Carbon farming: using agriculture against climate change
Inside Energy

Down on the farm, a new way to tackle climate change

In the Australian outback, one family is helping the land, their business, and in a small but significant way, the planet.

By Adam Lusher on Aug 2, 2021

The homestead stands in the Australian outback, amid red earth, ragged vegetation and rugged beauty. 

The sun bakes the 206,000 hectares of Ninghan Station, 380 kilometres north-east of Perth, Western Australia. 

Don and Leah Bell came here as newlyweds in 1958. Now they share the homestead of this beef cattle ranch with their son Ashley, himself a grandfather.

The Bells are opening a new chapter for this land and their family. In their own small but significant way, they are also helping the planet.

They are applying for their first carbon credits, after spending three years studying and adopting practices for what is known as carbon farming, or regenerative agriculture.

This involves managing land so plants remove as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as possible, by absorbing it in their leaves, storing it in their wood or drawing it into the soil through their roots.

Ashley and his grandchildren planting saltbushes (Image credit: Drew Bell)
Ashley and his grandchildren planting saltbushes (Image credit: Drew Bell)

“You find a new way to safeguard the land, this beautiful red earth,” says Ashley. “You see the difference: more vegetation, more plant species. Living on the land, we have recognised the effects of climate change.

“Now our whole family is doing something about it.”

Select Carbon, the company that advised the family, estimates that every year the Bells will store CO2 equivalent to the emissions of around 6,000 cars, each driving 15,000 kilometres. This is after taking into account the methane emissions from their cattle.

The spread of carbon farming

Carbon farming has spread to nearly every country in the world. It accounts for hundreds of millions of hectares, although this is still a fraction of the planet’s 5 billion hectares of agricultural land.

The Bells are carbon farming for themselves and future generations. Ashley’s son Drew works on Ninghan Station. Drew’s children help out too.

“We want this land to stay in our family,” says Don, “To look after it, not flog it to death.”

The Australian government’s Clean Energy Regulator will award the Bells one carbon credit for every tonne of CO2 removed.

The Bells can sell their carbon credits to businesses seeking to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

For every tonne a business emits, it can choose to buy a carbon credit representing 1 tonne of CO2 removed by projects such as the Bells’ that use nature to absorb greenhouse gases.

An important role in countering climate change

Such nature-based solutions, including offsets and carbon credits as incentives, can help tackle climate change.

Independent analyses have concluded that between now and 2030 nature-based solutions could provide around one-third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to keep the world on track with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius.

The expected income from carbon credits meant the Bells could afford to incorporate carbon farming into their business.  

New fences control where their Red Devon Droughtmaster Cross cattle roam, enabling rotational grazing.

“Before, areas got overgrazed and trampled to dust,” says Ashley. “Now, we can rest that land before rotating the cattle back. Plants grow again.”

The cows, meanwhile, restore hard, barren ground.

“We put hay down so they feed there,” says Ashley. “Their hooves dig up the soil, so seeds can germinate.

“The plants’ root systems hold the soil together, retain water, and stop soil erosion. Before, a thunderstorm could wash degraded soil out to the bedrock.”

The Bells love carbon farming’s natural methods.

Leah is a Badimia woman, whose people have been on this land for at least 50,000 years. They still honour the sacred sites within the station’s boundary, such as Warrdagga Rock.

“Warrdagga is where the elders taught me that I speak for this land, and must look after it,” says Ashley.

Don Bell
Don Bell: “We want to look after the land, not flog it to death.”

A critical moment for nature-based solutions

Select Carbon has helped Australian landholders incorporate carbon farming in more than 70 projects covering around 10 million hectares. In 2020, the company became the first acquisition for Shell’s Nature-Based Solutions business.

Select Carbon’s chief executive Dean Revell says nature-based solutions are entering a critical phase, because they can help reduce greenhouse gas levels in the transition years when hydrocarbon use remains high. 

“The Bells’ 25-year project takes us to almost 2050. Low-carbon energy is expected to be much more prevalent by then.

“But carbon farming and nature-based solutions can be important in reducing greenhouse gas levels right now.

“Carbon farming can also make agricultural businesses more sustainable and profitable. And thriving rural businesses make for thriving rural communities.”

Shell’s approach is that offsets and nature-based solutions must combine with all the other work needed to get to net-zero emissions. The idea is to avoid emissions, reduce them, and only then offset what remains.

Christian Davies, Shell’s research and development lead for nature-based solutions, says if adopted more widely, carbon farming could help drive the expansion of using nature to remove greenhouse gases.

“The opportunities are huge, considering how much farmland there is,” says Davies. “It’s not a choice between carbon farming and profitability. You can do both.”

Independent environmental auditors spent months studying Ninghan Station, verifying that the Bells had correctly applied carbon farming methods.

COVID-19 restrictions stopped them visiting in person. Instead they chose locations and got Select Carbon staff to take photos and measurements there. These will help with regular, verifiable assessments of vegetation growth, tree canopy cover and, crucially, CO2 removal as the project progresses.

“The station is thriving,” says Don. “The land is telling us something: we can’t go on like we did before.” 

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