New Ideas to Fight Climate Change
By Robert Turner
The world has made more progress fighting climate change than many people realize. The US and many other countries have reduced greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. US emissions have already fallen about 19 percent relative to 2005, and by our current course, they are on pace to decline 23 percent.
Unfortunately, we need emissions to drop by at lease 50 percent over 2005 numbers if the US is really going to do its part to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But there are two sides of the climate equation that may get us there: continuing to reduce emissions through renewable energy sources (like wind and solar) and innovations (like electric vehicles); and pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere through regenerative agriculture. Incentivizing farmers to capture mor
e carbon with better agriculture practices may speed the whole thing up. That’s where carbon markets come in.
Agriculture captures carbon, and that’s a known fact that goes back to what you learned in elementary school about photosynthesis. Plants harness the energy from the sun, draw carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil, and then produce sugars that they use for growth and energy.
But plants also pump more of these carbon-based sugars down into the soil through their roots to feed microbes in the soil, and that’s where the real, long-term carbon storage benefits come in. Regenerative agriculture is now seen by many as the most cost-effective way to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil where it belongs.
Using regenerative methods like cover crops, no-till planting, better nutrient management and crop diversity allows the soil to build its microbiome and the ability to store more carbon; it becomes a virtuous circle. And the soil becomes healthier and more resilient to the effects of climate change, like flooding or drought, because of its ability to soak up and hold more water. Bare ground, on the other hand, releases carbon into the atmosphere and allows for rapid soil erosion. Cover crops keep the plant-based carbon storage cycle going throughout the year; they are like a massive carbon-sucking machine that covers the earth year-round.
What may drive this carbon machine in the future? Consumers are demanding more sustainable practices as the effects of climate change are increasingly visible and sometimes catastrophic. Consumers want to know that the products they’re purchasing have been produced sustainably and are not having negative impacts on the environment. They want to buy from companies that are working to reduce their carbon footprint. So, it’s good business for companies to go carbon-neutral.
Corporations can try to reduce their carbon footprint from normal business operations, but they can also pay for carbon credits to offset the remaining carbon that they still emit from their business, and soon they may be able to buy those carbon credits from farmers. This idea may go a long way toward convincing farmers to use cover crops and other regenerative practices because they get paid to do so. Nationally, only about 6 percent of farmers use cover crops.
While carbon markets are still new, pilot programs exist that will pay farmers if their soils show a marked increase in carbon storage, a process called carbon sequestration. And from what we know right now, a good goal for farmland is adding one ton of carbon per acre to the soil per year. That seems doable for most farmers using no-till or limited-till planting and cover crops. A 1000-acre farm could reasonably capture and store 1,000 tons of carbon every year. That’s not a small number—it’s two million pounds of carbon, or the weight of more than 13,000 people standing on that plot of land.
Under current carbon market prices offered by a few organizations and nonprofits, the farmer receives $15 per ton of carbon stored, per acre. That’s not enough, because it costs about $25 per acre just for cover crop seed. Prices for carbon credits need to be higher to really combat climate change. A World Bank report suggests prices would need to rise to at least $40 or $80 per ton to drive “transformational change” and get enough farmers on board to realistically bring down atmospheric carbon levels. It’s probably going to have to be $35 or $40 per ton just to move the needle. But at least now we are starting to arrive at some benchmarks.
And we’re already making progress. By the end of 2021, voluntary carbon market transactions were near $900 million globally for the year, a new record. The trading of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon credits) started in the early 1990s, but it has accelerated recently due to more carbon-neutral commitments from companies. And just recently the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began preparing to launch a new pilot program to expand the supply of carbon credits for farmers.
There is hope that food grown through regenerative agriculture may find its own space on supermarket shelves, possibly through a label like those used for organically grown food. Perhaps, boxes of breakfast cereal might someday say something like “Grown with Regenerative Agriculture” or “Carbon Smart” or “Climate Friendly,” or something that has meaning to consumers.
We dump about 50 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, or 50,000 tons. Regenerative farming practices, some studies suggest, could sequester somewhere between 10 and 20 gigatons of carbon dioxide worldwide each year. Twenty gigatons is about the weight of 90 billion people or 12 times the world’s population. It’s also nearly two-thirds of all emissions from energy consumption across the globe in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. Pulling 20 gigatons from the atmosphere, along with limiting emissions with electric cars and renewable energy, goes a long way toward a carbon-neutral future. Agriculture cannot do it all, but it can be a fast and affordable part of the solution.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.