Emissions GR Impacts

Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part I)

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.

This is the first of two posts on some large issues connected with global fire regimes, biomass flows, and food security. Part II will be posted on BNC in a few weeks time.


Boverty is the human impact of too many bovines overwhelming the local biosphere’s ability to feed them … the bovines are usually cattle and more than a few African countries have precisely this problem. Their livestock is a millstone around their necks and helping to keep them poor. Well-meaning aid organisations often contribute to the problem.

The ecosystem impacts of cattle spread far and wide but it may not be the owners of the animals who suffer the impacts. Indeed, the animals can buffer their owners against the worst impacts of boverty. This is analogous to the way that drivers of large SUVs do well in collisions with smaller vehicles. The entire community suffers from the presence of the vehicles, but the owners may be the least affected.

But these conclusions are just the end point of a longish discussion. We need to start at the beginning. But before we get to the beginning, here is a MODIS satellite firemap of the planet during the last days of December 2009. The sub-Saharan cattle countries are ablaze.

This post surveys the impacts of livestock, firstly at a very general level on the biosphere due to its domination of global biomass consumption, proceeding through the cattle-specific annual planetary conflagrations as people ignite the world’s grasslands to prevent reforestation. Lastly, we look at more intimate and sometimes more indirect bovine impacts, like the accelerated degradation of arable soil, the tens or hundreds of thousands of children killed by cooking with dung, and the global increase in respiratory and heart disease from ozone increases caused by rising methane levels.

Cattle are a major causal component in all these problems. The planet’s 1.4 billion cattle have a liveweight biomass exceeding that of humans and dominate many of our adverse impacts on planetary eco-systems.

Eco footprints and plant growth

Over the past couple of decades, a variety of measures of our impact on the planet have emerged. Eco-footprints seem to be the sexiest of these, with great logos and a resonance with old folk-lore about treading lightly on the planet. I’ve always felt this measure was conceptually flawed. Converting things as different as what you had for breakfast along with electricity and water usage into a square kilometer figure is bizarre. Happily, an older, clearer measure is now making a comeback, thanks to the increasing power of those remarkable spies in the skies, the satellites that between them can weigh Antarctica, measure fire scars, spot ocean bottom trawling damage, and check out which of your neighbours has a swimming pool.

The old measure is based on photosynthesis. Photosynthesis produces plant growth and underpins almost all life on the planet. Every year the planet produces a huge quantity of plant growth, we eat some of it, other species eat some of it, and the rest either forms long-lived things like trees, or is more quickly broken down, returning its nutrients back to the soil, water and air. How much of this growth do we use?

An Austrian team has been turning out some remarkable papers cutting and dicing our usage in considerable detail using both satellite data and more normal statistical sources. Initial work by Helmut Haberl and the team culminated in a 2007 paper estimating that we use about 23.8 percent of the planet’s annual plant growth … otherwise known by the catchy name of net primary productivity (NPP). The language of the preceding sentence was a little sloppy, … we don’t actually use all of this, but we certainly appropriate it in ways that will slowly become clear.

NPP is measured as dry matter (DM). This is what’s left when you get rid of the water. If you didn’t do this, 10 kilograms of water melon would count the same as 10 kilograms of rice. The choice of this as a measurement unit is important and sensible because dry matter plant material is about 50 percent carbon. This means you can easily convert between carbon and dry matter quantities. So when I say that global NPP was 118.4 billion tonnes of dry matter in 2000, this means that about 59.2 billion tonnes of carbon was sucked out of the sky that year by plants using photosynthesis.

Even though this measure is conceptually clearer than eco-footprint areas, there are plenty of gotchas which can trick new jugglers of these numbers. First, only about half the NPP is above ground. So plenty is simply unavailable. We dig out potatoes but not tree roots. So when you cut down a tree for timber, the roots aren’t used, but they still count as appropriated. This is reasonable because the tree certainly can’t use them any more. Secondly, the NPP of an area isn’t fixed. Humans do things which change the NPP of land. They pour on fertiliser and pump in water which raises NPP. They pave paradise with parking lots or graze it to a dustbowl and NPP drops to zero.

Reducing planetary productivity

The Austrians estimate our land degradation and pavement have reduced annual global plant growth (NPP) by about 6.2 billion tonnes of carbon. That’s a pretty significant number for a couple reasons. First, because it’s not that much below the amount of fossil fuel carbon we emit annually … which is up around 8 billion tonnes! Second, because its higher than the net annual land clearance emissions of 1.47 billion tonnes. The estimated carbon released to the atmosphere due to deforestation over the industrial period is 200 billion tonnes. These numbers indicate that managing the biosphere to draw down a couple of decades of fossil fuel emissions is possible and we have two mechanisms at our disposal: reforesting areas we have deforested and thickening current vegetation … enhancing NPP. These mechanisms, used to their theoretical maximum, won’t make rebuilding our energy infrastructure unnecessary, but they can buy time. We shall see in part two of this post that rebuilding and extending our energy infrastructure to poor nations is probably essential if we are to successfully reforest the planet.

Biomass flows, global and local

Another Austrian permutation, headed this time by Fridolin Krausmann, has done more work on these datasets and has produced biomass flow data with breakdowns by country.

This shows that globally, we only eat about 12 percent of the 12.1 billion tonnes of plant material that we either crop or have our livestock graze. This provides 83 percent of global food calories. Livestock eat 58 percent of that 12.1 billion tonnes and provide the other 17 percent of calories. What about fish? Fish are just 1 percent of global calories and part of the 17 percent.

Note that the 12.1 billion tonnes doesn’t include biomass incinerated in deliberately lit fires … this is important later on.

Australia, all by itself, appropriated 468 million tonnes of plant growth in 2000. We harvested it for paper, animal feed and timber and much else besides. Our livestock eat about twice as much of what we harvest as we do and that obviously counts as our appropriation. But they don’t just eat the bulk of the harvest, they graze another 30 times more. But that’s not the end of their impact.

Is livestock consumption exceeding plant growth?

In my last BNC post, I referred to an estimate just published as a WorldWatch report that put the impact of livestock on greenhouse forcings at about 51 percent of the global anthropogenic total. I didn’t analyse this figure, but suggested it wasn’t unreasonable to think that land clearing, feeding, watering, housing, slaughter, transport and cooking implicit in dealing with 700 million tonnes of livestock biomass could conceivably be responsible for half of the total climate impact of 335 million tonnes of human biomass. But I was waiting for more expert analysis and still am. Many of the additions over and above the 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) estimate rely on close knowledge of the precise details of the FAO’s statistical data collection processes.

