Another Reason for a Carbon Tax

January 19, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

How do we create a marketplace that will pay landowners and others to double the carbon content of their soil?

Think of all the good things that would happen if the carbon content of the world’s soils were doubled from 1% to 2%, or from 2% to 4%. Think of the abundance that would happen as a result. Consider the amount of food that could be produced on the same stretch of land, or how much water could be stored in the soil. Think about no-till and organic cover-cropping and the amount of life that would be present in the soil if we let mycorrhizal fungi do their thing. Think about all the nutrients that would be available once more to plants and animals and us as a consequence of doubled carbon.

Think about the above-ground wildlife that would benefit from a vibrant, diverse, and abundant below-ground ecosystem. Think about all the ecosystem services that would be provided to all living things if we doubled the carbon content of our soils. Then think about how much CO2 we could sequester in the ground. Not first – but last, meaning sequestration as a co-benefit of stimulating life. Think of all the positive things that would happen if we looked at carbon as a Good Guy, instead of simply the Bad Guy, as we do now.

How would we make this happen economically? We know how to do it ecologically, as I have detailed throughout this book, and thanks to scientists and others we now have ways to monitor our carbon’s progress, which is the last piece of the land management puzzle, I believe. Now how do we get our economy to help?

One answer, of course, is an incentive-based carbon offset marketplace or a compliance-based system guided largely by cap-and-trade mechanisms, such as the one being developed in California. However, these marketplaces are complicated, bureaucratic, and politically vulnerable, as a recent general election in Australia demonstrated when a change in government brought in a new leader who promptly dismantled the carbon marketplace.

And when considering cap-and-trade schemes, don’t forget the aggregating sharks – those speculators, investors, and middlemen who insert themselves into the transaction. Additionally, it is proving difficult to get offset money into the hands of farmers and ranchers to compensate them their carbon work. The money tends to flow toward technological solutions instead, such as energy efficiency, emissions reduction schemes, “green” infrastructure, and the like. Not much, I bet, has made its way into new soil carbon.

Could there be another model? I’ll propose one here, modestly: what if we paid farmers, ranchers, and other landowners or managers directly to double the carbon content of their soils?

What if we said to a farmer or rancher “We’ll pay you $100,000 for every one percent of soil carbon increase above a baseline measurement” – what would happen? Let’s leave the details out for a moment and fantasize about the big picture. If soil carbon had a high value to society and we were willing to pay to have it increased over time, wouldn’t a landowner respond? Wouldn’t they say, “Hell yes, I can do that!” Better yet, if society didn’t dictate which tool to use to achieve this goal, via regulation say, and left it up to the landowner to choose, wouldn’t the incentive be even greater to give it a go?

What if we said to a landowner: We’ll enter into a contract to pay you $200,000 to double the carbon content of your soil in ten years and how you accomplish this goal is up to you, whether you use cattle, goats, beavers, pasture cropping, solar panels, wetland 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, or sweaty dancing.

You choose.

It wouldn’t matter what they chose because you can’t increase soil carbon with a practice that degrades the land. The only way to double soil carbon is with practices that are regenerative and make the land healthier.

Take cattle, for instance. If you overgraze the range, carbon stocks will fall, not increase. Plants will suffer, roots will wither, and carbon will leak away. To increase soil carbon with livestock, you must manage them in such a way that promotes plant vigor and thus strengthens the carbon cycle, especially in a drought. Ditto with wetlands and backyard forests and riparian areas.

If, after ten years, the carbon content of a farm or ranch’s soil has doubled, fulfilling the terms of the contract, then you can feel assured that the landowner got there with sustainable, regenerative practices of his or her own choosing.

The reason is simple: carbon doesn’t lie. It is readily measured and quantified, whether by the spoonful or by a satellite. It either increases or decreases, or stays the same. It can’t be negotiated, fudged, bullied, bribed, denied, or fooled. It’s there or it’s not. Either you doubled the amount of carbon in your soil, or you did not.

That’s the beauty of the idea: offer to pay a landowner to double the carbon content of their soil then stand back as they choose from the regenerative toolbox, knowing that no matter what methods they choose they’ll be creating a cascade of co-benefits, including food, fuel, fiber, forage, water, and fun. Better yet, if you can get a beaver, grass plant, or nematode to do most of the work, they’ll do it for free and never ask for a vacation!

It’s all about renewing life. Carbon is life. Grow carbon and you grow life. Do things that encourage life and you’ll grow carbon – blue, green, or brown carbon, take your pick.

