’t do anything, Forests accumulate carbon so you get a negative emissing … a gain. Gains are good.

Are you still with me?

It’s important to understand that smallish net figures can hide huge gains and losses. For example, our latest submission to the UNFCCC was late in 2013 and covers 2011. We got a carbon gain from Forests remaining Forests of 84 million tonnes. That’s a really big number which we can and do use to offset any cutting stuff down activities during the year. So where does this 84 million tonnes come from? Remember the definitions? Remember the phrase direct human action? It appears that this Forest land, represents a massive amount of good work because, presumably it must have been planted by somebody. Yes? Well no. Not at all. It’s a scam. Everybody does it. Meaning it’s legal within the letter of the UNFCCC rules and other countries with plenty of land and trees pull exactly the same scam, but that doesn’t make it any less of a scam.

The giveaway is buried even deeper in the UNFCCC submission. It’s the area of Forests remaining Forests. All 107 million hectares of it. As of 2011 in our State of the Environment report, the area of native forests and woodlands in Australia was around 148 million hectares with 2 million hectares of plantation forests. But we’ve just seen that according to our NGGI we have by “direct human action” produced 107 million hectares of new forests since 1989.

Pull the other one.

What’s basically happening is we are enlisting quite a bit of natural forest growth to offset a substantial amount of our cutting stuff down. And who is it that is cutting stuff down? Again we need to look at the detail and not just settle for the net figures. Except that we can’t because they aren’t published at the level we need in the September quarter report. For example, if we look at the latest available UNFCCC submission, we can see that about about 80 percent of the Forest-to-something emissions come from Forest land being converted to Grassland. The other 20 percent is Forest land being converted to Crop land.

Who converts Forest land to Grass? It’s almost entirely the cow boys. So the bottom line is that sequestration from native forests is being used to offset about 68 million tonnes of annual emissions from the cattle industry knocking down forests.

Add in the methane from the cattle, both those on the “Grass remaining Grass” and the “Forest becoming Grass” and you might just understand how Australia’s cattle are doing more to warm the planet than our coal fired power stations. My very first post to BNC was the republication of an op-ed with Barry Brook and Peter Singer back in 2008. Since then, Australia has gained about a million cattle and climate scientists have increased estimates of the warming impact of a tonne of methane compared to a tonne of CO2 over the next 20 years by almost 50 percent. This makes the cattle’s 2.01 million tonnes of methane equal to about 211 million tonnes of CO2. Add in the 68 million tonnes from land clearing and you have a 20 year impact bigger than all our energy industries.

But nobody seems to give a damn. None of our so-called environment organisations. Not ACF, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, the Climate Council. Their silence on the cattle industry is deafening. Nor does it matter that cattle have done the lion’s share of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef over the past couple of decades. The cattle industry in Queensland is the biggest contributor to silt, particulate nitrogen pollution and phosphorous pollution and these have been slowly degrading the reef for a couple of decades. The current commendable campaigns to save the reef from the impacts of increase coal port dredging haven’t bothered to ask what will happen if they win? The reef will still be in just as much trouble as it was before they started.

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  1. Then there is also Buffel Grass, termed the Cane Toad of the plant world, which is a weed spreading to the rest of the country. Cattle growers are looking for worse versions of this weed that will endure harsher conditions. The governments of NT and Qld are promoting this with no thought of the consequences to the rest of the country. People at Alice Springs, for example, lament what was lost when Buffel Grass arrived.

  2. Hi Geoff,
    As an admirer of your writing and believer in HMG climate change and the need for both a reduction in CO 2 emissions and removal from the atmosphere, I was stunned by your attack on cattle as the greatest unrecognised climate risk – wow – what next – eliminate the great herds of wild grazing animals including elephants ??
    To not understand that modern agricultural practices in which high density rotational grazing, which mimics nature in the way the vast herds of wild migratory animals restore replenish and maintain the vast African savannahs, builds soil, locks up carbon on a scale humans cant match and increases ‘effective rainfall’ helping drought proof the country and stop and reverse desertification, the greatest threat to the planet – think of Venus or Martian landscapes !
    Lets state some facts we can agree upon:
    1. Rampant land clearing with associated burn off may be responsible for 10% of CO2 emissions per year – BAD !
    2. Over grazing is responsible for desertification, both wind and rain erosion of topsoil, flooding etc – planned high density rotational grazing (HDG) on the other hand maintains grasslands, increases their diversity, creates topsoil, increase organic carbon which increases water holding capacity and hence drought proofs it, and by reducing runoff (because of greater absorption i.e. ‘effective rainfall’) helps reduce flooding. There’s a vast amount of literature available on this, but to get started, watch Alan Savory’s Tuff’s University speech on You Tube and also his much watched TED talk – being a Vegan does mean you don’t eat meat, but surely that doesnt include ignoring the science supporting the massive benefits that grazing can have favouring the environment ?? Also look up Colin Seis the founder of ‘Pasture Cropping’ which incorporates HDG with ‘no till’ rotational cropping , resulting in massive reductions in chemical inputs in the form of pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser, while building soil and hence locking up carbon !!
    3. All alternative energy technologies use carbon inputs in their manufacture , construction and maintenance , be it nuclear power, wind or solar or farming. The amount of methane that cows emit, will be dwarfed by proper management because of the role they can play in creating soil and increasing soil carbon and hence removing vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere that’s not possible by any other mechanism !!
    The tragedy unfolding in our drought ravaged areas is best typified by the sad pictures of bare soil, which is often the result of outmoded grazing practices. First rain will wash away much of these soils as they will have very little organic content to act as sponge and more erosion and flooding is the inevitable aftermath of drought – there is a proven better way that will restore the grasslands (which are much better at taking up and storing carbon that forests) , reduce flooding and restore repairman areas and river systems which will flow all year around — so thanks Geoff for once again bringing a subject of vital concern to the climate change debate.
    Cheers, GBB.
    Thanks for your comment Gary. You may not be aware that BNC has a comments policy, please read that before commenting again. Your comment has been edited to remove emotive adjectives, directed at the poster. Also, please provide scientific links, refs to support your assertions, especially in the case where figures are quoted. Thankyou.