But on theoretical grounds, one of the most contentious inclusions in the 51 percent figure is livestock respiration … the carbon dioxide that livestock exhale. On the face of it, this seems plain wrong. All of the carbon dioxide in livestock respiration comes from the atmosphere via photosynthesis in plants. So it’s simply part of the carbon cycle. Isn’t it? The WorldWatch authors have subsequently justified this a little further, re-citing evidence given in LLS which states that animal respiration plus soil carbon oxidation (co2 flowing into the atmosphere) exceeds the drawdown due to photosynthesis by one or two billion tonnes of carbon annually. In many cases it is livestock driving the loss of soil carbon by deforestation and desertification and given that the planet’s 700 million tonnes of livestock dwarf wildlife by a ratio of about 23:3, it is possible that the planet’s total plant biomass may be shrinking under livestock’s onslaught. This is the implication of the reduction of NPP noted above and the carbon flow imbalance just mentioned.

I say may be shrinking because it’s tough to measure things like global photosynthesis or global respiration, and the figures in LLS are not the same as the figures in the Austrian work. Close, but not the same. But if the respiration plus soil carbon losses really are outstripping photosynthesis, then including at least some livestock respiration in the ledger isn’t just reasonable, but mandatory.

Fire, soil and carbon inventories

In any case, not all parts of the carbon cycle are currently excluded from national greenhouse inventories. Livestock methane is part of the carbon cycle and everybody includes that in their inventories … for good reason. Turning carbon dioxide (CO2) into methane (CH4) doesn’t increase the carbon in the atmosphere but, in effect, puts it on steroids for a decade as far as its warming effect is concerned.

Similar considerations apply to fire. Under IPCC accounting principles, CO2 emissions from fire are ignored unless the fire changes the underlying vegetation. For example, a fire in a savanna doesn’t permanently change anything, the grass comes back. But a fire that clears a tropical forest to make a pasture results in a net permanent reduction in standing carbon (the trees!) which is added to the atmosphere.

Deforestation also produces soil changes. Soil can be viewed as an organism in its own right. Its microbial inhabitants transform soil matter and emit or absorb the greenhouse gases that dominate our current concerns. There are many types of soil and zillions of types of microbes in constant evolutionary flux so getting a handle on what is happening is like holding a bowl of jelly with chopsticks and no bowl.

Anyway, most tropical soils under forest act as methane sinks but lose this property when the forest is goneSimilar results have recently been demonstrated in Australia in temperate, Mediterranean and subtropical regions. When paired sites at various stages of forest and pasture growth were compared, the trend was for nitrous oxide emissions to be lower from forests than pasture, with methane absorption also lower in pasture than in forests. So forests did more of what we want than pastures in both cases. Again, this is complex soil chemistry and other studies have found the opposite with regard to nitrous oxide.

Back in 2006 a study shocked the scientific community by claiming that living plants can produce methane. This prompted an immediate claim from a New Zealand scientist, probably with an eye on his local sheep industry, to claim that forests may have produced as much methane as the ruminants which displaced them. Unfortunately for the New Zealand sheep industry, someone was rude enough to actually do the calculations, and based on the proposed new methane source, show that the livestock emissions were 16 times bigger than the forests they replaced. As it turns out, it seems plants don’t produce methane, but they can transport methane generated in the soil.

The unquantified false claim about ruminants producing less methane than the forests they replaced is a great example of an idea which sounded plausible until the numbers showed otherwise. I’ve written previously about Tim Flannery’s plans to provide abundant meat to the planet by expanding cattle production. This is another example of a plan that becomes laughable (or more correctly cryable) when you do the numbers. Apart from the fact that the current 1.4 billion cattle provide just 1.4 percent of global calories, the injection of another 96 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere by providing Australian levels of beef to most of the planet (excluding India) would make winding back climate forcings even harder than it is presently.

Apart from any nitrous oxide that may be emitted by soils, once cattle are added to the pasture, the nitrous oxide emissions from the cattle droppings are substantial. A global study estimated that livestock waste represents 30-50 percent of global agricultural nitrous oxide emissions. This is in addition to the emissions from the feed crops, many of which are now fertilised with nitrogenous fertiliser.

Note that for either a savanna fire or a forest fire, the methane and black carbon from the fires generate net climate warming. Methane, and a few other gases from such fires are recorded in national greenhouse inventories, but black carbon isn’t because it isn’t regulated by the Kyoto protocol. More on black carbon later. Methane from savanna burning is listed by Australia in its greenhouse inventory, but not by some developing countries, even when they do massive amounts of burning. For example, Sudan lists no methane from savanna burning in its only communication with the UNFCC in 2003, but Nigeria and Ethiopia do.

Burning for fun and profit

In most places in the world, most fires (80-90 percent) are deliberately lit by people. The major exceptions are Russia, the US and Canada where Boreal forests are regularly ignited by lightning. Australia has some of these kinds of fires also, but less commonly because we have less lightening … as indicated in this global map.

Most lightning runs from cloud to cloud, so is irrelevant to ground fires and, as far as I know, satellites can’t pick a ground strike from a cloud to cloud flash, and this map (despite the title) is actually of flashes, not ground strikes.

Tim Flannery recently speculated that removing or reducing herbivores would lead to more fires and a paper last year pointed out that wildfire and insects have turned Canadian forests into a source of carbon rather than a sink. The same paper estimates that the historical deforestation of the planet has added 200 billion tonnes of carbon to the atomosphere. Can everybody see the blazing flaming contradiction here? If we had 200 billion tonnes of carbon worth of forests before we deforested the planet for livestock and the much smaller areas that we crop and live on, where were all the wildfires back then? Certainly we had no firefighting planes and helicopters back when those billions of tonnes of forest were standing. Certainly we had no huge armies of cattle and sheep in Australia at the time before we cleared 100 million hectares. Why didn’t fires burn it all back then? Maybe we did have more natural fires, but with so much more forest, the carbon impact was of no consequence.

The main traditional driver of deliberate human fires has been to clear land and keep it cleared for livestock grazing or cropping. The latter is usually called slash and burn, or shifting cultivation. It’s a cheap and effective method. The collateral damage is generally limited to wildlife and provided Steve Parish has been and taken his pictures for all those airport tourist calendars, what other use does wildlife have? Traditionally, hunting wildlife was the third prime driver of burning. We shall see below that scientists estimate that currently about 2/3 of burning is for livestock grazing.

From a climate perspective, all three kinds of fires represent foregone biosequestration, with the first being a direct climate cost of livestock.

More recent work in the Austrian series refines the estimates of biomass burned through anthropogenic fires with better estimates on the type of burning and better country level breakdowns. Lauk and Erb’s estimates slice fires into two kinds: big fires and little fires. The big fires are almost entirely the livestock fires we have discussed. The small fires are shifting cultivation … plant food fires.

