Some Questions On The Science Of Kyoto

This post is not a challenge to those who believe that the climate is changing due to the release of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) by humankind.

It is asking questions about the science that underpins the Kyoto Protocol and and which is being used to determine our level of emissions. 

 Several aspects of the Kyoto Protocol really annoy me.  For a start how can we solve this problem if major emitting economies have not taken on any obligations?  It looks as though the US will take on commitments to whatever replaces Kyoto but there seems no chance off China, India and Brazil etc taking on commitments.

Why is there such inconsistency over points of obligation?  Why are consumers held responsible to the release of GHGs from oil, gas and coal and not the producing countries, when the country that cuts down a tree is held responsible for emitting the full amount of carbon stored in that tree from the time that it is cut down?  An importing country faces the full liability for emissions from gas, oil and coal, but exporting country faces the full liability for wood.  And why does the exporting country face the full liability for its agricultural emissions as opposed to the country that is going to actually consume the product that was produced as a result of all those emissions having been made?  So New Zealand imports oil from country x and bears the full costs of releasing the GHGs from burning that oil in New Zealand.  We export meat to country x, but also face the full cost of producing all the GHGs released while producing this meat.

Why was horticulture excluded from the original emissions trading scheme?  We store plenty of carbon in horticulture.  Our systems are essentially closed – in wine for example we absorb in the grape growing process exactly as much CO2 as we put back into the atmosphere in the wine making process.  Our vines store more cabon each year, and those of us growing things organically, are constantly boosting our carbon levels in our soil.  We get no credit for this under the previous Government’s scheme but we face full costs on all our inputs.

And have we got the science right over methane production from our cows and sheep?  This is a critical issue for New Zealand as our agricultural emissons are half our total emissions.

Where does methane come from? It comes from the guts of cows and sheep.  It is is produced in the guts of ruminant livestock as a result of the actions of methanogenic bacteria and protozoa on the feed being eaten by the ruminant livestock.  In New Zealand’s case that food is mostly grass.

Now this is where I am hoping to be corrected, but my reading of the Kyoto Protocol gas calculation rules suggests that the methane emitted is being measured (estimated based on stock numbers) in gross terms.  But no counterbalancing adjustment is being made for the fact that the components that make the methane were largely absorbed from atmosphere as carbon (methane – CH4 – is one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen).

No where can I find a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by our pasture in New Zealand.  While pasture doesn’t store carbon well (grasses tend to die and then release carbon back into the atmosphere relatively quickly – unlike trees that live many years) pasture absorbs as much carbon as does forest.  If is wasn’t for the interaction of animals, pasture would be a fully closed system in terms of CO2.  As much carbon as is absorbed would be released again once the grass dies.  The animals convert the carbon that has been absorbed by grass into all kinds of things.  Out one end comes the methane that everone is so exercised about.  The other end is even more disgusting but those droppings do add carbon back into the soil where it is stored.  And of course the meat and wool produced gets eaten or consumed into clothing.  The carbon will get released back into the atmosphere one day, but is maay take many years.

But in terms of carbon and GHGs isn’t this as much a closed system as pasture without the animals?  The grass absorbs the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  It gets eaten and that carbon gets combined with some hydrogen in the gut thanks to some microbe induced anaerobic frementaion and methane gets released into the atmosphere.  So as a result there is less CO2 in the atmosphere but more methane than there would otherwise be. But they are both GHGs.  Why therefore do our farmers not get pinged for producing methane when in fact without the methane there would still be CO2 being released into the atmosphere?  And why are they being pinged at all for being part of what is essentially a closed system?  No more GHGs are being put up into the atmosphere than are being absorbed by the pasture.

Looking at the way things are measured here in New Zealand the amount of CO2 being emitted and absorbed by agriculture is treated as a neutral exercise – data is deemed to be not available.  If it was, would it confirm or refute the case I make above?  But even without this data how can determine a farmer’s liability?

Finally, as mentioned above in relation both to pastural agriculture and viticulture, I think that there is an issue over the measurement of, and need for account to be taken of the amount of carbon being absorbed in our soils.  I have seen plenty of scientists getting excited over the prospects for using biochar to store carbon in soils, but what about what is already going on?  Without taking acount of what is already taking place how can we get a true picture of the amount of GHGs we are actually producing from our agriculture sector?

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7 Responses to “Some Questions On The Science Of Kyoto”

  1. Questions on Kyoto | Kiwiblog Says:

    […] Finny has some questions on Kyoto. They are not questions about the basic science that if emissions increase, temperatures will […]

  2. Andrew D Says:

    I’m not up to speed on many of these issues, and many of them seem to be issues with the deeply flawed Kyoto treaty rather than scientific issues. If New Zealand and Australia were seen to be taking bold measures they might be able to help bring about a better successor treaty!

    One point though, not all green house gases are created equal. Suppose for the sake of argument that each molecule of methane emitted by cattle contains an atom of carbon from recently absorbed atmospheric C02 so that the cow basically converts one molecule of CO2 to one molecule of methane.

    This one molecule absorbs many times the infra red radiation of the original molecule of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times I don’t have the exact figure just now). On the other hand it is more reactive and will only survive in the atmosphere for about 7 years as compared to more than 100 years for CO2. In its wisdom Kyoto averages this effect out over 100 years and charges one methane molecule at 25 CO2 molecules. If they averaged over only 20 years one methane molecule would be worth 72 CO2 molecules. In any case it seems that the cattle really are increasing the infrared absorption of the atmosphere quite significantly.

