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Uni breakthrough helps Qld farmers get paid for 'farming carbon'

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A band of Queensland scientists are behind a world-first tool enabling Australia to implement a new “blue carbon” credit system, hailed as a critical contributor to offsetting carbon emissions just by letting seawater roll back in on low-lying land along the coast.

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From a monumental pile of spreadsheets and about a year’s worth of calculations, the group created the world’s first blue carbon calculator that is the vital link in the nation’s latest cash-for-carbon scheme, and which may help unlock the global value of blue carbon.

It will allow farmers from Queensland’s Fraser Coast to the Far North to earn carbon credit units by turning sugar cane field and grazing property back into mangrove ecosystems, salt marshes, seagrass and melaleuca forests that sequester carbon.

It means converting low-lying tidal land back into wetlands and refilling swamps so farmers can instead “farm carbon”.

Dr James Sippo from Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, said the 13-strong team under project lead Professor Catherine Lovelock from the University of Queensland, hoped the calculator would be adopted internationally.

“There has never been a carbon credit method set up for blue carbon systems. Australia is leading the way at the moment,” Sippo said.

“Creating this calculator was just so hard to fathom. The number of variables that went into it was incredible. It was also during lockdown when I was in my dark little office working away on this enormous spreadsheet about how to set up an actual method for calculating the value of swamps.

“But there is such a strong research community in blue carbon in Australia and that’s the basis for this calculator.”

Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor last week announced that farmers, businesses and industries would benefit from new methods of offsetting carbon emissions, as part of the Emissions Reduction Fund.

For the first time it included blue carbon credits as a way to help Australia achieve its emissions reduction targets.

Blue carbon ecosystems punch above their weight when it comes to natural carbon sequestration.

Sippo said a single farm of 100 hectares of flooded grazing land converted to mangroves could sequester up to 4,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.

He said the blue carbon credit system could be applied to land that has been drained along the coastal zone.

“A lot of this land that is really low lying and historically high tides would have encroached on it.

“But over the last century there’s been drains dug, little barrages put in and bunds and seawalls put in to stop seawater coming in.

“Most sugar cane land and swampy grazing land on the Queensland coast could fall under this, and we want landowners to be aware of the potential,” he said.

Sippo said agricultural land and water-logged soils were large emitters. Wet soils emit a lot of methane and agricultural soils emit a lot of nitrous oxide. So, for example, sugar cane and low-lying grazing land have a very large greenhouse gas footprint.

“But as soon as you flood it with saltwater it stops that emission,” Sippo said.

“There’s stuff in seawater that basically turns off the methane and nitrous oxide. You immediately start getting credits for just flooding it with seawater, no matter what other changes happen.”

And the group’s new calculator can automatically show landowners how many credits they would get.

“We tried to make it easy, and we’ve tried to make it cheap so there’s not a big financial cost to get started. There is an initial cost, you have to have a hydrological assessment because there’s potential issues, like you can’t flood your neighbour’s block, which means the hydrological assessment is a part of it.

“But then you can basically farm carbon instead of farming produce.”

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