The new year has already delivered some surprising advancements in the value of soil which will ultimately deliver opportunity to Australian farmers.
Newly inaugurated US president Joe Biden has already stepped up to the plate and played the game called carbon offset trading.
"Today is climate day in the White House," he said mid-week in Washington. "Which means today is jobs day at the White House."
From the moment of his inauguration the US re-joined the Paris accord and promised to be carbon neutral 30 years from now. This week he froze new approvals for gas and oil leases and stopped a controversial pipeline project.
To meet these renewed targets American manufacturing will now pay to pollute by buying sequestered carbon in other, beautiful parts of the world - like Australia.
"We are already a net exporter of carbon with so many projects selling overseas," reminds consultant Natalie Williams, Rockhampton, Qld. "In Australia the government is the biggest customer of carbon offsets."
Does that mean farmers can get paid to grow soil while grazing cattle?
Yes, they can, right now, by accessing carbon holding agreements on the unregulated world market where prices are 10 times higher than here in Australia - about $170 a tonne. Agreements made on this dark green web tend to be very private and there is no data on price paid but suffice to say the trade-off can benefit the farmer who is committed to the cause.
"Carbon projects are a long term proposition," Ms Williams said. "It is a 25-year game minimum. You can't rest country one year and flog it the next, but if you embark on a project you can earn.
Herd impact through rotational, intense grazing, works very well to build carbon levels in the soil. Trees planted in their thousands do an amazing job as long as they aren't consumed by fire.
Customers want to trade in carbon offsets but the market hasn't caught up.
Ms Williams admits the carbon trading market is very much designed to pull-through producers who would have otherwise dragged their feet on the regenerative management approach to grazing.
"This is about rewarding people who do the right stuff," she says
First thing interested landholders should do is assess what portion of their land might be suitable for a carbon project and how much they want to remove themselves from the landscape. Grazing is permitted and even cropping but the more a farmer wins bounty from the land the less carbon is staying in the soil and holders need to provide hard data about where their project is going and that first requires lots of expensive soil tests followed by annual updates from the exact spots at the same time of year.
Carbon traders, the middle people, tend to work on a project for its life and charge the lion's share of the income, using the argument that their realm is complex enough to justify the sting.
Australian regulation is very high and as a result ACCUs carry a high value, the "gold standard" according to Ms Williams who in 2012 won a Nuffield scholarship and traveled the world looking into soil carbon sequestration and how farmers can create wealth for themselves in this new trading realm.
To make it work at scale, particularly in the vast arid areas of her home state she says methodology for claiming carbon credits must change.
"Most current projects are in southern Australia on smaller properties where moisture and temperature are conducive to growing humus," she says.
"At the moment baseline soil sampling is extensive and expensive. The more hard data points across a property the more value a project can retrieve from the carbon storage market.
"We need to change the sampling to make it feasible and there is a lot of development going on in that space. You could say it is a race to the starting line."
Regenerative approach pays off
The object of carbon farming is to work in a regenerative way, all the time building soil richness through carbon sequestration, from one per cent to perhaps 8pc over the life of the project.
There are recent opportunities for landholders in marine environments, such as a salt marshes on the lower Macleay or those with back swamps behind the natural levies on the Clarence and Richmond. However, Ms Williams says a Blue Carbon initiative looks promising.
"It is very new," she said, "and it is customer driven. As with all the carbon trading the customers want this but the market hasn't caught up."
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