On Saturday, Labor’s announcement of a “carbon farming initiative” received a cautious reception. “A welcome boost for regional Australians,” the Climate Institute called it, but warned that a carbon price was still necessary.  The ACF similarly said the benefits of better land management wouldn’t be realised unless there was a carbon price. The NFF “acknowledged” the announcement, which “recognises that carbon abatement through the agricultural sector is an opportunity that should not be ignored.”

The initiative would be facilitatory – establishing a framework (including a new, unspecified, “independent regulator”) for accrediting carbon sequestration activities such as reafforestation, fertiliser reduction and soil carbon so the permits could be sold domestically or internationally to those who wanted to buy them.

Plainly that assumes that even in the absence of an emissions trading scheme there’ll be companies that want to buy permits. The Government estimates a possible market of $500 million.

It compares to the Coalition’s “direct action” plan, which will primarily depend on paying farmers $8-10 a tonne of CO2-equivalent emissions sequestered through soil carbon activities. The actual cost per tonne, according to independent experts, will be at least 3 times that, meaning the Coalition scheme relies on farmers being willing to spend $12-30 a tonne of their own money.

Soil carbon is the Coalition’s equivalent of Labor’s fixation with CCS. Labor loves CCS because it holds out the illusory promise that we — and a lot of union members in coal mining communities — can continue to be dependent on coal, with its consequences for climate change wished away to the bowels of the earth. Like CCS, soil carbon is a promising but unproven suite of technologies that is being treated as a magic cure by politicians too scared to tell voters that addressing climate change will have costs and require behavioural changes. Now Labor wants in on it, too.

There are significant unresolved questions about soil carbon — whether simpler forms like no-till farming or more complex processes like the production and distribution of biochar.  Just how stable carbon is in different types of soil under different conditions is not yet clear. There are problems about measurement, although the CSIRO is working on them. There are OH&S and efficiency issues about distributing biochar, finer varieties of which are susceptible to blowing away. Most problematic of all is that soil carbon isn’t counted under the Kyoto Protocol as a tradeable an emissions offset.

Indeed, Penny Wong was quick to point that out when Malcolm Turnbull first allowed Greg Hunt to base Liberal Party climate policy on it in January 2009. Now she has been spruiking it as a great means of taking action on climate change. Ain’t hypocrisy grand.

If there was an emissions trading scheme, there’d be real demand for agricultural offsets, driving the price up and encouraging farmers to explore sequestration options. But no one has proposed to include agriculture, which in 2008 accounted for 15% of Australia’s emissions, in any trading scheme. This means that any agricultural offsets would not be net of emissions produced by the same farm. That would not even be the case for emissions produced during the creation of the offset. For example, the process of pyrolysis, which produces biochar, would produce significant emissions unless it was powered by renewable energy. A tonne of sequestered emissions might therefore require tens or hundreds of kilos of carbon-equivalent emissions, but they won’t be counted.

Labor’s policy, which doesn’t go far beyond what it agreed with Malcolm Turnbull in negotiations over the CPRS, isn’t as egregious as the Coalition’s, but we’d be wise to be sceptical about both.

The push for the inclusion of agricultural offsets under the Kyoto Protocol has come from developed countries anxious to source offsets from developing countries that they can purchase in order to continue business-as-usual levels of carbon emissions at home. Of course, economic theory says this is the most efficient way to meet a global emissions target – if the cost of offsetting emissions in this manner becomes greater than the cost of decarbonising developed economies, it will drive genuine emissions reductions in developed economies.

But the behaviour of Australian politicians suggests this is less about economic efficiency than finding plausible excuses to delay action to reduce our heavy dependence on coal as long as possible, which is why they put their faith in magic solutions like soil carbon and CCS, when renewable energy technologies (and for that matter nuclear power) are much closer to commercial viability. Remember that Ziggy Switkowski told John Howard a nuclear power industry would be viable in Australia with a carbon price of around $40 a tonne – much cheaper than the sorts of prices per tonne that government programs have been shown to achieve.

There are other beneficiaries when it comes to agricultural offsets too – and not just brokers, climate exchange dealers and carbon banks that want to clip the ticket on emissions trading. Genetically-modified food companies like Monsanto are strong advocates of carbon sequestration. No-till and low-fertiliser planting techniques – which will be included in Labor’s carbon farming initiative – encourage the use of genetically-modified crops that are insect-resistant or grow faster. These are the same outfits that got behind biofuels as well.

Monsanto boasts of its membership of the Chicago Climate Exchange. “Reducing our own carbon emissions is a start,” a Monsanto executive is quoted as saying in a press release. “But we believe our bigger value is through products that help farmers practice conservation tillage and increase yields to meet growing food and fuel needs… Depending on their farming practices, farmers can actually reduce carbon dioxide in the air. Plants take in carbon dioxide and use it to build roots, stalks, grain, and other parts. If farmers minimally till their fields before planting, much of that carbon remains in the soil. Farmers can sell this sequestered carbon as credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange.”

Whether no-till or low-till planting techniques actually increase soil carbon levels remains to be fully verified. There is some evidence they actually reduce soil carbon levels.

That’s not really the point, though. Our politicans are eager to spend taxpayers’ money to give the illusion of action on climate change. And plenty of smart people see that as an opportunity to get their hands on some of it, regardless of the impact on global warming. Keep that in mind when either side talks about what they want to do on climate change.