A win-win solution to the climate change controversy

By Steve Rich and Sheldon Kinsel

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, May 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

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As was expected, President Obama’s recently released plan to deal with climate change has only hardened the resolve of the opposing sides in the debate. Those demanding CO2 reduction are more strident while those opposing the proposed strategies are even more determined to prevent the plan’s tremendous economic costs to the nation.

However, largely ignored by both sides, at least in the U.S., is a proven win-win solution that can remove vast amounts of CO2, but in a way that not only avoids the economic damage but actually provides substantial economic and environmental benefits.

Plants have always locked away carbon in dark, rich, healthy soils by absorbing atmospheric C02 and sharing the carbon rich sugars they make with soil organisms. Restoring soil health is a widely proven, low-tech, sustainable, highly cost effective and natural approach to carbon sequestration. We need only make relatively small changes to current land management practices to greatly accelerate this process.

The potential for actively increasing soil carbon sequestration is so great that scientists have calculated that we could employ it to rapidly remove all human-released CO2 from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the present time.

Recent scientific breakthroughs have greatly increased our understanding of how restoring the natural processes of the complex, symbiotic community of soil organisms can work to efficiently and permanently sequester vast quantities of carbon in soils.

We also now have irrefutable evidence that properly managed grazing not only greatly accelerates the process of restoring the health of the rangeland soil community but is actually essential to doing so. This process of restoring rangeland health also produces numerous economic and environmental benefits including greater profitability, increased forage production, watershed improvements, increased biodiversity and improved wildlife habitat.

Other recent research even shows that these healthy soil communities can effectively deal with the methane produced by livestock that some have identified as also influencing climate change.

Some policy makers are in fact beginning to recognize this potential. Australia has identified soil sequestration practices as a means to achieve its CO2 emissions reduction target under the Kyoto climate treaty. California, which has a state emission cap and trade system, is also planning to recognize soil sequestration as a viable emission offset technique.

The broader policy implications of adopting this approach are also enormous. For example, its powerful ability to sequester carbon would end the current “war on coal,” allowing even greater use of our vast domestic reserves by offsetting coal-based emissions. That, in turn, would allow us to export more of our abundant natural gas to reduce Europe’s current crippling dependence on Russian energy. It would also eliminate the major objection to the Keystone Pipeline, which will create jobs and also augment world petroleum supplies.

And, while we have focused only on rangeland potentials, equally impressive sequestration results and associated economic and environmental benefits are being demonstrated around the world by applying this new understanding of the soil community to cropland agriculture.

As with any major scientific paradigm shift, there is resistance from those inside and outside the scientific community who misunderstand or are threatened by the changes resulting from our improved knowledge of soil communities and how to enhance these natural processes. But the facts are that there are no downsides to this approach. It actually defies the axiom that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. All one needs to do to prove this truly is a win-win solution is to simply “ground truth” in it.

Steve Rich is president of Rangeland Restoration Academy, and Sheldon Kinsel is communications director there.

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