[This is the final excerpt from my book Age of Consequences. I return to the theme of carbon, climate and hope – the subject of new posts to follow]
Novelist and historian Wallace Stegner once said that every book should try to answer an anguished question. I believe the same is true for ideas, movements, and emergency efforts. In the case of climate change, an anguished question is this: what can we do right now to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from its current (and future) dangerously high levels?
In an editorial published in July of 2009, Dr. James Hansen of NASA proposed an answer: “cut off the largest source of emissions—coal—and allow CO2 to drop back down . . . through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.” I consider these words to be a sort of ‘Operating Instructions’ for the twenty-first century. Personally, I’m not sure how we accomplish the coal side of the equation, which requires governmental action, but I have an idea about how to increase carbon storage in soils.
I call it a carbon ranch.
The purpose of a carbon ranch is to mitigate climate change by sequestering CO2 in plants and soils, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and producing co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes. “Sequester” means to withdraw for safekeeping, to place in seclusion, into custody, or to hold in solution—all of which are good definitions for the process of sequestering CO2 in plants and soils via photosynthesis and sound stewardship.
The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil carbon is neither new nor mysterious. It has been going on for millions and millions of years, and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Dr. Christine Jones, a pioneering Australian soil scientist, there are four basic steps to the CO2/soil carbon process:
Photosynthesis: This is the process by which energy in sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy, in the form of a simple sugar called glucose, via green plants—which use CO2 from the air and water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a byproduct.
Resynthesis: Through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, glucose is resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch), proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils (including hydrocarbons)—all of which serve as fuel for life on Earth.
Exudation: Around 30-40 percent of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. This process is essential to the creation of topsoil from the lifeless mineral soil produced by the weathering of rocks over time. The amount of increase in organic carbon is governed by the volume of plant roots per unit of soil and their rate of growth. More active green leaves mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded.
Humification: This is the creation of humus—a chemically stable type of organic matter composed of large, complex molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, and minerals. Visually, humus is the dark, rich layer of topsoil that people associate with rich gardens, productive farmland, stable wetlands, and healthy rangelands. Land management practices that promote the ecological health of the soil are key to the creation and maintenance of humus. Once carbon is sequestered as humus, it has a high resistance to decomposition and therefore can remain intact and stable for hundreds or thousands of years.
Additionally, high humus content in soil improves water infiltration and storage, due to its spongelike quality and high water-retaining capacity. Recent research demonstrates that one part humus can retain as much as four parts water. This has positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, especially important in times of drought.
In sum, the natural process of converting sunlight into humus is an organic way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soil for long periods of time. If the land is bare, degraded, or unstable due to erosion, and if it can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, covered with green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high. Conversely, when healthy, stable land becomes degraded or loses green plants, the carbon cycle can become disrupted and release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.
Healthy soil = healthy carbon cycle = storage of atmospheric CO2. Any land management activity that encourages this equation, especially if it results in the additional storage of CO2, can help fight climate change. Or as Dr. Christine Jones puts it, “Any . . . practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon.”
What would those practices be? There are at least six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus its carbon content. Three sequestration strategies include:
Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground, deepening the roots of existing healthy plants, and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, a “carbon rancher” can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include the soil cap–breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the “herd” effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning dead plant matter back into the soil; the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old forage; targeted grazing of noxious and invasive plants, which promotes native species diversity; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.
Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands in the United States exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock, and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, the disruption of hydrological cycles, the decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, and the loss of wetlands. The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. There are many cobenefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health as well, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.
Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees where I live, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners has been an increasing focus of restoration work recently. One goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. The removal of trees also has an important cobenefit: they are a source of local biomass energy production, which can help reduce a ranch’s carbon footprint.
Three maintenance strategies that help keep stored CO2 in soils include:
The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate-change-mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2; their destruction releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, but they often also improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important cobenefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.
Building long-term resilience. Nature, like society, doesn’t stand still for long. Things change constantly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a rush. Some changes are significant, such as a major forest fire or a prolonged drought, and can result in ecological threshold-crossing events, often with deleterious consequences. Resilience refers to the capacity of land, or people, to “bend” with these changes without “breaking.” Managing a forest through thinning and prescribed fire so that it can avoid a destructive, catastrophic fire is an example of building resilience into a system. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in soils requires building resilience as well, including the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members.
All of these strategies have been field-tested by practitioners, landowners, agencies, and researchers and demonstrated to be effective in a wide variety of landscapes. The job now is to integrate them holistically into a “climate-friendly” landscape that sequesters increasing amounts of CO2 each year.
Reality check: the increased sequestration of CO2 in soils won’t solve climate change by itself. It won’t even be close if the emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced at the same time. According to experts, this reduction must be on the order of 50-80 percent of current emissions levels within fifty years.
A carbon ranch can help in three ways: by measuring and then reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions an agricultural operation contributes to the atmosphere; by producing renewable energy “on-ranch,” which it can use itself and/or sell to a local or regional power grid; and by participating in local food and restoration activities that lower our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels.
A carbon ranch can also help by confronting the controversy over “offsets” and carbon “credits”—the two strategies most frequently touted by governments, businesses, and others for encouraging the creation of a so-called “carbon marketplace.” In this marketplace, “credits” created by the sequestration of CO2 in one place can be “sold” or traded to “offset” a CO2 polluting entity, such as a coal plant or airline company, someplace else, supposedly to the benefit of all. In reality, these schemes appear to mostly offset our guilty feelings rather than actually affect atmospheric levels of CO2.
