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Australia’s net zero emissions plan for 2050 relies on ‘rough manipulation’ of data, experts say | australian politics

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The Morrison government’s net zero emissions plan for 2050 is based on ‘rough manipulation’ of data that suggests trees and soil can absorb far more carbon dioxide than is actually possible, experts in the field say .

The government’s long-term emissions reduction strategy, released ahead of a major climate summit in Glasgow from Sunday, has been criticized for not including new policies and relying on new technologies to dramatically cut emissions greenhouse gases in the 2030s and 2040s.

It assumed that 10-20% of the emissions reduction needed by 2050 would come from paying international and national offsets, including planting trees and other plants on marginal agricultural land and techniques to improve health. of soils. This would allow some fossil fuel industries to operate beyond 2050 by effectively canceling their emissions by drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The government has not released the modeling behind the plan, but the strategy paper suggests that 63 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year could be sequestered in trees and other plants and potentially over 103 million tonnes. per year could be stored in the soil of crops and pastures.

Several experts told Guardian Australia that these estimates exceeded the upper limits of what publicly peer-reviewed science suggested to be possible.

Richard Eckhard, professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Melbourne, said some of the soil carbon storage figures per hectare were about double what was likely to be achievable.

“Soil carbon will not be enough to offset agricultural emissions, let alone the coal industry,” he said. “The idea that we can bail out the coal industry with soil carbon is just fancy. “

Polly Hemming, an expert on carbon offsetting at the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, said the government’s strategy assumed that planting trees could capture 42 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare each year. But the most you could store under optimal conditions – in giant rowan forests, for example – was about half that: around 19 tonnes per hectare each year for up to 25 years, she said.

“There’s no way to get to the 42 million tonnes a year they’re talking about, mostly because they’re talking about using marginal land,” Hemming said.

On soil carbon, the government report said data available on how much can be stored across Australia was limited, but cited two estimates. The first, by CSIRO, suggested that 35 to 90 million tonnes could be stored each year. The second and most important in the report was that of AgriProve, a soil carbon company that generates revenue through the government’s emission reduction fund. He said there was a potential of at least 103 million tonnes per year to be stored across the country.

Eckhard said it made little sense for the government to use data from a company working in the region as it created a potential conflict of interest. “Why has the government not used the best soil science available? ” he said.

Hemming said the government assumed that up to 4.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide could be stored per hectare of soil each year, when published science suggested the upper limit under optimal conditions was around 1, 8 ton per hectare. “Best practice science that is publicly available says it’s not credible,” she said.

She said the government’s strategy did not seem to recognize that a stand of trees or a piece of land could not continue to sequester carbon dioxide indefinitely, as each would eventually strike a balance and no longer be able to store some. Eckhard and Hemming both said he also failed to take into account the impact of climate change increased bushfires and drought on natural carbon stores.

Eckhard said soil carbon in Australia is 90% dependent on rainfall, and that is expected to decrease in many areas. “Why would we cover our future climate change strategy against something that climate change itself will challenge? ” he said.

Bill Hare, scientist and chief executive of Climate Analytics, said the strategy confirmed that the government was exaggerating the amount of carbon dioxide that can be stored in the country. “It is a gross manipulation of what is possible,” he said.

He said the report suggested that the government’s technological approach could lead to a reduction as low as 66% of actual emissions by 2050 from 2005 levels, and leave up to 215 million tonnes per year which were supposed to be treated by national and international compensations. .

The government argued that data for the strategy came from CSIRO and the Department of Energy.

Angus Taylor, the emissions reduction minister, said on Thursday he would use the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow to promote Australia as a “safe and reliable” place to invest in gas, hydrogen and “new energy technologies”. He will join Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the summit following a meeting of G20 leaders in Rome this weekend.

Taylor said the most important legacy the Cop26 could have had was “a true global commitment to intensify collaboration on the technological solutions needed to achieve net zero.” But the summit will focus largely on commitments to reduce emissions over the next decade.

The Morrison government has resisted calls to raise Australia’s short-term target beyond that set under Tony Abbott six years ago – a reduction of 26-28% by 2030 from levels of 2005. This puts him at odds with hosts Britain, the United States and the European Union, who have stressed that developed countries must cut their emissions in half by 2030.

Selwin Hart, special adviser to the UN secretary general on climate change, this week criticized Australia’s approach. “Where countries depend on technologies that have not yet been developed, or indicate that they intend to reduce in the 2030s and 2040s, frankly, this is reckless and irresponsible,” he said. declared.

A UN report released this week found the world was failing to cut emissions and would face disastrous temperature increases of at least 2.7 ° C unless countries step up their commitments.

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