Greenhouse emissions and agriculture

It's just basic physics. Increasing greenhouse gases traps more heat in our atmosphere, which then shifts Australia's weather patterns and climate southwards.

Why all the fuss about greenhouse emissions

This short video gives a great explanation.

It was developed as part of a collaboration between the The Department of  Jobs, Precincts and Regions Victoria, Fertilizer Australia and the Australian Government via the 'Fertcare Carbon Farming Extension Project', which has been busy gathering and explaining the latest science for inclusion in training programs for advisors.

Graeme:

'Many people ask, "Why all the fuss about greenhouse gases and CO2?" After all, gases like CO2 aren't necessarily toxic, in fact plants really like them. Well, the problem is these gases trap heat. The story goes way back to the 1800s when scientists first discovered the abilities of these heat-trapping gases. We get energy from the sun, which warms the Earth's surface during the day, but at night, this heat then gets radiated back out to space. Scientists calculate that if all that heat was lost each night, our Earth would be 33 degrees colder each morning. They noticed that some invisible force in the atmosphere was trapping the heat. What was it'?

'In the 1850s, scientist John Tyndall, tested these gases from our atmosphere to see which ones were actually trapping the heat. First, he removed the trace gases and started with the most common gases: Nitrogen and Oxygen, which make up almost 98% of our atmosphere. When he applied heat or infrared radiation, to his surprise, all the heat slipped straight through. He concluded that if our atmosphere was made up of only Nitrogen and Oxygen gas, then we would freeze every night. Then he tested some of the trace gases and to his surprise, these trace gases absorbed and trapped the heat radiation and thus discovered the greenhouse gases: Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Water vapor. Good work, John'!

John:

'Thanks Graeme'.

Graeme:

'It makes sense. Nitrogen and Oxygen are just simple two outer molecules that don't trap any heat, whereas the greenhouse gases are more complex and have more than two atoms. They have all these extra bits on them to trap the heat. When in balance, these greenhouse gases keep Earth at a stable temperature, but if we add more greenhouse gases then more heat is trapped in our inner atmosphere and less heat escapes. Scientists are measuring that our outer atmosphere is getting cooler while our inner atmosphere is getting warmer. It's about physics and energy balance. Think of the simple example of two cars parked on a sunny day. Both get the same energy from the sun and their dashboards start to heat up and then start radiating heat. Imagine one car has windows down and the other has the windows up. Which one will be hotter? Both cars are getting the same energy from the sun but now they have different ratios of energy in and energy out'.

'Basically, adding more greenhouse gases is like slowly winding up the windows and trapping more heat. That's why scientists expect our warming trends to continue in the coming decades. It's basic physics. This is all about changing the ratio of heat in versus heat out. That's why we expect to see much more attention paid to how we manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is good, because in agriculture we don't want things getting much hotter, especially because a warmer world will affect our seasons, weather patterns, and variability. Whilst Australian agriculture contributes around 16% of national emissions, our farmers and scientists are doing some great work looking at how we improve fertilizer, grazing and energy efficiency, as well as how we improve the carbon levels stored in our soils and vegetation'.

'We're seeing more and more supply chains looking at ways that they improve their emissions performance. I need to get ready and that's why Australia's carbon farming, research development, and expansion effort, is all about how we improve our knowledge, reduce emissions and support our farmers and industries to get on with the job of growing food and farther for growing global markets'.

Read more about the Fertcare Program

What's the story with soil carbon?

A new video which summarises what we know from the latest Australian research on soil carbon science.

Speaker 1:

Many people ask, "So, what's the story with soil carbon?" We know it's important, and for a farmer, it can boost soil health, fertility, water holding capacity, and soil structure. In fact, you can think of it as a foundation block for productive agriculture.

While oceans are the world's largest carbon sink, our soils contain more stored carbon than is found in all the vegetation, and atmosphere combined. Every additional ton of soil carbon that we create, can remove the equivalent of 3.67 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. Since CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas, this is important, but, in reverse, every tonne of soil carbon lost from our soils will emit the equivalent of 3.67 tonnes of CO2 back into our atmosphere. It's important that we look after our soil carbon, and better understand it.