  3. Robert L. … the cattle industry has been replacing native by introduced grasses for over 100 years ( … you’d need to talk to a specialist expert to estimate the biodiversity impacts.

    Current accounting rules don’t make us responsible for the emissions from the coal we export nor do we get credit for the emissions savings from our uranium. In theory, I’d generally argue that consumers are responsible for emissions rather than producers. Obviously we shouldn’t be exporting coal, but I haven’t checked the export figures lately and am a little pressed for time tonight.

    Gary … Savory spins a great yarn, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Here’s a couple of critiques … 1) and 2) and my favourite is a South African study using satellites to actually measure what is happening … (unfortunately behind a paywall) Here’s a quick summary. Satellite images were taken of various grazing practices over a 14 year period and the results weren’t good for holisitic management. It’s too easy to see what you want to see … focus on particular paddocks with brilliant growth and ignore the failures … but when you measure over large areas, holistic management was actually running down the vegetation.

    Lastly … regarding point 3 … you simply can’t make unquantified generalisations like that. Scientists have spent a couple of decades carefully measuring things. But how did you come to your conclusion? You just made it up because you think it must be true. That’s not science. That’s just guessing. The science says that pulling carbon out of the sky by turning it into grass and turning that grass into methane is like putting the carbon on steroids for 20 years as far as heat trapping is concerned … by a factor of 105 (tonne for tonne). That’s what the hyperlinked study by Shindell says. We are talking about well verified peer reviewed measurements by some of the best physical chemists on the planet.

  4. Pingback: Carbon Emissions on a Tragic Trajectory

  5. Why is Buffel grass so maligned for methane discharged by cattle? They would do it with any food.
    If you have too much of it, find other uses. It could be pyrolysed and solids buried as fertilizer. The gases and distillates could be used as bio-fuel..

  6. I have not heard of Buffel Grass being linked with methane production. Buffel Grass is an environmental disaster on its own. Once areas have been invaded they are close to impossible to recover; they are too dangerous to enter because of fire risk. Finding a practical use, which I doubt is feasible, would not undo the damage. This weed has the potential to change the character of all of the remote areas of Australia and make them completely worthless. It would be difficult to overstate this problem.

  7. Bio sequestration is a furfy, a red herring to distract sincere people from the need to replace carbon.

    At 40 Gt/a, it only takes 5 years to dump more CO2 than the entire biomass on land and sea. Any biosequestration would be criminally inadequate.

    We should protect, not burden, our stressed biosphere. afforestationhould be nursing it through the stresse

  8. Bio-mass is the nature’s way of sequestering the CO2.
    Once a weed gets established, there is no point in grumbling about it. If it cannot be used as food,fodder or other uses., use it as fuel. If part of it can be sequestered as bio-char, do that.

  9. @ Geoff is quite right, so I re-calculate in C not CO2. A check on current estimates says
    “The total live biomass on earth is about 560 billion tonnes C, and the total annual primary production of biomass is just over 100 billion tonnes C/yr.”

    That makes our annual emissions of ~10 Gt/a (C) to be about one tenth of annual production (and emissions) by the greenhouse. That is still too much to expect the biosphere to put away. As Geoff says, pull the other one.

    Then there is that other matter of ~200 Gt of excess carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere, plus a rather larger amount that has accumulated in the oceans.

    Instead, the biosphere is under increasing pressure, showing the effects of the rising temperature on any ecology that has achieved an approximate equilibrium with the previous temperature. Many would have us continue to reap the biosphere, but it has come time for us to become its protectors.

    We are fiddling with the numbers while the forests burn.

  10. Hi Roger. I was making a point with regard to Australia, but internationally the situation is, as you calculate, similar. The entire basis of carbon accounting is to accurately delimit anthropogenic from natural emissions. That isn’t always easy, but it’s quite clear that we have been offsetting anthropogenic emissions with natural forest growth … and getting away with it because plenty of other countries are pulling the same trick.

  11. one area they missed is desert going to grasslands, as in Israel Negev and US southwest.
    another detail ignored is that with higher CO2, plants grow more consuming more CO2 releasing more O2.

    CO2 is the giver of life..without it there would be no plants..without plants there would be no animals

    Cows do not “create” CO2 they only release it. Cows are not bad.

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