Estimating the extent and impacts of both is difficult and only possible because of new datasets on global vegetation. The satellite data showing what is on the ground can be compared to other global data on potential vegetation and also with satellite data on burn scars and actual fire detection using thermal imaging. Big brother is not just watching you, but watching your back paddock as well. The data on potential vegetation is derived from a global vegetation model which models a raft of processes using input such as current cover, soil type data, temperature and rainfall.

Globally, the big fires release about 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon. N.B. this is a carbon figure. The small fires release between 1 and 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon. There is a largish range because it’s much tougher to estimate the small fires.

If this carbon was balanced by photosynthesis it wouldn’t be a problem would it? Yes and no. Provided the quantity burned each year is constant and vegetation levels are globally maintained, then it’s not causing a net carbon increase in the atmosphere. But are both these quantities constant? The technology is a long way short of giving a real-time read out. Most of the figures I’m presenting are for a single year, 2000. The fires will of course put additional carbon on steroids and produce plenty of other nasties. The Edgar methane inventory lists methane from savanna burning at about 7 million tonnes, probably a little under the true value, but close. This is equivalent to a population of about 60 million cattle grass fed cattle.

Cattle conflagration

Included in the total of plant growth appropriated by Australia is biomass we deliberately just burned. Apart from firewood, most burning in Australia is in deliberate fires set in large regions in the north of Australia every year. The now renamed Australian Greenhouse Office calculated that some 75 percent of this burning was for cattle. This is pasture burned to keep forest regrowth at bay. We are, of course, happy for Indonesians and Brazilians to have tropical forests, but we’d rather do something more useful with our northern regions than merely mop up carbon and provide habitat for wildlife. So we set fire to it. Rainforests can and are expanding in North Queensland into areas no longer subject to human burning. In other areas of tropical Queensland grasslands have changed to closed forests with the cessation of human burning.

That mass of top end burning counts as part of the Australia’s total appropriation of 468 million tonnes of plant growth. How big a part? About 40 percent … some 139 million tonnes DM. All up, we burn slightly more biomass in northern Australia than our livestock graze over the entire continent during the whole year.

But in the burning stakes (or should that be steaks), we are small fry. The global burning picture is massive and has implications for both climate change and food security. Here is a MODIS satellite fire map from the end of July 2009. It’s worth visiting the NASA website to look at when different regions of the planet get burned. Higher resolution maps would show individual fires and not the solid contiguous region that is shown in this image.

What could limits on global burning regimes do? Globally, we burn about 3.7 billion tonnes of dry matter annually. If we reduced this burning to perhaps 2 billion tonnes, which is possible (but hard) and desirable for many reasons, then we could absorb about 1 billion tonnes of carbon. In the first year we did this, we would sequester about an eigth of the fossil fuel carbon emitted each year. As time went on, forests would regrow and absorption rates would slowly fall. As a mitigation strategy, this is significant. Not a single handed planet saver, but useful.

The next part of this two part blog deals with the continent which burns 2 billion tonnes of dry matter annually, a country of chronic undernutrion, poverty and large scale boverty. The next post is on Africa.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

68 replies on “Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part I)”

Great article, and it is full of amazing statistics like the net weight of humanity!

Deforestation breaks many a heart… I can’t understand why we can’t just stop it and make global laws protecting biodiversity, the last old growth forests, and all that Co2 locked up therein.

Those who need some slight cheer after all this terrible, ghastly gloom might like to watch a classic TED talk,
Willi Smits builds a rainforest!

It’s a classic… he finds a rainforest plant formula that restores slash and burn wastelands into a thriving ecology, Orangutan reserve, with sustainable economic rewards for the local communities contracting with the village to protect the forest because it is now too valuable to cut down the old fashioned way!

Now, onto the next article. Will you be covering how much agriwaste there is, or have easy access to that figure? I’m keen because agriwaste and forestry waste represent an enormous source of Co2 that at present just goes as rubbish and decomposes back into the atmosphere. Yet biocharring it could give local economies some transport fuels AND sequester that carbon back into the soil for the next few thousand years.

The International Biochar Initiative claims biochar could sequester a whole ‘wedge’ of around a billion tons a year by the 2050’s if we got cracking. I’m wondering how many tons of agriwaste there are (as an average percentage of corn stalks, rice husks, wheat stalks not harvested, etc… ) and forestry waste, if cooked up, what that could really equate to?

Eprida says 10 tons of biomass = 3 tons of synfuel and 1 ton of biochar. I’ve read that 1 ton of biochar locks up 5 tons of carbon via micro-organism growth and fungal growth in the soil, which is one of the factors that helps produce nitrogen directly into the soil and LOCKS UP nitrous oxides! (Google Catalyst and Agrichar / Biochar for more on this).

So, any idea on any one working on these figures? Cheers… something I’ve been trying to get some informed answers on for a few years.


Hoofed animal grazing has a role in certain settings. Today for example I noticed sheep eating the grass between trellissed hop vines grown for beer flavouring. One sheep tried eating the hops but quickly decided grass was better. Thus we get grass cutting and manure production without fossil fuels. Goats may be able to convert woody weeds into milk in semidesert areas. Conceivably small groups of docile cattle could reduce brushfire hazard in woodland on the suburban fringe. That reduces the chance of burnoffs getting out of control or of smoke pollution that puts asthmatic kids in hospital. Some steep or rocky land is unsuited to cropping so that livestock is a more viable source of income.

Carbon taxes on livestock methane are unlikely to materialise. What I think will make the national hoofed animal herd decline is reduced availability of fuel, water and soluble phosphorous. The required supporting acts will simply become too hard to sustain. We already see vegetable protein and fats gradually replace animal products in butter/margarine blends and minced beef or sausage with soy filler. I think cropping will move closer to cities and use recycled water and waste. Animal grazing will retreat to outlying areas without improved pasture or irrigation. Livestock densities should decline.

Incidentally having been a stablehand I think that the number of horses will shrink dramatically for cost reasons, in Australia from 1.5m to .5m or less.Therefore I think the problem will largely self correct provided livestock industries don’t get subsidies to outbid other users of these inputs.


Superb and informative post, clearly we need to shift protein production to plants and away from animals. I contend, as I have in the past, that the route to this a combination of genetically modified plant feedstock combined with novel processing/preparation that will yield a on-table product indistinguishable to the eye and the palate, from the real thing.

I am looking forward to your treatment of the African situation. It is my feeling that we (the developed world) may have to drag them kicking and screaming into the modern age.


As people know…I’m not a PETA or Vegan person, at all. I think the key thing is a move toward *locally* produced food, regardless of it being rudiments or legumes.

I heard a fascinating program on NPR recently by the had of Polyfarms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (some people think this was the God’s Second or Third try at perfecting Heaven). They use a unique crop–>bovine–>egg layer–pig rotation than helps actually fix CO2 in the ground. It’s utterly a fascinating way for organic, totally grass fed beef and organic eggs to be husbanded.

