Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting rid of carbon 5 - problems with measurement

I finished my last post on the possibilities for carbon farming with this comment:

Mind you, there is a teensy, weensy little problem.

We might halve our carbon emissions, but no one actually knows how to measure all his within conventional emissions frameworks. Therein lies one of the rubs in the emission trading discussion!

As it happened, it appears that the possibilities offered by soil sequestration are at the heart of current Australian Government proposals. These type of proposals are being met with deep suspicion at Copenhagen.    

Environment groups and NGOs at the climate talks say it is so difficult to accurately measure these emissions that it opens up the possibility of "accounting frauds" which could mask real increases in industrial emissions.

Again as it happens, the University of New England is playing a significant role in current Australian research in the soil carbon area. Here I quote from a report on the UNE Senior Management Blog from Professor Margaret Sedgley:

The soil carbon group, including the Primary Industries Innovation Centre and the School of Environmental and Rural Science won $1 million research funding from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for climate change research.  The project is part of a national program comprising CSIRO, State Departments and two other universities, Western Australia and Tasmania.  In addition to the $1 million from DAFF, the group has leveraged $400,000 from the Grains Research and Development Corporation and $150,000 from NSW Industries and Investment...

The Launch of the National Centre for Rural Greenhouse Gas Research and the announcement of the appointment of the Director, Professor Annette Cowie, took place on 25 May.  The NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald launched the event with Richard Torbay, Alan Pettigrew and Richard Sheldrake (NSW I&I) also contributing.

Whether this type of work can resolve the various problems involved with the management and measurement of soil sequestration within the time frames set by international negotiations is unclear, given the deep suspicions of some green groups and others.

From an Australian national perspective, there are two general linked public policy principles that have been worrying me. I have discussed both at some length in different contexts over the last few years.

The first is simply the impact of measurement. You get what you measure. Things that cannot be measured drop by the wayside. The tighter and more rigid the system of measurement, the greater the impact.

The second principle is that of unforeseen side-effects. We have seen this time and time again in public policy where apparently simple and sensible measures fail because of unforeseen costs.

The difficulty that I have had with discussions on emissions trading schemes lies not in the underlying economic concepts, but in the difficulty I have had in tracing through just how the schemes might work in practice on the ground.

I will look at this in my next post in this series.      

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