IT is no secret that the most straightforward, though politically fraught, climate solution is to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. More than ever, we need substantive efforts to cut carbon emissions and phase out fossil-fuel burning on a regional, national and global scale.
But there is another side to the global carbon equation — taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Often called the “second climate solution,” biocarbon policies encourage practices that absorb CO2 and store it in farms, forests, cities and wetlands, thereby helping reduce the atmospheric overload. Like clean energy, biocarbon represents a framework through which carbon reduction can be both profitable and beneficial for people and the planet.
Earlier this month we attended the Northwest Biocarbon Summit in Seattle, the first of its kind. Leaders and innovators in forestry, farming and urban planning came from around the region to collaborate across the private-public sector divide. The common message was how policies and practices that promote biocarbon not only help address climate change, but help solve other problems as well.
Where could we park tons of carbon? We can start by looking under our feet. Soil is a huge carbon reservoir, storing about three times more carbon than in all of the world’s vegetation and twice the amount in the atmosphere. This makes soil degradation a huge driver of global climate change.
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About a third of the carbon added to the atmosphere between the industrial revolution and the late 20th century came from degradation of soil as agriculture expanded across North America and Eastern Europe.
Nonconventional farming techniques offer practical — and profitable — ways to put carbon back in the ground. Whitman County farmer John Aeschliman, for example, is finding commercial success with a fertility-building practice called direct seeding, or no-till, that increases soil carbon.
Other farmers in Washington are using compost and cover crops to build soil carbon and fertility, and in the process spending less on chemical fertilizers and irrigation. Researchers are grooming new perennial crops to replace annuals to build soil health and store carbon.
Farmers aren’t the only ones getting in on the biocarbon action. Ranchers are adopting herding patterns that mimic natural herds and build up carbon in rangeland soils.
Forest landowners are shifting to managing forests for multiple value streams, including carbon. Coastal communities are working to rebuild sea-grass meadows and salt marshes to increase carbon storage.
And cities like Seattle and Portland are pioneering the concept of green infrastructure, converting acres of pavement, barren rooftops and park lawns into more carbon-rich alternatives such as bio-swales, green roofs and eco-landscaping to manage stormwater at lower cost than conventional infrastructure.
Biocarbon practices can make a lot of economic sense. In Washington County, Ore., for example, the wastewater utility saved the community about $90 million by restoring 30 miles of shady natural habitat along the Tualatin River, meeting its obligation to reduce water temperatures without building an energy-intensive water chiller.
This single project will eventually pull more than 100,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Momentum driving biocarbon solutions is growing, in large part because these approaches save money as well as store carbon. While biocarbon alone won’t solve the climate problem, it provides local and regional policymakers an opportunity to promote economically sensible, win-win climate solutions for agriculture, natural resources and city planning.
With continued commitment and collaboration, the Pacific Northwest has an opportunity to become a hub for biocarbon innovation and offer a model for the nation and the world.
David R. Montgomery is a University of Washington geomorphology professor and author of “Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations.” Maurice Robinette, owner-operator of Lazy-R Ranch, is a third-generation cattle rancher practicing holistic-rangeland management in Spokane County.