But what got me is that they REFUSE to sell to people by shipping products. They adamantly believe that you should only buy very locally, what you can drive to at best, walk better. They think the idea of shipping a piece of spinach from California to New York is down right reactionary considering the true “externalities” involved.

Lets of all animal proteins IS better but I’m definitely against mandating it.


eclipsenow: talk to a soil scientist about “agricultural waste”, there isn’t
really that much. The removal of crop residues is a great way to destroy soil
productivity. There will be exceptions, but generally a bad idea. Biochar
will play a role, but it has been badly overhyped. Monbiot brings a little
rationality to the discussion:

John Newland: If a farmer is trying to optimise their income from a plot of
land, then, depending on the land, animals will have a role. If a population is trying to feed itself (well) while minimising land use, then animals
will rarely have a role. They will, of course, be busily thriving/living/dying on the vast tracts of land we no longer use. These are 2 very different problems and we are currently locked into solving the former instead of the latter.

David Walters: I’m guessing you are talking about Polyface farms, made famous by Michael Pollan. I’ve critiqued that elsewhere,;dn=468352086569146;res=IELHSS but its not free. I’ll see if I can repost it here sometime.
Basically the
productivity of the system is dismal, but I haven’t looked
at the emissions. Generally speaking however, I could feast on
fruit and vegetables all air freighted from anywhere on the planet and have
a lower food carbon footprint than anybody eating significant levels of beef.
The production emissions for beef (methane/n2o) swamp the transport

As for animal protein being better. I devote large parts of my book to this, it
is simply not true … except of course under appropriate definitions of “better”.


It seems to me that burning biomass for energy does not seem to fit into this biosphere portfolio.
Sequestration of CO2 via biochar is an interesting idea, however, most likely it would accomplish nothing due to increased energy requirements to do all the necessary steps.
Once more, after trashing all pros and cons, the final conclusion will be that without nuclear power we are screwed.


DV82XL: The second post will identify some things that we (through aid agencies) are doing badly in Africa, but this is a much easier task than
working out a pathway to real progress … high levels of illiteracy make
even small changes
tough to implement. And there is the religious/missionary problem. My sister
spent some time in Africa and is an acute observer/traveller. The cain/abel
myth is in both the bible and the koran. Cain worked the land, and
Abel herded. God accepted the animal offering and
rejected the plant offerings. This is powerful imagery preached
by armies of missionaries over a really long period
and has been melded onto indigenous beliefs of more than a
few … hence the proposed sacrificial beating to death of cattle to
bless the football stadiums


Geoff, if you could post this it would be great to read what your critique is of Polyfarms.

Of course what are we really talking about? It’s that done that way, it’s *better* than the huge feedlot abominations we see, for example, up and down HWY 5 in California. It’s *better* for the environment not to use pesticides and herbicides. Most grass fed beef is is much less productive per acre: good, that’s the point, afterall, isn’t it?

So if, via consumer pressure, more beef and eggs were raised this way, at the slightly higher cost, it would be overall better for *all* concerned even if CO2 was only slightly mitigated.

Can the U.S. sustain 300 million people based on the Polyfarm “Salad Bar” style beef raising, egg laying, pork production? I haven’t a clue.

I do know that one reason I’m for nuclear energy is so *other* things can continue, like beef eating, which is only slightly dropping in the US and only vs other animal proteins.



How will we drag Africa into the modern world? I’d love to see them leapfrog the fossil fuel suburban sprawl stage and head straight for nuclear/renewables (whatever ends up most reliable and cheapest) and “Bright Green” city plans. But how? My own personal bet is that we need a world Federal Government something like the EU, but increasingly global, and accountable to us via regular elections.

David Walters
That crop & cow rotation system, was that mentioned in “Omnivore’s Dilemma”? I’ve heard about it but not read it. Bring cows in to eat the crop stubble/waste and grass as it grows up around the stubble later, and refertilise the soil that way.

But ultimately we have to go local to close the nutrient flows and keep our sewerage nutrients back into the soil in some manner or peak phosphorus is going to be yet another nasty challenge for our kids.

Geoff Russell
How can you object to the removal of agriwaste to produce something that is so much better at maintaining the soil? Doesn’t the Co2 in agriwaste eventually evaporate back into the atmosphere when the waste decomposes? Where do you object to the findings of those running empirical and scientific testing of Biochar on crop yeilds? I agree that there seems to be a lot of hippie earth-mother stuff out there on this as well, but surely the peer-reviewed soil science is presenting a different picture to the one you’ve just drawn for us!

Also, what percentage of the plant is the seed? Surely there’s stacks of agriwaste for the job! From memory, they only need to apply 10 tons of biochar per hectare, which works out quite a think layer scattered across the ground.

It is not like one season’s agriwaste has to do the job forever. The benefits over multiple seasons accumulate.

Lastly, Monbiot is NOT a soil scientist, and later wrote an article retracting some of his criticisms of Lovelock and Hansen.
As much as I love most of his writing, his first article sounded quite ignorant. He ought to have become more informed before writing that rather hysterical and shrill piece! (He sounded like he’d had too much coffee that week, and not enough sleep.)

Geoff, if the International Biochar Initiative ever comes to Australia again I’d love you to pay them a visit and mix with the real deal. They opened in Terrigal in 2007 with Tim Flannery present, and he thinks it rocks!


Geoff Russell
Oh no! The sacrifice wasn’t the point of that passage, but the heart and generosity of the person submitting it! What a trajedy if this story is being read the wrong way and distorting agriculture and food practices!


I’ve read the account in Omnivore’s Dilemma and it does read as an attractive compromise. I seriously doubt that if all meat were raised in this way that you could have industrial scale output. Inevitably prices would rise and consumption (and livestock numbers) would fall. It only works because Salatin’s family is willing (for religious reasons) to endure what is an enormously labour-intensive process.

So I’d be happy for 100% of meat to be raised this way. Everyone’s a winner, including the environment.


eclipsenow, it’s not just the fact that the beef cattle are grass raised. The use of hens to after 3 days to go out an eat the hell out of the inevitable maggot formation is what scatters cow dung, breaks it up, and pushes some of it into the soil. It prevents nitrogent burn out because the chickens toss the stuff hither and dither, allowing for better decomp.

Chickens that lay eggs that eat so many insects have amazing tasting eggs. I highly recommend eggs from free-range-type egg layers like this. It is worth the effort and the slight cost.

I think the point that small scale beef raising does in fact raise prices…and that consumption would actually fall some, I believe. Because of this, and that the fat content per lbs goes down per lbs of beef consumed, overall society’s health improves, against, incrementally.

I have not yet read Omnivore’s Dilemma. I hope to this spring.