    That 100 year average is a blunt instrument though, since stock numbers can be changed so rapidly and atmospheric methane is so shortlived. Personally I think that it would pay to focus on GHGs like CO2 whose concentration will not respond rapidly to emissions abatement measures.

  3. rocky Says:

    Well I agree with you but then I don’t believe the climate is behaving abnormally anyway. Your article deserves wider publication but the media will avoid it like the plague despite there being the seasonal absence of any news or intelligent debate in the papers.

  4. Owen McShane Says:

    Does anyone have an explanation as to why the amount of methane in the atmosphere is now stabilised and most recently falling?
    And given that cows do not run on fossil fuel why are we counting their methane emissions? Or put it another way why are the Indians not been required to count the methane from their 90,000,000 sacred cows and about 30,000,000 bison.?
    take a moment to look at these two links:

    This one from NASA explains the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO):
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=8703

    This second one from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
    Administration (NOAA) describes the PDO two days ago on Christmas Day:

    http://www.osdpd. noaa.gov/ PSB/EPS/SST/ data/anomnight. 12.25.2008. gif

    Satellite image shows the PDO is back. We’re in for several decades of cooler climate. Note the horseshoe shape of cold water in the Pacific northeast. Gore must be crying in his beer at the lost revenue from his carbon capping scam.

    Chilling, eh?

    But must get back to preparing material for that ridiculously early closing date of 13 February for Select Committee submissions.
    I hope the politicians are enjoying the “good rest”recommended by the Prime Minister. Thanks to the Claytons Select Committee, some of us have to carry on working.

  5. back40 Says:

    “. . . in terms of carbon and GHGs isn’t this as much a closed system as pasture without the animals? The grass absorbs the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It gets eaten and that carbon gets combined with some hydrogen in the gut thanks to some microbe induced anaerobic frementaion and methane gets released into the atmosphere. So as a result there is less CO2 in the atmosphere but more methane than there would otherwise be. But they are both GHGs. Why therefore do our farmers not get pinged for producing methane when in fact without the methane there would still be CO2 being released into the atmosphere? And why are they being pinged at all for being part of what is essentially a closed system? No more GHGs are being put up into the atmosphere than are being absorbed by the pasture.”

    Well, it isn’t a closed system in any meaningful sense since the carbon comes from everywhere and anywhere on earth, and it is all powered by external energy input from the sun, but your point still has some merit. Stated another way, your claim is that the carbon cycle might be net neutral – or perhaps even negative – in pastoral systems.

    One sticking point is that you seem to equate methane and CO2. As others have noted, they are equal in carbon, but not in climate forcing. But, you also seem to claim that methane is something peculiar to ruminant belches, that absent the livestock then CO2 would be produced instead. That too is false since anaerobic fermentation takes place all over, not just in the gut. It is probable that those free living microbes would produce just as much methane if the grasses and forbs simply rotted in the fields rather than being consumed by livestock.

    Your claims, with the above caveats, might be valid though there isn’t a lot of science to confirm them. The work hasn’t been done to precisely quantify alternative systems. It’s difficult to do and since there are so many variables the results might not be accurate no matter how precise. So much depends on management – natural or human – and chance.

    What is clear is that the current policies proposed and enacted by various political regimes are idiotic. That’s good enough for government work since the objective is not to govern well so much as to gain and increase power.

  6. Erich J. Knight Says:

    Farming is Carbon Management:

    Farmers should embrace carbon taxes, they have the greatest ability to capture and store it. No till practices are now granted carbon credits for increases in soil carbon content. Increased soil carbon means increased yields.

    Virginia Tech, JMU and several other major universities are doing soil trials now that will super charge the soil food webs. By amending soils with charcoal or “biochar”. “Biochar” is produced from all type of biomass waste after the gases and bio-oils are extracted with pyrolysis (ie heating with no oxygen). The oil and gas are bio-fuels, the biochar becomes a massive carbon condominium for beneficial microbes and fungi in the soil food web. The results to date show yield increases of 50-100%,and has been certified by the European Union.

    This amendment is unlike any other in that it is biologically inactive and remains in the soil for thousands of years. If American farmers were paid what the Europeans pay out in carbon taxes they would receive $500 for every ton of biochar spread on their fields. The increased yields…icing on their black earth cake.

    Given the current “Crisis” atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

    This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    The International Biochar Initiative Conference;
    http://www.biochar-international.org/ibi2008conference/aboutibi2008conference.html

  7. back40 Says:

    The reason to use biochar is that it is profitable. It’s a best management practice. This is a far more powerful motivation than rent seeking in developed countries since as stated in the original post AGW is a global issue. Just as Kyoto type agreements have trivial effects on AGW in part because they do not include developing countries, carbon taxes to fund biochar rent seeking would have trivial effects on AGW as well. The effects of carbon taxes are to distort economies and fund rent seekers. It’s political larceny using the excuse of AGW.

    Focusing on the agronomic benefits of biochar reveals benefits far in excess of concerns about GHGs since it increases productivity while reducing costs. More food, fiber and fuel is produced with fewer inputs. In a world in which 1 of 6 people is food insecure that is hugely significant. Less land using less fertilizer and less water feeds and clothes more people. The socio-economic importance of this in developing countries as well as developed countries makes concerns about GHGs pale in comparison. It’s a trivial side effect, not the primary benefit.

    We need to rise above climate hysteria and consider the whole problem set. If we must have government meddling then let it be more sensible. If the bully pulpit was used to encourage better agronomic practices the benefits would multiply since those who listened and improved their practices would prosper without the dead hand of bureaucrats damping the positive effects. It works everywhere and every when. Wisdom does not respect national borders.

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