I’ve completed my book and thus my journey through Carbon Country for the time being, and I thought I’d revisit here some of the things I’ve learned along the way, especially as they relate to our nation’s ongoing political crisis.
First off, there’s a bunch of Good News.
When the idea of a ‘carbon ranch’ popped into my head back in 2009, I had no clue whether such a thing was possible or practical. I speculated that the potential for removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis and related carbon sequestration activities was large. Based on my own experience, I bet these activities included: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds, increasing biodiversity and producing local food. A carbon ranch, I wrote, bundled these practices into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing the atmospheric content of CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes.
That was my hunch, anyway!
Then I set out into Carbon Country, map in hand, to see if my hunch was a good one, traveling to California, New England, Kansas, Australia, New Orleans, Utah, various places in New Mexico and a bunch of points in between, including a few virtual ones. I sought answers to specific questions: was it actually possible to significantly increase the amount of CO2 in soils via land management practices and thus impact climate change as the experts suggested? Was it practical to scale up sequestration practices and their co-benefits in ways that address rising challenges in the 21st century? What paradigms would need to be shifted to make this work possible? What were the best incentives to make all of this work economically? Who was going to do all this work?
The good news is that the answers to these questions are all positive.
Yes, research shows that carbon can be sequestered in grasslands soils in quantities that can make a difference. Yes, above ground management of plants and soils can have a substantial below ground effect on carbon sequestration. Yes, lots of co-benefits accrue from these practices, including a big increase in the water-holding capacity of the soil. Yes, the potential to scale up is there, at least from a toolbox perspective. Yes, paradigms will need to be shifted rather dramatically to accomplish these goals – as well as a bunch of governmental policies – and yes, the early stage of this shift is underway. Which brings me to my concluding observation: yes, there are people willing and wanting to do this necessary work – a rising tide of young agrarians, in fact!
However, there was one important caveat I learned along the way. In arid and semi-arid environments (i.e., much of the American West) the carbon cycle works more slowly than I expected, and it works really slowly in a drought. This means if scientists are correct in their predictions that climate change will provoke longer and deeper droughts, especially in the Southwest, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered even under the fabulous stewardship of landowners will be less than what we anticipated. However, all this knowledge did was reinforce my long-standing belief that there are no silver-bullets or easy answers to the climate crisis (alas).
At the same time, I learned that there are ways to compensate for a slow carbon cycle, even in arid landscapes. We can do it by focusing on what are called ‘sweet spots’ in the landscape – places where we can get a large impact for little input. Wetland restoration, for example. I won’t go into the details – they’re in the book!
I will say that I have new heroes: microbiologists and the young agrarians. The extraordinary discoveries of the former group, who have revealed a vast and hopeful frontier underground (including the promise of the wonder protein glomalin) combined with the can-do smarts and inspiring skill set of a new generation of land stewards is a cause for substantial amount of good news, as I wrote. I was also amazed by the multiplying amounts of regenerative things that happen when the carbon content of the soil is merely doubled, from 1 to 2%, say, or 2 to 4%. If we could create the right economic, political and cultural conditions to encourage this doubling, then we’d be well on our way to remedying a wide variety of 21st century challenges, including the pressing problem of how to feed nine billion people by 2050.
The possibilities are not far-fetched, as I saw, and they’re not for a simple reason: we know how to double soil carbon already.
Here’s how: with cattle, goats, beavers, pasture cropping, solar panels, riparian restoration, edible backyard forests, holistic livestock management, flerds, grassfed beef, drought-tolerant seeds, milpas, water harvesting, rooftop farms, no-till organic farming, cover crops, spiders, permaculture, satellite imagery, food cooperatives, biodiesel, open-source software, mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes, earthworms, beer, sheep, podcasts, weed dating, ecosystem services, inspirational lectures and sweaty dancing!
To name only a few. Here’s a photo of one carbon engineer:
Now, the Bad News. I’ll keep it brief.
A lot of what needs to be done to make the carbon ranch idea work requires a functioning political system – something we do not currently enjoy. Creating a ‘carbon economy’ in which landowners and managers can get paid for doubling soil carbon will require bold leadership, policy reform, innovative governance, alterations to Business-as-Usual, forward-thinking, risk-taking, paradigm-shifting, concern for the commonweal, compassion, largesse, and honesty – all of which are in terribly short supply today among the political leaders and various governing institutions of this great nation.
For example, the quickest way to deal with climate change and the multiple challenges it represents, say many economists, as well as raise money for carbon sequestration work, is a carbon tax – a tax on fossil fuel sources – just like the tax being undone in Australia right now, tragically. Needless to say, the chances of getting a carbon tax enacted in the near future here in America is infinitesimal at best.
A big bummer.
However, I’ll go on record here saying that sooner or later there will be a carbon tax. It’s the only solution that works at scale. Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I simply can’t imagine the alternative: not doing anything. Of course, we’re likely to try to geoengineer our way of this mess, but the chances of success appear to be small. The only answer is to make fossil fuels more expensive than renewables. That means a tax.
This is all hard news because meeting the challenges of the 21st century, including mitigating CO2 with soil sequestration practices, can’t be effective without substantial changes at scales above the local level. We have a fabulous toolbox, as I tried to describe in the book, and we have a great deal of new knowledge and a boatload of youthful eagerness to get things done, but genuine effectiveness will require action at national and international levels. I don’t see how to accomplish this goal yet. Maybe someone out there has an idea about how to provoke these changes. I hope so!
It’s not a cause for despair, however. After all, look how far we have come in thirty years! Take organic no-till farming. Although these two wonderful practices separately have been around for years, it has only been in the last four years that they’re been wedded to each other, thanks to a technological breakthrough. It didn’t become a tool in the regenerative toolbox until recently and its arrival is definitely good news. Standing in its way, of course, is a great deal of economic and cultural dreck, but even as I write this some of this dreck is being cleared away. Ditto with pasture cropping, which I feel has a huge potential to change the world.
Anyway, it’s all in the book, to be published by Chelsea Green Press. And what didn’t make into the tome will be written up as additional 2% Solutions, to be published in its own book format next year. Which means I get to travel around Carbon Country once again!
It’ll be an honor.