Again, by “better” I mean in most ways, especially *taste*. I had a chance at the SF Farmers Market to do a ‘beef tasting’ of different kinds of beef, most notably sirloin cuts from grass fed, grass fed but grain finished and all-grain fed bovines. It was rather interesting and the grass fed only was clearly the winner, by far, of everyone there. It was like it was from a different kind of animal.



I keep my own chooks, and am totally with you on the taste! Also, they make interesting pets. Letting them out of the coop to do damage to our garden is kind of fun.

I also agree on the grass-fed beef. Our butcher says the main reason cattle are grain-fed is for convenience to the catering industry. From what I understood, he has to hang his beef for bacteria to tender for a lot longer than grain-fed beef can be hung. The fat in grain-fed helps keep flavour and keep the meat tender, even if it hasn’t hung as long as grass-fed.

So our butcher rocks, because he ONLY uses grass fed. Again, a bit more pricey, but worth it.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to biochar, I’m just thinking that
the devil will be in the details, just as it is with biofuels. There were
some pretty grand claims about biofuels a decade (or 2) ago, but now everybody
is a lot more careful. So it will be with biochar. I haven’t dealt with biochar
in the second part of the post because I think plenty more work on
the mundane details of biochar logistics needs to be done. We could
end up generating more emissions shuffling char between
furnace and fields than we can bury … and if
you reread the post, you’ll see that a recommendation that Flannery
thinks biochar rocks is hardly a glowing recommendation to my eyes.


There is already a market for expensive cuts of beef (Kobi and such) and this luxury market will always be around. But this isn’t the issue here, it’s the massive number of ruminants that we have on the planet and what we are going to do about them and I’m sorry, but small scale beef production might be one of the consequences of a solution – it’s not the solution.

“People will just have to change,” arguments are useless because they simply don’t work. “Price it out of existence,” schemes fail too, because the laws won’t be made. It seems that variations on these two themes are the only suggestions that seem to come up whenever the subject is raised. Yet it is abundantly clear they are dead ends.

Given that it unlikely that the world’s gluttony for flesh will go away, it is necessary to explore ways to ether replace this foodstuff with an acceptable substitute, or find ways to ameliorate the impact that these animals make.


eclipsenow: my religious affiliations? athiest.
The sacrifice wasn’t the point of that passage, but the heart and generosity of …. what generosity? He killed the animal, how is that generous?
Would it have been even more generous to have killed a few young
children … now that shows real subservience,

God said to Abraham kill me a son, Abe said man you must be
putting me on, God said no! …
[Dylan, Highway 61] … don’t get me
started on religion…


I have not heard the boverty term before but the story simply sounds like the tragedy of the commons. The fact that the example cited is Africa where land title is often weak further supports this notion. In fact in places such as Ethiopia most land is government controlled and good custodianship is scarce. The classic solution to the commons problem is to divide the commons and privatize it so that owners now have direct incentives to ensure the health, productivity and long term viability of the land. Ironically in Australia the whole AGW debate has lead to an increase in communalised land management with farmers losing effective control over their land and it’s stock of vegetation. We have switched to command and control at precisely the time when better and more locality focuses planning and management of land resources is required. We seem to be ignoring economic history and once again adopting socialist style remedies.


TerjeP, I’ll be the first to admit that things are AFU (figure it out yourself what this means) in Africa. But often it is exactly free trade that has done it. Free Trade is not just the removal of tariffs. It is what, really, the US tells any country it is.

In the case of Malawi it meant the US influenced WTO went in and put an end to subsidies for nitrogen fertilizer. Not price supports. Not direct support for farmers from the government. Fertilizer. Oddly, production declined and imports (from the US, surprise!) increases. The gov’t changed course and subsidized fertilizer, production went up, diversity in croping occured and they are moving away from failed ‘free trade policies’. Good for them.



Ha ha! No Geoff, I was asking David Russell about the author of the Polyfarms book and the belief system of that author, as David mentioned something about that helping them come up with their very manual labour crop&cow rotation system. Just wondering if it was some Amish thing…


I can vouch for the fact that Geoff’s takedown of Polyface Farm is devastating. It was published in response to Flannery’s “Quarterly Essay”. It all sounded good to me until after I read Flannery’s description, until I was given Geoff’s reality check. Reminds me very much of the difference between technosolar hype and the brutal current reality.


Chickens that lay eggs that eat so many insects have amazing tasting eggs

Oh dear David … I laughed over that sentence …

Insect-eating eggs laid by chickens are tasty …

The chickens eat insects in cow pats and lay eggs …

It is very labour-intensive, as Omnivore’s Dilemma makes clear.


Be nice to read it!

Labor intensity pays off in taste. I always liked the counter-intuitive image of insect eaters producing something so delectable. Ummm…. fish are similar, btw…Talipita that east inscets are far tastier than ones eating ‘fish food’.

So I need to read Geoffs take on this. Then…did good Christian of Polyface respond?



10t/ha of biochar is 1kg/m2 if I have my conversions right. I’ve seen kids spread vegemite thicker than that. Of course we didn’t see the diesel and chainsaw fuel that went up in smoke to get that, or the fact that the carbon could have stayed in the forest before being moved to the field. Not only Flannery but Garnaut now seems keen on biosequestration as in frequent firing of NT savannah which somehow takes more CO2 out of the air than otherwise. Anything but suffer the inconvenience of burning less coal.


I will do some more work on biochar but it won’t be in the next part of
this post … later and only if I find some good material. I’ve read
quite a bit and it is all at the theoretical level … fine, but with technologies
like this the devil really will be in the detail. John’s comments
about diesel and chainsaws sum up my suspicions. I’ll also post my
Pollan/Polyface critique at some time … some of it is more nutritional
in nature, but some will be generally relevant to this blog.


“Of course we didn’t see the diesel and chainsaw fuel that went up in smoke to get that”
Sorry, what diesel? The diesel that runs the harvesters and farming equipment that collects the AGRIWASTE for the biochar cookers? What chainsaw? I hope you’re not intimating that I’m for chopping down more rainforest or old growth forest. I’ve been quite clear the main proponents of biochar are about using agriwaste and *sustainable* plantation timber waste. That would produce more than enough biochar for 1 billion tons a year, according to the IBI.

“Anything but suffer the inconvenience of burning less coal.”
I hope that wasn’t directed at me? I’m all for getting off coal as fast as possible. But biochar is the quickest way I can see to sequester Co2 out of the air and into our soil.