Let's look at it more closely. Soil carbon comes in both organic, and inorganic forms. Here, our focus will be on soil organic carbon, which typically makes up 58% of the total soil organic matter content. It's this component that we can most readily influence. Stored soil carbon is a bit like inheriting a bank account. With the size of your soil carbon bank balance being mainly driven by natural, primary productivity. With the two most influential factors being climate, and soil type and depth.

Climate is a key driver. The largest soil carbon stores occur where there is high rainfall, and cooler temperatures. Think about peat bogs. Similarly, the lowest soil carbons stores occur in low rainfall, hot areas, more like a [inaudible 00:02:02] desert. Soil type and depth is also important, where clay based soils hold more soil carbon, than sand. Soil carbon levels can vary from rich peat soils, with greater than 10% soil carbon, right down to highly cultivated and sandy soils, which can have as little as half a percent.

Although land management tends to be the minor player, it can influence carbon content over time. Our soil carbon wealth account is made up of three fractions. The labile, or particulate fraction. The humus fraction, and the resistant carbon fraction. The labile, or particulate fraction operates like an access account. It's readily available for use by soil microbes, which makes it the least stable, shortest lived, and the easiest to lose.

Humus is a bit slower, and more like a long term deposit, or investment in real estate that adds to your wealth, being stable over years, and decades. Resistant carbon is the equivalent of being locked away in a vault, for your great grandkids. It's very stable, and can last for hundreds of years.

A balanced soil carbon account generally requires a regular supply of plant residues, and organic matter, providing regular deposits into the account. Meanwhile, soil microbes eat away at the organic matter, using some nutrients for themselves, and releasing remaining nutrients for plants to access. It's a bit like having regular expenses taken from your account. That's why we have to keep making regular deposits, so that we can maintain a soil carbon account balance.

If your deposits match your withdrawals, then you'll have a stable soil carbon account. Just like a bank, if your deposits are greater than your withdrawals, your account will grow. Unfortunately, since the introduction of agriculture in Australia, it's been more common to be losing carbon from soils, rather than increasing them, with soil carbon levels often declining from natural levels. Across the Australian wheat belt, it has been estimated that over 60% of soil carbon has been lost from the top ten centimeters of soil. This is largely because little carbon is produced during the fallow period. Compared to what could be achieved by either permanent pastures, or native vegetation, which can accumulate some carbon input most of the year, after each rainfall event.

Land management practices, such as cultivation, stubble burning, annual cropping, overgrazing, and erosion, are all activities which tend to cause soil carbon loss. It's a bit like a banking situation, where our deposits are less than our withdrawals. Our balance shows a loss over time. Thankfully, many farmers are keen to try and turn this around. Using perennial pastures, cover crops, and other ways of increasing additions of plant biomass, and organic matter, which can help to maintain, or sometimes even increase soil carbon levels.

However, farmers need to be aware that this will not always increase the soil carbon level. When we add more inputs to our account, the soil microbes sometimes just increase their activity. Resulting in more carbon turnover, but, not necessarily adding more stored carbon in our bank. It's a bit like expenses, where we can earn more money, but, just end up spending more. That's why it's important that we measure your bank balance over the longer term, to see if your soil carbon wealth account is growing or reducing.

Earlier, we talked about the fact that soil microbes use nutrients, and release some to the soil as they eat away at soil carbon. This can result in crop and plant benefits, via mineralization. When nutrients in the soil organic matter, and carbon bank are released. Overall, a balanced farming system ensures we put back what we take out. This means that while it's a great idea to try and grow your soil carbon, it's important to remember, that when you store carbon, it also locks away other nutrients with it. This might require the addition of extra nutrients.

Also remember that any land use or management changes, which increase soil carbon, will need to be maintained indefinitely, if you want to keep that higher carbon bank balance over the longer term. There you have it. There's been a lot of great research on soil carbon across Australia, and how to look after it. To find out more, just head to these sites. This cash, can I keep this?

Page last updated: 24 Aug 2021