Look out for Outliers! They prove it!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We have identified a list of “high performance” soil carbon managers who have demonstrated a potential well beyond the average. These ‘outliers’ present a challenge for the conventional estimation of the potential of Australian soils to sequester carbon. 

If these outliers can do it, it can be done.

The CSIRO’s chief soil carbon scientist Jeff Baldock pointed us in the direction of these outliers. We need a study of high performance individuals and what characteristics they share. We need the equivalent of the Australian Institute of Sport for carbon farmers.

AN outlier is a point that is off the curve. In statistics, an outlier is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data. An outlying observation, or outlier, is one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs. (Grubbs, F. E.: 1969, Procedures for detecting outlying observations in samples. Technometrics 11, 1–21.)

“Outliers… are often indicative either of measurement error or that the population has a heavy-tailed distribution. A frequent cause of outliers is a mixture of two distributions, which may be two distinct sub-populations...”

Those two sub-populations: conventional farmers in the hump of the curve and carbon farmers in the tail. (Have we been measuring in the hump and not in the tail?)

Here we have Jeff Baldock's squiggle of the location of outliers in the 'wide tail' of a normal random distribution curve (on the right hand side) which we believe is where our carbon farmers are hidden.

And below we have Jeff's formal graph where we can see the 'heavy tail' (c.2011 slide presentation).

The people you are about to meet are all highly respected by their peers for their contribution to their industries. But they all do something that modern science says is impossible. They capture and hold carbon in their soils at three-to-eighteen-times the rate that scientists believe possible.


 
The CSIRO's best soil scientists say the largest increase possible in Australian soils that they have recorded is half a tonne per hectare per year. But David Marsh (left) from Boorowa NSW averaged an increase of more than 3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year over 10 years. Craig Carter (right) from Willow Tree NSW has added 8 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year over 3 years at his best monitoring sites. David sits on the Board of his local Catchment Management Authority and Craig is a member of the Liverpool Plains Land Management and Sydney University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources ‘CANEn’ project – Connecting Agriculture, Nutrition and Environment. He was also selected to be featured in former Governor-General Major General Michael Jeffrey's Soils For Life program. (Chairman of Healthy Soils Australia Tom Nicholas is pictured centre)


David Bruer (above) of Temple- Bruer Vineyards at Langhorne Creek (SA) increased average soil carbon levels by 2% in 10 years to 2011 (more than 3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year ). The project aims to highlight information and tools for managing climate risk on farm. 


Col Seis (above) increased soil carbon by 3 tonnes per hectare per year (from 2% to 4%) on “Winona”, Gulgong, between 1995 and 2005. Between 2008 and 2010 his sequestration rate was close to 9 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. Col is co-inventor of the practice known as Pasture Cropping.


New England grazier Cam Banks has used cell grazing and a focus on soil health to achieve an increase of 2.6 tonnes of Carbon sequestered/ha/yr between 2007-2011 at “Lakeview” in Uralla NSW (above). Cam is an active member of Landcare.

Martin Royds moved his soil carbon levels at "Jillamatong" near Braidwood NSW from 3% to 7% in 5 years, lifting his tonnage per hectare from an increase of 2 tonnes per year to more than 14 tonnes per year at his best monitor points in that time frame. He was awarded National Carbon Cocky of the Year 2011, sponsored by Ylad Living Soils. Rhonda Daly (seen presenting the award) and her husband Bill are also Carbon Farmers at Young NSW. They have compared a compost mineral blend vs single super, and observed an increase of 0.5% in soil carbon vs 0.07% increase between 2008-2010 - or close to 2.5 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year in a cropping enterprise.

But remember: none of this exists... officially... 

Officially the most soil carbon that can be sequestered in Australian soils is 0.5tonnes/hectare/year. Why is t here a vast gap between the performance predicted by scientific models and the actual performance of many carbon farmers? The farmers' high carbon scores are not considered reliable by scientists because the measurement was not conducted by scientists, according to scientific protocols. These results are described by scientists as 'anecdotal'. But here, in this small sample of farmers, we have a pattern which poses the question: Why?

Could the farmers be fudging the figures? But what motive would a farmer have to skew their carbon scores? No one is offering to pay them for it. No carbon trading scheme pays for past performance. Most of the farmers featured above started measuring their carbon levels 10 years ago, before there was a hint of earning carbon credits.

Also, these farmers have recorded falls in their soil carbon levels as well as increases along the way. Their integrity is not in question.

They may not use the same rigour in their measurement methodology, taking fewer samples than a scientist would take. But is this enough to explain the gap? (Some of the measurement was done by scientists and in all cases the analysis was done at a NATA-accredited laboratory.)

When it comes to 'growing carbon' farmers enjoy an unfair advantage. Each farmer lives inside a live experiment, 24/7, observing how nature responds to various activities. They micromanage their farms, combining techniques and practices, endlessly trialling and making decisions every day. Their experiments are conducted in a single location for application in that location. The farmer is there on the ground every day, absorbing the whole ecological 'event', processing it intuitively, referencing their entire experience with nature, and developing new hypotheses on the run. 

These farmers bring a learning attitude to their work. They read a lot, attend conferences, and most are active members of local natural resource management bodies or groups. 

The farmer is not seeking to answer a single question about an isolated variable in the ecological mix. The farmer wants to learn everything at once. They want to know how to get more and better pasture and crops, better water efficiency, healthier animals and better quality produce. They want more sustainable farming for today and tomorrow when they hand the farm to the next generation. They want more profit, more drought resistance, more production. 

The farmers just want to know what works. They don't have to spend time working out why it work. This can explain the gap in performance: farmers are better carbon farmers because they have a narrower task, more time to spend on it, freedom to change direction when early results indicate.

A formal scientific experiment sets out a methodology for each study which must be strictly observed for the period of the program, usually 3 years . This is because scientists must prove their results to others while farmers only have to prove it to themselves. 

The result of this unfair advantage are the higher soil carbon scores registered by farmers and the refusal by scientists to accept these scores because they are not replicable, as science demands of new facts.

These farmers are "outliers" - not a statistical aberration, but the result of a mixture of two distributions or sub-populations. Each of them have spent the 10,000 hours studying and practicing "required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything," according to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. It is on these grounds that we believe these high performance carbon farmers reveal the true potential of Australian soils.

The Carbon Farming Initiative should focus all resources tagged for soil carbon on the challenge of measurement and set farmers free to sequester as much carbon as they can, independent of what the models say we can. This is the only way that the soil carbon credit can act as the catalyst needed to spark the chain reaction among farmers around the world to activate the massive carbon extractive capacity of the soils and vegetation. 


Read more...



A green rate hike

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
I think we were all a bit shocked when we saw the story in the Weekly Times recently, which reported that a poor semi-retired man on 16ha had his rates increased from $1500 to $5000 "because he'd planted trees for carbon"

So, I called the 'shire' (yes, Victoria has one as well, namely the Mornington Shire Council) 
 
Seems the guts of it is as follows: 
  • Not at all sure this gentleman has planting his trees under a methodology which would create credits - but 
  • I haven't contacted him. 
  • He is in an area which has 2 ratings - one for residential land and one for agriculture. They try to protect agriculture.
  • Due to the 'tourist' value of the area - it looks pretty to have the cows in the meadow, sheep in the hay etc. 
  • He had his rating changed a year or so ago as he changed from an agricultural pursuit to a 'no animal' approach.
  • He is able to claim a rate reduction from what they call a 'land sustainability rebate' for the tree plantings.
  • If a farmer who is farming for profit on a farm puts in a tree carbon plot as part of what he does in an agricultural sense, he is unlikely to trip any rate change - after all, its just rated as agriculture'. As such, there aren't any other rates category that it comes under. 
However, I would be nervous enough after this little piece, and given the Vic. Govt. doesn't seem to agree with carbon 
farming, to check with my shire if I was in Victoria and going to plant some trees. 
 
We ourselves were out today checking out our 'marginal land' and taking some GPS points. We'll whack them 
through the Govt. calculators and let you know what the Govt says we could sequester. Let's all get the skills 
we need to take part, or at least make decisions about taking part. 

Breaking the 100 years barrier (25 is better)

Saturday, July 28, 2012
"The Coalition... says it's committed to repealing the carbon tax, but supports the Carbon Farming Initiative and will honour carbon credits earned under the scheme," reported ABC Radio earlier this week. In fact, shadow environment minister Greg Hunt says, in Government, he would look to expand the Initiative. Greg says it's not reasonable to expect farmers to lock up areas of land for carbon sequestration for 100 years in order to earn credits.
"Our view is we will work to make a 25-year approach... It's a view which is almost universal across the sector that a quarter of a century, which is still a long time, is realistic, it allows people to long-term investments, but it's not binding beyond the lifetime of one particular farm."

We believe in the principle of healthy diversity and ‘let the market decide’. We advocate a plurality of offerings: 100 year contract, 25 year contract, 5 year renewable contracts – renewable 4 times. The latter is the most acceptable to farmers, according to our research. However prices are likely to be lower at this end of the continuum.