Both of these sentences seem less about communication and more about baiting. I expect better.


eclipsenow: I didn’t take John’s comments with regard to
diesel and chainsaws literally or as baiting, just as an indication that
there are always costs. e.g., transporting biomass from field to
furnace and char from furnace to field. I’ve seen pictures from
biochar demo projects in Brazil with people
using trowels to bury biochar they are carrying in buckets. I’m thinking those
methods won’t work on big projects. Then again, maybe this is a viable
small farmer rural technology which doesn’t need scaling, but multiplying …if
that makes sense :)


OK, if that’s the way he intended it then it is more like an ERoEI exercise and I get it… and apologies.

Also, the comment on small scale & multiplying appears to be what is happening in Africa according to some of the sites I read and they say it is probably going to reduce deforestation, which has got to be a good thing.


” Impact of livestock on greenhouse forcings is approximately 51% of the global anthropogenic total.”

This impact presumably includes black carbon, NOx and methane – the last becoming atmospheric CO2 in a decade or so.

Paleoclimate data suggest that climate sensitivity is in the ballpark figure of 3 deg C. This is also compatible with current observations.

It would seem to me that there is contradictory evidence here. If current temperature observations are correct and half the increase is due to livestock, then climate sensitivity must be lower than climate scientists believe. I doubt that they are too far out. This suggests that livestock impacts are being exaggerated.

Of course, the planet could sustain a greater human population if we all became vegetarian or, at least, reduced our meat consumption. It is also undeniable that ruminants produce much more methane than non ruminants per quantum of nutrient energy. However, the proportion of meat in modern western- style human diets is apparently not much different from that in the diets of our forebears in pre fossil fuel times. The lesson is surely to reduce human population numbers. I accept that, without mass destruction of our fellows, human numbers won’t peak before 2050 and that we may be forced to cut back on domesticated ruminants in the interim. What we cannot do is to revert to organic farming and turn our backs on technology until we have got our numbers down to sustainable levels – something that will take a century or more.

I have an uncomfortable feeling that the author’s concerns may be being hyped, consciously or subconsciously, by his animal liberationist beliefs.


TerjeP, yes of course, and, speaking as a socialist, socialism is not N. Korea either. The problem is of course how it’s applied.

My point is that *in fact* this is usually what it turns out to be. I prefer regional and bilateral agreements that are based on what is good for the people any treaty is supposed to cover.

Free trade is one of the biggest causes of deforestation in Brazil, with their rapid soy beanization of the Amazon. It’s free trade, after all, farmers are allowed to grown and market their soybeans to feed lots for McD’s and other US based corporations. Over production inevitably results which causes price drops which causes bankruptcy and poverty. It’s *why* in large part socialist revolutions are breaking out around S. America so much…it’s a reaction to US imposed free trade policies.

Secondly, it’s hypicrotical by the US as the US doesn’t cut ITS subsidies to corn farmers, to cite one example.

The US was founded in direct opposition to Adam Smith’s free trade advocacy. The National Tariff, as it was known, was set up to protect domestic industries even if it mean higher prices initially.



@eclipsenow to put things in perspective I’ve actually done my own biochar experiments. For example I spread about 500 grams per square metre of charcoal over a tennis court sized area. I don’t plow it in but let the grass stolons (runners) knit the charcoal to the surface. I think there was an improvement in pasture growth but also of soil burrowing insect larvae. The charcoal came from wood burned for heat. However 1500mm rainfall in SW Tas helped plus an abundance of free wood from nearby forests, factors that may not be easy to replicate.

Therefore I think the biochar findings need to be checked in different soil and rainfall settings. The boundary of the study needs to be widened to include all mass transfers compared to the default case of doing nothing. Biomass removed from the forest then becomes a deduction compared to leaving it in situ. That also saves on liquid fuels used in transport, harvesting and tillage. Ideally the process should generate its own energy needs or the waste heat used in some practical application.

As a general rule I think we must seriously question anything that is proposed as an offset . If it survives testing against reasonable criteria then then we can feel reassured. A this point I’m not convinced that any proposed offsets hold up to scrutiny and I would change the ETS legislation to limit their use to say 10% of required carbon cuts.


You have clearly identified that we must have suitable alternatives for electricity generation that are on par with or cheaper than coal to cut the use of coal power significantly.

In every country, anywhere on Earth, as people get richer they put a lot more meat and fish on the table. This is universal and isn’t going to change.

Why then is it so hard to understand that if you want to seriously cut meat consumption you must invent and ramp up manufacturing of something that is cheaper than and at least as delicious as real meat. I don’t care how you do it; doesn’t matter if it’s made out of crickets, vat-grown muscle tissue, mycelium, bacteria or genetically engineered fish fed on meal made from farmed algae and fish-rince.


John: you have hit the nail on the head, the local details of char sources, soils and the like will matter globally. If people start growing forests for char and shipping the wood to a huge char burner on the opposite side of the planet then the golden egged goose wouldn’t lay much.

Douglas: You will need to spell out why 51% and climate sensitivity of 3 are
in contradiction. I don’t follow. As for the rest. We need to distinguish ethics and
engineering. I don’t believe that killing animals (human or otherwise) without good reason. The science is absolutely clear that there are no nutritional needs for any animal products. A taste preference doesn’t satisfy me as a reason for killing, but clearly satisfies many who consider that
this non-essential interest of theirs outways the very serious
interest the animal has in staying alive.

Justifying a behaviour on the basis of it being widely practiced by our
ancestors may satisfy you, but not me. It’s too arbitrary … which ancestors? we
evolved from fructivores … which behaviours? rape/murder/incest/war.

I have argued in many places that
current meat consumption levels are unsustainable (for
many reasons) with the current population and you seem to agree
with that. In which case you can
personally do something about it with your own consumption and attempt
to persuade others to do likewise. Its much easier to stop or reduce
meat consumption than it is to reduce the population, but of course you
can do both at a personal level.

What levels of meat consumption are
sustainable with current populations? Tiny. I won’t try to put a number on
it. In addition, the majority (~95% globally) of current meat is produced with
crude, cruel and barbarous methods. As with the sustainability argument,
if you agree then either you can act in accordance with your beliefs or not.


David – historically in Brazil land has been cleared by squatters (ie those without property title) because governments have offered them title over the land if they do so. Blaming this sort of policy driven clearing on free trade makes no sense at all. It is driven by government.

If you wish to assert that in practice free trade is doing what the USA tells you to do then I’ll be happy to reciprocate by telling you that North Korea is what socialism causes in practice.


p.s. The point of my last paragraph is that if you wish to insult our intelligence with silly word games then don’t be too surprised if people reciprocate.


TerjeP, my point is that unlike N. Korea’s relationship to ‘socialism’ the US relationship to Free Trade pacts is manifest and ominipotent. The major force pushing free trade everywhere are the IMF, the World Bank and various US embassies around the world. There is almost no “indigenous” movement politically for free trade except among the elite rich who stand to benefit from it.

I also point out that in the real world, it generally IS what the US says it is, at least as free trade pacts have been developed.