Here are these ideas in more detail:
Reducing the “footprint” of a carbon ranch. This is a two-step process: assess the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are rising from a particular landscape or operation, follow this assessment with a concerted effort to reduce these emissions. One way to measure this carbon footprint is to conduct a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) of an enterprise, which is an inventory of the material and energy inputs and outputs characteristic of each stage of a product’s life cycle. This is a well-recognized procedure for tracking the ecological impacts of, say, a television set or a refrigerator, and different types of LCAs exist for different types of products.
For a carbon ranch, there are four important measures of its LCA: (1) cumulative energy use; (2) ecological footprint; (3) greenhouse gas emissions; (4) eutrophying emissions
The first three measurements are relatively straightforward, and there are many credible methodologies today to calculate energy use, ecological footprints, and emissions, though most are designed for urban contexts or industrial agriculture.
However, the fourth measurement—eutrophying emissions—has been the source of considerable controversy in recent years. It refers to the amount of methane produced by the digestive system of livestock during its time on the ranch, farm, or feedlot—and in the public’s mind, the connotation is negative. That’s because the public has conflated a natural biological process—belching cows—with fossil fuel-intensive industrial livestock production activities, including chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture, cultivation of feed crops (corn), and the transportation of feed and animal products. As a result, there is an impression among the public at large that one answer to the climate crisis is to “eat less red meat”—an opinion that I have heard repeatedly at conferences and meetings.
Personally, I think an answer is to eat more meat—from a carbon ranch.
For the purposes of a carbon ranch, the methane emission issue is just one part of the overall “footprint” assessment. The goal of a Life-Cycle Analysis is to measure an operation’s energy use and emissions so that it can reduce both over time. Ultimately, the goal is to become carbon-neutral or, ideally, carbon-negative—meaning the amount of CO2 sequestered is greater than the ranch’s carbon footprint.
Producing renewable energy. Anything that a carbon ranch can do to produce energy on-site will help balance its energy “footprint” and could reduce the economy’s overall dependence on fossil fuels. This includes wind and solar farms; the production of biodiesel from certain on-site crops for use in ranch vehicles; biomass for cogeneration projects (this is especially attractive if it uses the woody debris being removed from the ranch anyway); micro-hydro, micro-wind, and solar for domestic use; and perhaps other as yet unrealized renewable energy alternatives.
Participating in a local economy. A carbon ranch should carefully consider its role in the “footprint”of the greater economy. Are its products traveling long distances or otherwise burning large amounts of fossil fuels? It is generally accepted that involvement in a local food market, where the distances between producer and eater are short, shrinks the fossil “footprint” of a ranch considerably. There is some contradictory research on this point, however. In my opinion, the technical issues of local versus global food systems in terms of food miles traveled is largely neutralized by the wide variety of cobenefits that local food brings economically and ecologically.
The trouble with offsets. Many observers—myself included—have become increasingly skeptical of the offset concept at regional or national scales. Objections include: (1) We need actual net reductions of atmospheric CO2, not just the neutralizing “offset” of a polluter by a sequesterer. And we need these net reductions quickly; (2) It is not acceptable to let a big, industrial polluter “off the hook” with an offset; (3) It is unrealistic to expect the same system that created the climate problem in the first place—i.e., our current economy and specifically its financial sector—to solve this problem and to do so with the same financial tools.
While offsets and carbon credits may not be the economic engine of the future, they highlight an important challenge for carbon ranching: profitability. If not offsets, then how can a landowner who desires to mitigate climate change earn a paycheck, without which there will no carbon ranching?
One idea is to include “climate-friendly” practices as an added value to the marketing of ranch products, such as its beef. Another is to create a “carbon market” at the local level. A county government, for example, could help to create a local carbon market to help offset its judicial buildings or schools or prisons. It could possibly do so through its ability to tax, zone, and otherwise regulate at the county level. It would still have to deal with some of the other challenges confronting offsets, but at least it would keep the marketplace local.
Another idea might be to reward landowners financially for meeting sequestration and emissions goals. The federal government routinely subsidizes rural economic development enterprises, such as the ongoing effort to bring high-speed broadband Internet to rural communities. Additionally, the government often provides incentives to businesses for market-based approaches, including corn-based ethanol production, solar power development, and wind technology (and don’t forget the federal government’s catalyzing role in the birth of the Internet). It would be perfectly logical, therefore, to reward early adopters of carbon ranching with a direct financial payment as a means to create new markets.
None of this will be easy. In fact, the obstacles standing in the way of implementing a carbon ranch and sharing its many cobenefits are large and diverse. Is it worth trying anyway? Absolutely. If a carbon ranch could make a difference in the fight against climate change—now developing as the overarching crisis of the twenty-first century—then we must try. The alternative—not trying—means we consign our future to politics, technology, and wishful thinking, none of which have made a difference so far.
Best of all, a carbon ranch doesn’t need to be invented. It already exists. We know how to grow grass with animals. We’ve learned how to fix creeks and heal wetlands. We’re getting good at producing local grassfed food. We’ll figure out how to reduce our carbon footprint and develop local renewable energy sources profitably. We don’t need high technology—we have the miracle of photosynthesis already.
Answers to anguished questions exist, but too often our eyes seem fixed on the stars and our minds dazzled by distant horizons, blinding us to possibilities closer to home. A carbon ranch teaches us that we should be looking down, not up.
Published in The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press) see: