Australia's vast outback stores 9.7 billion metric tons of carbon, but has the capacity to double those holdings by 2050, according to a report released yesterday.

The vast region, which covers roughly 2.5 million square miles in Australia's interior, could sequester another 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon by 2050, concludes the analysis, sponsored by the Pew Environment Group and the Nature Conservancy.

The groups argue it would be a cost-effective approach to reducing Australia's net contribution to climate change, the equivalent of reducing the country's emissions 5 percent by 2030, assuming a business-as-usual emissions scenario. Several of the recommended steps carry a cost of less than A$20 per metric ton of carbon to implement.

Although many people might assume the outback is an arid expanse without much vegetation, Patrick O'Leary of the Pew Environment Group's Australia office said that is not an accurate picture of the region. The outback includes savannas and shrublands, as well as many areas with trees or taller plants, especially in the north.

"It's an enormous standing stock of carbon," O'Leary said, that could be made larger by allowing its vegetation "to grow to its healthy potential."

A camel removal program
Doing so would require changing the way the region's lands are managed.

The new report recommends reducing the amount of land cleared, allowing vegetation to regrow in areas that have already been cleared, conducting planned grassland burns to help suppress wildfires, eradicating feral animal populations that roam the outback, and changing the way cattle grazing is managed.

"Many actions we talk about are already happening," O'Leary said of the report's recommendations.

One example is an ongoing Australian government program to reduce the number of feral camels that roam the northern and western outback. Without natural predators, the population of roughly 1 million camels -- which are not native to Australia -- grows an estimated 11 percent each year.

The camels trample sensitive ecosystems and release large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. O'Leary estimates an individual camel's CO2 output at 1 million metric tons per year.

"We need to be careful about how we ramp up the start of these actions," he said. "We need to make sure landholders, including aboriginal landholders, are engaged. But we don't have to invent some new process" to store the carbon.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500