Movements from below have developed massively against free trade and it’s one of the reason a country like the little old Malawi in S. E. Africa, a nominal ally of the US in world affairs, rejected the US inspired “free trade” pact after is failed miserably after being implemented there.

More notable examples exist now through out *most* of Continental South America as the dismal failure of free trade pacts there have impoverished millions.

More speciifcally, while the gov’t of Brazil has done nothing to discourage of late the settlers in the Matta Grasso and other regions of Brazil, it’s also true that the settlers are trying to “fill the market need” for ever more soybeans, the almost mono-cultural crop grown there. It’s for the *world* market that the more happenstance homesteading that *used* to take place there is not industrialized and supported by the big robber barons of the agro-industrial complex.

Haiti is yet another example where free trade has virtually destroyed ever last aspect of indigenous agriculture. When will it stop?

For energy, and specifically nuclear, massive government intervention is required, as it has for every nuclear plant ever built. To think the “free market” is going to build nuclear power, Gen III or Gen IV is a sad joke.

The only area where ‘entrepreneurial’ nuclear might make it is in the small reactor market. This is actually possible and we’ll see if it happens.

I’m glad the S. Koreans and UAE didn’t pursue a ‘free trade’ in nuclear energy: or there wouldn’t be any.



Hi John,
as far as I can tell the IBI are mainly focussed on using waste products from local councils (that are currently collected anyway), agriwaste, and sustainable plantation timber waste.

They are not only testing Biochar in different global contexts, rainfall patterns, etc as you mentioned, but testing it with different additional nutrients, different soil micro-organisms and different soil chemistries. It’s all way beyond me, but the message I get is that they are using scientific controls and trying to nut out all the variables. Yet the constant message I get is that this stuff is a lot more powerful than just raking the agriwaste back into the soil and is consistently lowering farm nitrogen input into cropping soils by about 30%!!

John: you have hit the nail on the head, the local details of char sources, soils and the like will matter globally. If people start growing forests for char and shipping the wood to a huge char burner on the opposite side of the planet then the golden egged goose wouldn’t lay much.
Depends on whether the logs are ‘sailed’ there, dunnit? ;-)
Look, in Australia the economics of carting around the biomass to the Biochar unit has already seen the invention of Bigchar!
If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain (or Biochar processor) must come to Mohammed!


David – one of the biggest free trade initiatives in the last half century has been the European Union. This has nothing to do with the USA. Likewise Brazil could do with a lot less trade barriers, including less internal trade barriers, irrespective of what the USA wants or thinks.

The only reason that the USA features so prominantly in discussions of trade is that it is such a large component of global production.


Geoff writes:…given that the planet’s 700 million tonnes of livestock dwarf wildlife by a ratio of about 23:3, it is possible that the planet’s total plant biomass may be shrinking under livestock’s onslaught.

Very interesting article, Geoff, but when I read this I couldn’t help but think of the 4 billion tons of termites and their contribution to atmospheric carbon. If anyone’s interested in this topic, here’s something you might like to read.


I wrote in the *other* thread that the trade agreements of the kind that even preceeded the EU are less objectionable. I’m not really talking about the EU or, for that matter, the long standing pre-NAFTA US-Canadian deals. Free trade among equal economies is less an issue, obviously.

I’m talking about the ‘free’ trade where powerful industrial economies…like the EU, forece open weaker mostly agricultural economies and *kill them*. The US did this with rice and pork in Haiti. It did it with corn and beans with Mexico. It causes huge social dislocations. It’s why there is a trend toward nationalization in countries like Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. Even in Argentina, Uruguay and now Paraguay: becauce unbrittled free trade hurts those that the bottom.

In energy, the *history* of the great projects: generally, nuclear and hydro, rail, etc have been state, non-profit oriented financed and run, or, public-private partnerships. Internationally this means, as it does in EVERY country considering nuclear or implementing, *bi-lateral* trade in nuclear plants, never ‘free trade’, nor should it, ever.

“Free Trade” can’t ‘build’ nuclear, they don’t have the capital to do it. Energy, by it’s very nature, has to be highly regulated, even in ‘free trade’ capitalist America. So the libertarian perpsective toward energy just ‘ain’t happen’n’.



David – I don’t agree on your last point. The private sector is quite able to raise large quantities of capital in environments free of regime risk (unfavourable regulatory change). Certainly for the amounts associated with a nuclear power plant.

In terms of small economies that are liberating their economies I suspect that the problems you are refering to are transition issues. These are still a real concern but they are less a product of free trade and more a product of the economic structure created by protectionism. I would readily agree that transition issues are often poorly considered and poorly managed especially in the context of liberalizing small, poor, undiversified economies.

Getting back to the land management issue however there is lots to be gained from improved property rights and the removal of perverse government incentives.


TomBlees: Yes, my thinking about the functional role of insects is still in
a state of complete confusion. I’m guessing that what all mid sized
animals and birds need for a chance at a healthy life is healthy soils and
clean air and water. Biodiversity of mid-sized animals is an outcome, not
a requirement for a healthy ecosystem. But biodiversity can be enhanced by
an unhealthy ecosystem. ie the animal with genes to handle polluted water
might gain an advantage. One big thing which I’m guessing makes livestock
and termites different is that termites can’t outstrip their local food supply, but
livestock can. I think termites are functionally just part of the soil for our

I’m sure professional ecologists have thought about this for a lot longer
than me and have a few more clues … Barry?


The reality is that weaker economies get really weaker when they go full free trade. Bilaterial trade agreements are clearly far more progressive and better for anyone. Local ecomonies get smashed with open free trade. This is why there is a revolt against them.

It is not just ‘transition’, it’s a form of permenent subordination of the weaker economy to the stronger one. It props up a limited segment of the middle-class but impoverershes the working and agricultural ones. Protectionism in many ways prevents this. I’m not “for” tariffs or ‘protectionism’ per se: I’m for nations acting a nations protecting their citizens from outside entities and stealing their resources. I think its a “good thing” that Chavez, for example, “renationalized” the already nationalized PDVSA…it put ALL the resources under the protection and control of the country itself, out of the hands of the foreign entities. Foreign investors who made deals AFTER this took place are protected and of course making lots of money. The key is that money STAYS in Venezuela, infrastructure is developed and general wealth of society there has gone up, not down, like in areas where free trade predominated.

Trade is very important, it’s how it is done that we are discussing. 75% of the worlds nuclear plants were built by state owned enterprises. Publicly owned utilities in the US generally are as or better well run that investor owned ones. There actually is no conflict between them. However, it is a matter of record that ratepayers for publicly owned utilities in the US, based entirely on those utilities revenue streams and not taxes, offer lower rates to the customer. They can be run cheaper because they have smaller legal depts, do almost no advertising, have zero ‘investor services’ and simply don’t have to run at a profit and pay dividends.

