Helping our cities breathe – accountants & botanists in world leading research

Picnic Point to Melbourne's CBD in the Royal Botanic Gardens, photographer: Janusz Molinski
Picnic Point to Melbourne’s CBD in the Royal Botanic Gardens, photographer: Janusz Molinski

Cities are the leading producers of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and the main drive to reduce these emissions has focused on energy efficiency. An unlikely pairing of accountants and botanists from the University of Melbourne, the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and the Institute of Chartered Accountants is expanding our knowledge on how our plants and trees can be fully harnessed in the battle against global warming.

From an early age we are taught that our plants and trees take in that bad CO2 gas and give us back our life giving Oxygen. Yet despite this generational knowledge we as society do not know how much CO2 specific plants take in. We have limited knowledge if it is best to plant a sequoia or a blue gum to capture the smog and pollution from our cities. We simply know that green belts and the lungs of cities take in pollution but we cannot accurately state or account for how much that is.

In the fight to reduce CO2 emissions most attention has been placed on energy efficiency measures such as using bicycles or the insulation of homes and offices. Yet little attention has been focused on the lungs of city, namely green spaces, lakes and waterways, which both capture carbon naturally and act as a natural buffer, reducing the need for heating and cooling of a city.

Recognising this knowledge gap, a team of accountants from the University’s Faculty of Business and Economics and the botanists from the University’s School of Botany formed a research team with the Royal Botanic Gardens. ‘It is an unlikely team of number crunchers and plant lovers, but by pooling our respective knowledge the benefits we can bring to the field of carbon accounting can be significant’ underlined Associate Professor in accounting at the University of Melbourne, Brad Potter.

With funding by the Australian Research Council, for three years the research team will use the fastidiously manicured beauty of the Royal Botanic Gardens in both Melbourne and Sydney as their laboratory to create their primary objective, a model of a carbon cycle of a managed ecosystem. They will test and experiment to ascertain how much CO2 a green belt in an urban environment traps, thereby expanding our knowledge on how such areas can be beneficial to the environment.

For urban planners, local councils, property developers to global corporations this research project offers significant benefits. ‘A council might be interested in how much carbon their football oval holds or emits, and this project creates a way to find out where carbon is flowing through the land we are responsible for. The potential to roll out this carbon model not just nationally but internationally is huge’ underscores Professor David Cantrill, the Chief Botanist and Director of the Plant Science and Biodiversity Division within the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

Globally there has never been a project like this, involving a complex urban eco system and the creation of this model will ‘enhance measurement of carbon and improve the approaches for reporting of this information’ highlighted Professor Ian Woodrow, Head of the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne.

Across the world shareholders, employees, communities and other stakeholders clamour for organisations to reduce the impact they place on the environment. Despite such market pressure and public scrutiny, in accountancy, the field that underpins all economies, no universally accepted standard exists for reporting of CO2 emissions by entities. ‘This project allows Australia to take a lead role in the international debate and will explore how the way CO2 emissions are reported impacts on decision making by stakeholders’  underlined one of the partners in the project Karen McWilliams of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia.

In a few years as you stroll through your garden you hopefully will be able to tell thanks to an unlikely bunch of researchers if that eucalyptus tree was worth all that digging.


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