Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Carbon Farming: A Solution to Global Land Degradation and Poverty?

Soil erosion in a wheat field near Pullman, USA.
Soil erosion on a US farm
by Professor Edward Barbier, Professor of Economics at University of Wyoming, The Conversation: theconversation.edu.au

Today, nearly 1.3 billion people - almost a fifth of the world’s population - live on “fragile” agricultural land.

Just one-third of the rural poor in developing countries live on productive agricultural land.

Fragile land is the main challenge facing environmental sustainability and poverty eradication in the developing world. But a solution could come from Australia: carbon farming. 

Reduced soil security is likely to damage food security in the future, particularly in developing countries. Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative may provide a model for other countries as they look to find ways of managing degraded land.

Since 1950, the estimated population in developing economies on “fragile lands” has doubled, due to both an increase in these lands and growing rural populations. These marginal environments are prone to land degradation and less suitable for agriculture. They are upland areas, forest systems and drylands that suffer from low agricultural productivity, and where it is difficult to farm intensively.

Extremely poor families living on marginal lands have very few productive assets: just their land and their unskilled labour. Land degradation is a serious threat to their livelihoods. It often mires them in an irreversible “poverty-environment trap”.

The rural poor clustered in fragile environments could improve their livelihoods through carbon farming. This is a payment scheme that allows farmers and land managers to earn credits by storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their land.

These credits can then be sold to pay for a variety of carbon storing activities, such as reduced tillage, biogas, drip irrigation and afforestation.

Such initiatives are spreading across the developing world, including China, Brazil and Africa, with major development agencies such as the World Bank getting involved.

But the most important and ambitious of these initiatives is occurring not in developing countries, but in Australia.

Carbon farming in Australia

Since September 2011, Australia has been implementing its Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). Under the auspices of the CFI, the government’s Carbon Farming Futures plan will provide AU$429 million over the six years to encourage carbon farming across Australia.

The Government will buy carbon credits from farmers and landholders who undertake carbon-saving measures such as storing carbon and revegetation. Farmers might eventually earn credits for implementing new carbon storing activities including planting trees, reducing livestock methane emissions, and managing natural habitat.

For now, however, Australian farmers seem more curious about earning credits from altering existing cultivation and farmland management practices so soils hold more carbon.

The Australian policy experiment with carbon farming is instructive. It gets to the heart of questions about whether carbon farming can make a difference in halting global land degradation:
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