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In Search of a Carbon Policy

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 October Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge

It is hard to hear the news today without some aspect of climate change and carbon policy being discussed.

For many years “global warming” had been an issue barely on the horizon for most people. But the stronger and stronger weather events we have witnessed over the planet the last few years have given many thoughtful people pause. More and more now believe that without strong concerted action we may be facing climate problems we have never before experienced as a species. It has been hard, however, getting governments to adopt the strong positions on limiting fossil fuel use that most feel would be required to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the core cause of climate change.

Compounding the problem is the fact that there has been very little recognition of the key role farming practices play in this issue. The scientific literature has been clear for more than two decades that soil can sequester all the excess carbon in the atmosphere, given proper soil management practices. But this insight has not reached policy makers, at least not at the level needed to propose a more carbon conscious agriculture in the US.

The Paris 21st Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP21) last December seemed like a watershed moment, with more than 40,000 people from over 150 countries attending. The resulting Paris Agreement actually set targets for participating countries as part of a proposal to halt global mean temperature increases to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. Though not enforceable, these targets were still an improvement over previous general agreements by governments.

For many of us, however, the most exciting development was the “4 per 1000” initiative, launched by the French government and supported by more than two dozen other countries, that for the first time addressed the role of soil in helping ameliorate weather extremes. It calls upon countries to implement a 0.4% (four parts out of thousand) annual growth in soil carbon content which would make it possible to achieve the proposed 1.5˚C to 2˚C temperature limit – beyond which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we face climate disaster.

California has been the most active American state in recognizing the importance of soil is sequestering carbon. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has been promoting a Healthy Soils Initiative that (among other things) puts state money toward research and education and demonstration projects to further carbon sequestration. They have not yet come up with direct financial incentives to farmers to build soil carbon, but that possibility is certainly on the horizon.

Then just this September Jerry Brown signed SB 32, a California law requiring the state (which by itself would be the world’s 6th largest economy) to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. This over a period when the state expects to grow its population and economy by a sixth! And a day later China and the Untied States, the world’s two largest economies, agreed to formally adopt the Paris Agreement – which they had agreed to only in principle last December.

The pressure to adopt serious carbon policies is obviously growing. But various policies present different mechanisms:

  • Cap and trade works by setting carbon limits on industries and requiring them to purchase carbon offsets from those sequestering carbon if they want to exceed their cap
  • Carbon taxes impose a price on any use of carbon, with some portion of the derived income going to offset the costs of energy necessities for the poor
  • Carbon incentives make payments to those who sequester carbon on the basis of the quantity of carbon sequestered.

Carbon incentives are the policy option that most interest farmers, as they, along with those who plant forests (and possibly some with massive geo-engineering projects promising to force carbon underground), would stand to get paid under these incentives. But there is the rub. Carbon is an incredibly promiscuous or labile element, easily bonding with practically anything solid, liquid, or gaseous, and then breaking those bonds for new ones. Yet to qualify for incentive payments, most schemes would require a degree of permanence to the sequestered carbon. But no one really knows how to guarantee that. Scientists don’t yet even understand all the various ways carbon behaves in the soil, much less which ones will still be dominant in 100 years.

We have a lot of work to do, this observer believes, before any well designed carbon incentive system can be adopted. We need to resist pressures from industries, promoters, and well-intentioned agriculturalists who think we can get there quickly. A poorly designed system will soon show its flaws and undermine public support for any incentive at all. Until we know more we need to rely on farmers and other soil managers to build soil carbon for the many other reasons it benefits them, among which are drought and flood resilience, greater crop health and vigor, and financial viability through reduced input costs.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of directions for policy work that doesn’t involve incentives. Practically every government, corporation, non-profit, and institution in our culture has some authority over land. We need to be bringing the principles of good land and soil management for carbon to their attention. We need to be observing how they treat their land, and holding them accountable for that treatment.

It is not difficult to state the simple principles of good soil management.

  • Minimize tillage
  • Keep plants growing over the whole landscape and for as long as possible during the year
  • Stop using toxins and synthetic chemicals in soil
  • Promote biodiversity among plants and animals
  • Plant cover crop cocktails and include animals in rotation
  • Return organic matter to the soil

Some state agencies and laws are moving in the direction of encouraging these practices. They need to be applauded and strengthened. Golf courses, conservation commissions, land trusts, corporate campuses, town farms, state institutions, national parks and many other groups need to understand these principles and apply them to the tracts of soil they manage. Farmers need to learn and implement them too. Land grant universities, cooperative extension agents, NRCS officials – all the groups which see themselves as guiding farm practices need to be repeating this message about building soil carbon. Even our own National Organic Program needs to be pressed to incorporate soil carbon restoration as a fundamental principle for organic certification.

Until we get serious about the importance of soil carbon, the droughts, floods and unseasonal hot and cold waves will only get worse. Better to press people hard about the need for change while we still have time!

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