Where carbon resides

At a land management forum I attended a few years ago, a retired scientist commented that from his experience, problems are never solved by reductionist science. He said it was taking a systems approach that solved problems. The point he was making was that you need to be aware of everything that could possibly be influencing the problem you are trying to solve, i.e. you need to understand the big picture.

The flow of carbon through a paddock influences a lot of processes. If the flow falls too low, it causes a multitude of problems. Production and environmental issues can often be rectified by simply changing management to increase carbon flows.

The diagram below shows the earth system with regard to carbon. It is a great diagram because it puts everything into perspective. The amount of carbon on this planet is finite but some is always moving. It is interesting to know where all the carbon is, given different discussions focus on different pools and the flow of carbon between them.

Earth carbon pools and the flows between the pools (1 Giga tonne = 1,000,000,000 tonnes)

The first surprise for most of us is that the oceans contain 67% of the carbon on earth. Also, there is a lot more carbon flowing backwards and forwards between the oceans and the atmosphere than there is between the land and the atmosphere.

 

The atmosphere only has 1.3% of all the carbon on earth, which explains why it is easy to drastically alter its carbon content given the magnitude of the flows going on.

 

Thinking past carbon stocks

 

The diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.  

he diagram includes both stocks and flows, which is a good starting point for shifting our mindset past just thinking stocks and measurement. It helps us appreciate that flows are an integral part of the system.  

 

Think of your grazing paddock as a sub system within the earth carbon system. All life on this planet is carbon based. So, in order to exist, your cattle, grass and soil life are all relying on the atmosphere as a source of carbon atoms. All agriculture produces and sells carbon based products, i.e. all agriculture sells something that was living.

 

A grazing paddock is a dynamic system, not a static one. Thinking carbon flows is to take a dynamic approach while thinking carbon stocks is to take a static approach.

 

What flowing carbon in a paddock looks like

 

The picture below reminds us that we have to keep short term carbon flowing through the paddock to remain in production. 

Carbon is the main building block of everything living, be it cattle, grass or soil life and carries the energy that all three require.

 

Sometimes the main focus is long term carbon, sometimes short term carbon

 Climate change policy has a focus on long term carbon and measuring, however the decisions graziers/ranchers make relate to short term carbon as part of managing carbon flows.

The diagram suggests that of the 62 Giga tonnes coming down from the atmosphere, most of it returns to the atmosphere again. Carbon trading is focused on the 2 Giga tonnes that stays above and below ground while producers are harvesting some of the 60 Giga tonnes that is flowing through the paddock. 

 

The carbon flows concept  

 The carbon flows concept, that is the basis of this column, discusses the role of carbon as it keeps moving through the paddock, above and below ground, including through livestock. The concept explains what carbon does as it moves and the processes it activates, before returning to the atmosphere. It highlights that carbon is the organiser as it flows through the landscape. It discusses the different speeds of carbon as part of increasing profits and reducing the production of methane per kg of production. The concept is not dismissing the importance of long term soil carbon, instead it is suggesting that because long term carbon is hardly moving, it is only about 2% of flowing carbon.

The carbon flows concept should not be confused with discussion of the carbon cycle diagram. The carbon cycle diagram is a one dimensional discussion. It goes no further than saying that carbon cycles. It simply discusses the different pools carbon moves between.   

 

The carbon flows concept discussed in this column is a systems approach.

 

Expanding the debate

 

When extension focuses on just carbon stocks and measurement, this is a form of reductionist science as the focus is too narrow. The purpose of this column is to broaden the debate. 

 

It is only natural that past producers like myself want to help current producers. The seasons lately seem to be harder to deal with, hence the need for more knowledge. The catalyst for me to write this column was my failure over many years to have any influence on the policy of the Department of Agriculture in my home state of Queensland, even after presenting a logical case to those at the top. To this day the Department still has a policy focused on stocks and measurement, not flows.

 

Not a long time ago while giving a presentation on carbon flows, I was again reminded of Departmental policy. About ten minutes into the presentation, an extension officer of the Department interjected with the comment, “Maybe I am stupid, but none of this is making any sense to me”. I thought to myself, he wouldn’t have made that comment if his Department had a different policy. Then another Departmental extension officer joined in with the comment, “Look, we have been measuring carbon and it is not changing”. The comment did provide an opportunity to explain the difference between stocks and flows in another way. My response, “Well, if you can’t measure a change in the stocks, then all the carbon has to be in the flows. You have just confirmed the thrust of what I am saying”.

 

Conclusion

 

With any production or environmental problem you are trying to solve, part of the solution will be improving carbon flows into the paddock. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is a perfect example.

 

Carbon stocks are the outcome of carbon flows, be they short term or long term. This highlights that discussing carbon flows is the entry point of any discussion around the role of carbon in the paddock, in fact even carbon trading.

 

Being too focused on stocks and measurement is a good example of reductionist thinking.

 

Because rural producers sell carbon based products, their day job is recycling carbon. The more carbon that flows, the more they have to sell.

 

With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows in a paddock, the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions becomes clearer.

 

Next week’s discussion:   “Why resilience is important"