Courtney White

If you are concerned about climate change – and you should be – then these are not the best of times. The decision by the U.S. Senate to postpone climate legislation, perhaps indefinitely, coupled with the failure of the United Nations summit in Copenhagen last winter to produce an international treaty limiting greenhouse gases means Business-as-Usual continues to rule.

Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen to 391 parts-per-million (ppm) – 40 ppm above what many scientists consider a level necessary to keep the planet from becoming ice-free. And it’s rising at a rate of 2 ppm per year, far faster than at any time in the Earth’s paleoclimate record.

What to do? Some see salvation in high technology, including the ‘capture’ of CO2 at its source, to be stored underground, or the ‘scrubbing’ of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by hundred of thousands of boxcar-sized filtering machines. The trouble is, these technologies, even if practical, are years away from deployment. And the climate crisis, as evidenced by recent headlines, is happening now.

Which leads to an idea: what about low technology? As I see it, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities.

There are only four natural sinks for CO2: the atmosphere, the oceans, forests and other perennial vegetation, and the soil. The atmospheric sink is overflowing with CO2, as we well know, and the oceans are fast filling up (and becoming alarmingly acidic as a result). Forests have a habit of being cut down, burned up, or die and decompose over time, all of which release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere. That leaves soils.

The potential for CO2 storage in soils is three times greater than the atmosphere. And since two-thirds of the Earth’s landmass is covered with grass, the potential impact on the climate could be gigantic. In fact, NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s leading climatologist, postulates that 50 ppm of CO2 could be sequestered in soils over the next fifty years.

How? By employing the low technology of green plants, which pull CO2 out of the air and fix it into carbon compounds that are stored in the soil.

In my experience in the arid Southwest, there are six strategies that can increase or maintain the carbon content of grass-dominated ecosystems. They include: (1) planned grazing systems using livestock, especially on degraded soils; (2) active restoration of degraded riparian and wetland zones; and (3) removal of woody vegetation, where appropriate, so grass may grow in its stead. Maintenance strategies include: (4) the conservation of open space, so there is no further loss of carbon-storing soils; (5) the implementation of organic no-till farming practices; and (6) management of land for long-term ecological and economic resilience.

Fortunately, a great deal of the land management ‘toolbox’ required to implement these strategies has largely been tried-and-tested by practitioners and landowners. Over the past decade, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable.

I believe the time has come to bundle them together into an economic and ecological whole that I call a carbon ranch whose goal is to reduce the atmospheric content of CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. These co-benefits include local food production, improved ecosystem services, restored wildlife habitat, rural economic development, and the strengthening of cultural traditions.

A carbon ranch also aims to reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy it uses, as well as the amount of greenhouse gases it produces (offsetting the amount of methane emitted by livestock). And if the ranch can produce local renewable energy in addition to local food – so much the better! In other words, one answer to the climate crisis is not to “eat less red meat,” as is commonly asserted, but to (if you eat meat) eat more of it from a carbon ranch.

This is not as crazy as it sounds – and certainly not as crazy as maintaining Business-As-Usual on a warming planet. Of course, implementing a carbon ranch will be a big challenge, especially economically – though things could happen fast if early adopters were rewarded monetarily by governments for taking the leap into carbon ranching rather than wait for the marketplace to wake up.

In any case, we don’t have much time – and we don’t have many options. Carbon ranching might seem like a pipedream, but there are more of us dreamers every day.

Courtney White co-founded the Quivira Coalition to build bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others. He is focused on building economic and ecological resilience on the working landscapes of the American West through carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. Much of his work can be found on his website www.awestthatworks.com. Quivira’s 9th annual conference “The Carbon Ranch: Using Food and Stewardship to Build Soil and Fight Climate Change” is Nov. 10-12 in Albuquerque (www.quiviracoalition.org).The Quivira Coalition’s annual conference is November 10-12, 2010