Here’s how it works:

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Many people will raise objections to my idea, undoubtedly. What about drought? What about variability in weather patterns? What if carbon stocks fall, does a landowner have to pay the money back? What if a landowner intentionally degrades his or her land just so they can bring it back and make money? What about the good stewards, how will they be compensated for the good work they’ve already accomplished? Whose protocols will be used? That’s too much money! That’s not enough! It’ll never work!

There will be other objections, ones that people won’t likely shout out loud, but ones that will be just as difficult to overcome. For example, you can’t get rich making soil carbon. Not filthy rich. Wealthy in the Wall Street sense. It won’t help you get something for nothing either. It’s hard work. Carbon doesn’t come out of a slot machine or a lottery wheel; it can’t be discovered in big, thick seams in your backyard to be mined and sold as a commodity making you unexpectedly rich; it can’t be hawked to you by a corporation, controlled by a government, or cornered by a conglomerate. It’ll never have an Initial Public Offering, a stock split, or pay a dividend – except as healthy soil.

There’s nothing virtual about soil carbon; you can’t Google it, Tweet it, or stick an annoying virtual ad on it, unless you can figure out a way to get protozoa to carry microscopic signs. Carbon is relentlessly 3-D and it won’t make you a millionaire, which makes it a hard sell in our current economy. Carbon’s abundance and ubiquity, much like sunlight, also makes it confoundingly democratic. These are good things, I believe.

As the century wears on and the effects of climate change begin to bite, as they have already begun to do, then redefinitions of wealth, success, and happiness will begin to shift, I’m certain. As the global population surges toward nine billion in just a few short decades, soil carbon will begin to look more and more valuable, not as a way to become wealthy, but as a way of ensuring our well-being. Ditto with adaptation to climate change. Strategies to cope with drought, feed more people, create new habitats for wild animals, store more water in the soil, abate heat waves, floods, and other weather extremes, and adjust to “new normals” in general will depend, at their core, on carbon.

The sooner we get started, the better.

There will be one more objection to my idea: it isn’t practical. The toolbox isn’t diverse enough, people will say, or big enough to work at scale. Or they’ll simply disagree about the regenerative nature of the practices. More fertilizer!, they’ll say. More diesel! More business-as-usual! We need more technology and engineering to solve the rising challenges of the twenty-first century, people will insist, not more mychorrizal fungi.

My response is simple: It is practical. We can do this at scale. We’re an ingenious species, the most ingenious ever in the history of the planet (alas). Give us a problem to solve and some tools to do the job and then stand back.

There is another objection, however, that’s 100% legit: where will the money come from? If we are going to double the carbon contents of America’s soils, we’re going to need a lot of money. That’s because we’re talking about a lot of soil. I’m not even going to attempt the math. So where is the money going to come from? I’m not an economist, but two thoughts come to mind:

One, we’re a rich nation. A really rich nation. We have tons of money. Maybe we could use part of our vast wealth to double soil carbon, restore degraded watersheds and rangelands, increase biodiversity, lower agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, produce renewable energy, mentor a generation of young agrarians, and grow a lot of healthy, local food. Maybe by steering a tiny portion of the Defense Department’s budget to agriculture and conservation in the name of genuine national security. Silly me!

Second, we could impose a carbon tax and use a portion of the proceedings to pay landowners to double the carbon content of their soils.

I’m not going to go into the specifics surrounding a carbon tax here, except to say that if we ever get serious about climate change – which we will some day – then a carbon tax is probably inevitable. It’s the only strategy that makes sense. And in a way it parallels my carbon payment idea: tax carbon at its source and let market forces respond; make carbon payments available and let landowners respond.

A big portion of a carbon tax will be needed to offset the rise in the cost of fossil fuels, probably through a reduction in payroll income taxes or payment as an annual dividend (as they do in Alaska), but a portion could be set aside to fund soil carbon projects, with the goal of doubling carbon in soils in ten years, say. I have no idea of how much money would be necessary, but I bet it would be a fairly small percentage of the revenues generated by a carbon tax. And the poetic justice of using a black carbon tax to fund brown or blue carbon projects would be delicious.

Simple. Tax fossil fuels at a fairly high rate and stand back as the economy shifts to cheaper renewable energy sources. Greenhouse gas emissions would fall. Efficiency would rise. No complicated regulations or rules or mandates for this or that would be necessary. People would adjust. Other taxes would decline. A bunch of money would be generated. It could be used for the communal good, such as doubling soil carbon. Simple.

And very hard.

Here’s my idea in a nutshell:

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Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country

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Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: building resilient food systems, carbon tax, regenerative agriculture, soil carbon