We have long advocated the logic of a shorter option for the Permanence requirement because:
  • No sane farmer would sign a contract for 100 years with all the uncertainties and penalties associated with soil carbon as it has been presented;
  • Soil Carbon sequestration can play an important interim role in the next 50 years while renewable energy sources grow to baseload capacity, according to prominent scientists
  • The 100 years period is not scientifically significant; it is not the time it takes for a molecule of CO2 to cycle out of the atmosphere. It was selected as a convenient period for comparing the warming potential of different greenhouse gases.
  • 100 years was chosen supposedly to equalise offsets based on sequestration with offsets based on avoided emissions. But the permanence of the avoided combustion of a tonne of coal via the use of renewable energy has been questioned on the grounds that there is no guarantee that the tonne of coal won't be dug up and burnt at a later date.
  • The co-benefits of soil carbon are so many and so beneficial, including reducing the need for chemical inputs and suppressing disease in crops, according to the latest reports.
Onwards!

The first soil carbon methodology arrives

Thursday, July 26, 2012
The first soil carbon meth has been published for public comment. It is a good example of the way meths can be made up from modules plucked from other people's work. This meth is submitted by a company from Queensland called GroundWorks, that sells a product called Ecoblanket® - a seeding method that involves compost and a spray technique. Its name says it all: a "Methodology for Quantifying Carbon Sequestration by Permanent Environmental Plantings of Native Species established through Direct Seeding, Planting or application of Ecoblanket® using the CFI Reforestation Modelling Tool [and Sample Testing for Soil Carbon] Prepared by Groundworks Pty Ltd". 

They started by taking the Government's own environmental plantings meth in (total), adding their seeding system and adding a soil carbon measurement system from a 2008 UNFCCC CDM reforestation and aforestation methodology (in total). The weakness in the soil carbon meth is that the crediting period is 20 years. That means you have to wait for 20 years to see a return. Too long for most people. 

PS. Clever approach to meth making. Like Duplo.

Are soils the missing sink? More evidence

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Scientists have discovered an abrupt increase in the uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the land biosphere (which comprises all of the planet's plant and animal ecosystems) since 1988. The increase in uptake is about one billion tonnes of carbon per year. Equal to 10 per cent of the global fossil fuel emissions for 2010. Without this natural increase in uptake, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would probably have increased even more rapidly over the last two decades. 

These new results have been reported in a recent paper in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, written by an international team of researchers at Princeton University (USA), NIWA (New Zealand), and the University of Missouri (USA). They applied a suite of statistical techniques to objectively determine the timing, size, and statistical significance of this shift. They explored whether it could be explained by volcanic eruptions or the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – it can't.

"The scientific community has known for a long time that the land biosphere takes up CO2. What's new about this study is that we have discovered an abrupt shift towards more uptake by the land biosphere since 1988. Our team applied mathematical techniques that haven't been widely used in this field to detect the shift," says NIWA's Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher.
"While the increase was shown to be significant, the physical processes driving it remain a mystery. It poses big questions for us. What caused this shift? What can it tell us about how land's ability to take up CO2 is going to change in the future, and the sensitivity of the land carbon sink to climate? How is that going to feed back into climate conditions in the future?" says Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher 

Soil Carbon baseline ALERT

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Farmers involved in Action On The Ground projects which have soil carbon measurement as a key objective should ask their scientific adviser about the baseline measurement methodology you will be using. The requirement that the farm-scale or paddock-scale measurement method used for Action On The Ground be consistent with that used in the SCaRP is confusing. “SCaRP was not set up to baseline carbon contents on paddocks or farms”, Dr Jeff Baldock wrote in a paper published late last year. 

 So where does that leave you? Ask your scientific adviser the following questions: 
  1. Do we have a soil carbon baseline methodology that meets the Department's requirements? 
  2. Do we know if the baseline measurements that we take for this project will be useful for measuring carbon sequestered that we can put towards gaining offsets should they become available? 
  3. Will our involvement in this project disqualify us from earning soil carbon offsets in future because of the Additionality Integrity Standard? What can we do to avoid this outcome?

Global Warming good for soil carbon traders

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
GOOD NEWS for farmers who choose to trade soil carbon offsets: Global Warming will increase soil carbon sequestration rates for decades ahead, according to a recent research results summarized by the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change (CO2science.org). As the CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase, most plants increase photosynthetic rates to produce greater amounts of biomass. This leads to greater inputs of carbon to the soil from roots, root exudates and dead above-ground plant material. It’s not just about more biomass, either. CO2 enrichment typically reduces decomposition rates of dead plant materials present in soils. This phenomenon often leads to greater soil carbon sequestration. 

Scientists have concluded that, in spite of predicted increases in temperature, this stimulation of the below-ground carbon sequestration could exert a negative feed-back on the current rise of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Finally, with more carbon in soils, soil structure and fertility should be improved, providing a positive feedback that further enhances plant growth and soil carbon sequestration.