Using the Outback for Carbon Cutbacks

When we talk about lowering carbon emissions, we so often focus on reductions in the energy and transportation industries. But it’s important to remember that there are also solutions hiding in our own backyards. And in Australia, we have a very large backyard.

That backyard is the Outback, which covers 80 percent of continental Australia. It has long been a definitive piece of the country’s geography, a core component of Australia’s rugged character. Now, a new report — commissioned by the Pew Environmental Group and The Nature Conservancy and conducted by the Nous Group — tells us that the Outback has a major role to play in fighting climate change.

Terrestrial carbon is a term that refers to the greenhouse gases locked away by the natural process of plant photosynthesis. Data examined by the new report confirms that the Outback sequesters 9.7 billion metric tons of carbon — or, more than 1.5 times the amount of carbon the United States creates in a year. Locking carbon away in ecosystems provides a natural way of lowering carbon emissions. And the good news is we haven’t tapped the full potential of terrestrial carbon in the Outback, where we could store at least an additional billion tons of carbon emissions. Through new measures, we could create a four percent reduction in emissions by 2020. By 2030, that number could be five.

Maximizing that potential could be as simple as expanding a variety of programs that deliver other environmental benefits. These include:

  • Preventing indiscriminate land clearing
  • Planting more vegetation
  • Better managing bushfires through prescribed burns and other preventive tactics
  • Eliminating feral pests
  • Encouraging sustainable grazing practices

Those programs are all cost-effective, energy-efficient alternatives to some of the larger-scale abatement strategies that have been considered in Australia.

International climate change policy has yet to fully embrace the potential of terrestrial carbon, and one of the major goals of our work in Australia is to establish an accurate and viable terrestrial carbon accounting framework that can help to guide international treaties. Studies like this bring us closer to that goal and help illustrate the enormous benefits of terrestrially sequestered carbon.

There is, however, a downside to having nearly 10 billion tons of carbon in your backyard: the possibility that they could escape. Environmental degradation in the Outback releases that sequestered carbon, which is one reason why the Conservancy is protecting and restoring land in Australia, from the Great Western Woodlands to the massive grasslands of the north.

Terrestrial carbon is only one piece of the climate change adaptation puzzle, but it’s an important piece. And if protecting the Outback for the many people and endangered species that depend on it can also lessen the impacts of climate change—well, then I’d say we’re putting our backyard to good use.

(Image 1: The Eucalyptus forest of Australia’s Gondwana Link region. Though only covering 2 percent of the Australian land mass, the mega-diverse Gondwana Link project area contains an amazing 25 percent of the country’s plant species. Source: Ami Vitale.)

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  1. Alas, as so often with the Nature Conservancy, this strategy overlooks the impacts of climate change on the ecosystem in question. Australia is drying up; and even the most optimistic climate impact predictions promise devastating and prolonged drought of the sort seen for nearly a decade already. Sympathetic management is, of course, essential for what remains of Australia’s carbon sinks; but let’s not pretend that there isn’t, inevitably, going to be serious feedback from a climate-degraded continent. Australia has the worst per-capita emissions of any country on Earth – and leaving it to the land to absorb those emissions is no substitute for cutting carbon at source.

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