I think also, is that if you are for nuclear energy expansion, we are in a period of “by any means necessary” (to quote Malcolm X). That is…be it private, public, private-public partnership, that any form of nuclear infrastructure investment is a good thing so long as it is safe and well thought out. The Chinese, Koreans and other countries are clearly putting this issue first, not ‘profit’.

The total free enterprise perspective is problematic: look Entergy. Becaue “profit” is No. 1 per the mandate of the stock holders, nuclear energy ipsotfacto becomes No. 2. Thus, it is not “profitable” for the always typical short term investor to build plants that might not pay a sent in profit until 20 years plus a day. So…they do uprates. I support that as I’m sure all of us do. But it’s done in *substitution* for building a long term new build strategy. They can’t think beyond the next fiscal quarter. Personally I don’t want anyone that attitude in charge of the “Nuclear Renaissance” in the US. They have zero entrepreneurial spirit (which I can at least relate to). They are at best speculators.

Industry needs to return to it’s core purpose: build infrastructure. If it means out right nationalization, then we do it, by any means necessary.



One big thing which I’m guessing makes livestock and termites different is that termites can’t outstrip their local food supply, but livestock can

If you mean termite populations can’t undergo overcompensatory density dependence, then I don’t agree. It’s quite plausible that they could, under certain temporary conditions (e.g. large flux of plant growth following good rains, followed by a dry period). However, it’s easier to see how cattle to chronically overeat a food supply if they are given supplemental water and fodder.

Termites and methane — it’s much like the rest of the natural carbon cycle. A huge amount of carbon is turned over naturally, vastly outweighing the fossil carbon released by people. But it’s in equilibrium (or at least has been). Same deal with termites — they cannot be driving increases in methane levels unless we are doing something to increase their abundance. We know we have done this for ruminant animals — that’s the difference.


A temporary termite boom will be followed by a bust. But a livestock boom
can be maintained for quite some time by drawing in resources from far afield. e.g., Europe’s meat requires soy from Brazil. It has long since outstripped the
local feed capacity.



Can you please walk us through the sources or calculations (if you did them) that

a) 90 % of forest fires/biomass burning is anthropogenic, and

b) two-thirds of forest/fires are due to livestock?

Also I saw you state that livestock are responsible for 51% of emissions, and that presumably includes black carbon — if you are referring to the Worldwatch article written by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland, their estimates did not include black carbon.

Furthermore, I have a strong suspicion that many of the African nations, when they reported their emissions to the IPCC, did not include their methane emissions from those 250 million cattle, because I saw a report recently on two of the nations, one of which was Sudan, and didn’t see anything to suggest such a high number of cattle. I am not sure if the IPCC made adjustments or not when they calcuated total emissions.

Best regards,



Hey, it gets even better.

Soil emissions may be more important than we thought.

But then, soil may potentially store even more carbon than we thought, and if we change our agricultural practices and fertiliser regimes and bring the soil back to life, maybe even end up storing our annual Co2 emissions according to the following expert.

This form of agriculture is likely to increase exponentially, especially as fertiliser costs rise after peak phosphorus kicks in over the next 20 to 25 years.

Given peak oil and gas are close, and even peak coal could be by 2010 through to 2048 according to Newcastle University

…then surely we’re going to see a carbon *negative* economy start to kick in sometime over the next 50 years or so? The 2 paths of exponential economies of scale bringing down the cost of renewables / Gen3 nuclear and exponential increases of fossil fuel prices after production peaks will surely see economies be FORCED to transition rapidly off fossil fuels, while at the same time this new form of agriculture takes over, sucking in vast quantities of carbon.

Surely there’s hope, whether or not Copenhangen or some future Kyoto agreement ever passes?


eclipsenow I think the BAU bubble will burst within a few years. The punters are evidently shrugging off climate change, after all it was only 173 people incinerated in the fire storm. If lack of snow interrupts the Winter Olympics however that’s serious.

I think what will grab people’s attention is the convergence of Peak Oil (2008), Peak Coal in China (2015) and regional water shortages. Agriculture will have to change radically because diesel and DAP (diammonium phosphate) will be too high priced. While the Treasurer wants more near city farmland covered in cement and connected to coal fired electricity for all the newcomers I think that’s where we will have to grow the food. Phosphorous and water will be recycled through our innards and farms will be semi enclosed and use small machinery. More road vehicles will use natural gas than battery power.

When nukes come in is hard to say. It will have to be crystal clear to everyone that oil is on the way out, that coal should be left in the ground and gas should be made to last. I’d say 2015 for the penny to drop and 2020 for decisive action.


Susan: I don’t think the 51% figure is correct because I don’t think
respiration can be included. In addition the idea that foregone
sequestration due to land being used for livestock that could be
deforested is outside of the IPCC Inventory framework so can’t really
appear in such a calculation. When you say this or that is X% of
emissions, this means emissions that can appear in an IPCC
inventory … which won’t include foregone sequestration. But, of course,
Goodland and Anhang are absolutely right that this foregone sequestration
figure needs to be considered. It’s physically sensible even if it logically
doesn’t belong in an IPCC table of emissions. Likewise some respiration
could be physically sensible also, just not all. As for black carbon, it
isn’t a kyoto gas and it isn’t in IPCC inventories, its estimates are in the lancet
paper linked to in Bovery II.

The 2 figures for burning both come from the Lauk paper linked to above:

Lauk calls his types of fires big and small, but reading the description of
what constutes a big fire, its clear that most or all are livestock related.
The small fires are shifting cultivation. Put simply, when people burn
forest to crop, they burn what they can farm … a small area. But when
they burn for livestock, they can graze a huge area, so that’s what
they burn. This is always the way because livestock is so
dismally unproductive per hectare.


eclipsenow: With great respect to Christine Jones and LNL, I’d be waiting for
plenty of good peer reviewed data before jumping on the “soil carbon
can save the planet” wagon … this stuff is a multivariate nightmare, particularly
with respect to non-co2 soil emissions.


Yes, I think I agree. I’d love to see further discussion about and stronger peer review.

But the big variable for me is whether or not the Co2 will stay there. Is it locked in? Will it evaporate out as the warming trends already set in motion play out? Biochar seems to be, but even the most enthusiastic IBI estimates says it will only amount to 1 ‘wedge’ (of the estimated 7 wedges) of Co2 reduction strategies.


[…] [2] Derived from Fridolin Krausmann, et al “Global patterns of socioeconomic biomass flows in the year 2000: A comprehensive assessment of supply, consumption and constraints” and Helmut Haberl, et al “Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth’s terrestrial ecosystems”, cited in Russell, G. “Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part 1)”, […]


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