Exploring the Potential of Carbon Storage in Soil

June 26, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·

Tom Sidwell on the JX Ranch in eastern New Mexico. (Photo by Courtney White)

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In his new book, “Grass, Soil, Hope,” former Sierra Club activist Courtney White argues carbon—often vilified in public discourse—can actually help address climate change. White spoke with NET News about his new book and the ways carbon sequestration in soil, particularly range and grasslands—can benefit the land, food production, and our climate.

NET News: This book is focused on the possibilities offered by carbon sequestration in soil. Can you start with a simple explanation of how carbon can become stored or fixed in soil?

Courtney White: Plants take in carbon dioxide and separate the carbon from the oxygen, which goes back up and out, which is good for us. The carbon goes a number of different places in a plant but some of it, a lot of it, ends up going into the soil through the roots and fungi. And if the soil is not disturbed, the carbon is safely stored for a potentially long period of time. It’s a way of pulling carbon dioxide, potentially a lot of it, out of the atmosphere, through the plants, and storing it in the soil.

NET News: You owned a cattle ranch yourself, and now work with farmers and ranchers to promote the concepts of “carbon ranching.” Can you explain what that is and how farmers and ranchers can incorporate it into their work?

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney White co-founded The Quivira Coalition in 1997. Today, his work with Quivira concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. (Courtesy photo from the Quivira Coalition)

White: My background is in the conservation movement. I came out of the Sierra Club as an activist. I met a rancher, Jim Winder, who was ranching differently, moving his cattle differently around the landscape here in New Mexico. We started to talk about land health, food, water, wildlife, that’s when we put the non-profit [the Quivira Coalition] together. We started doing a lot of other kinds of work around New Mexico including ecological restoration in creeks and doing some local food production. Then our nonprofit became ranch owners. We took over a ranch near Santa Fe and managed it for local food production, grass-fed beef in particular. Through all of that, I didn’t really think about the climate connections, about carbon dioxide and the atmosphere, soil carbon. I was thinking mostly about cattle, food, water. Until I read a publication in 2009 titled, “Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use,” which argued that you actually can pull down CO2 into the soil through these practices. And we were doing a lot of those practices. A lot of other ranchers were as well and they were building soil carbon, even though we didn’t know it. And what Jim does for example, on his ranch—he bunched his cows together in one herd and moved them very quickly around the ranch so no particular part of the ranch got grazed more than three or four days at a time. And then the land rested, so this gave the plants a chance to recover and grow and put down deeper roots. We’ve also done a lot of creek restoration work, where riparian vegetation grows and that sequesters carbon in the soil; wetlands are a great place to quickly store carbon and we're also looking at local food systems.

NET News: This concept isn’t entirely new to Nebraska farmers and ranchers. Many already engage in no-tilling practices. What other land practices do researchers think are necessary to improve carbon storage?

White: Native grasses, perennial grasses in particular, are great ways to store CO2 in the ground as opposed to annuals which come and go. It’s all about roots, reaching down into the soil profile as far as possible, to build up that dark rich soil the Midwest is known for. No-till is certainly part of it and cover cropping. In the book I describe a practice that’s been developed out of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania called organic no-till, so it doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides. And then finally looking at wet spots or "sweet spots" on the landscape where you can get a lot of ecological return for a little bit of investment.

NET News: You argue that carbon sequestration in soil offers a way to combat climate change. Can you explain that? Where do you see things heading with the EPA’s recent announcement of proposed carbon emissions reductions for coal power plants, and the idea of a carbon tax?

White: There are two parts to the climate question: one is emissions, of course, putting greenhouse gases up [into the atmosphere]. And that has to be slowed down at some level which is what the administration and these other folks are talking about with these regulations: a phasing down or out of coal, for example. At the same time we need to increase the capacity of soils to absorb what CO2 is up there. Henry Paulson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday about the possibility of creating a carbon tax, taxing polluters at the source. The question becomes: where does the money come to do this kind of carbon sequestration work? It’s going to have to come from something like a carbon tax eventually. How we get something like that passed through Congress… I don’t know.

NET News: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been researching carbon sequestration potential in the state for more than a decade, and some Nebraska farmers participated in no-tilling contracts sold on the carbon market. How do you see carbon sequestration taking off in a big way?

White: That’s really the $64,000 question. How do we make this scale up in a way that helps everybody? A lot of the folks in the book are doing what they do for economic reasons, for example, the rancher I profile—by managing his land like he does, he has increased productivity, so he can put more cows on his ranch. But how do you make it work on a scale that is economic, that can affect both agriculture and the climate part of it? That answer’s not clear yet. We need some kind of carbon economy that values carbon sequestration in soils that will pay landowners to do this. I think there’s more movement than ever before and hopefully it will turn into some kind of political will at some point.