ECOSYSTEM MARKETPLACE: Can the Green New Deal boost sky farming and save the giant carbon sink?

Published 18:32 on February 25, 2019  /  Last updated at 00:34 on February 26, 2019  /  Americas, Carbon Taxes, Conversations, US, Views  /  No Comments

By now, you’ve probably seen the news about US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). On Friday, she unveiled a sweeping draft resolution to set US climate change policy for decades to come, and major media outlets competently contrasted her resolution with the more ambitious but less detailed “Green New Deal” proposal. Oh, wait… sorry. Wrong universe.

By now, you’ve probably seen the news about US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

On Friday, she unveiled a sweeping draft resolution to set US climate-change policy for decades to come, and major media outlets competently contrasted her resolution with the more ambitious but less detailed “Green New Deal” that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) had unveiled two weeks earlier.

Oh, wait… sorry. Wrong universe.

In the universe we inhabit, major media outlets focused their attention on the children who confronted Feinstein in her San Francisco office, and on the lecture she gave them after they wrongly equated her refusal to endorse the New Green Deal with a refusal to act on climate change. Tragically, just a handful of stories mentioned the real news – namely, the fact that Feinstein was drafting a proposal of her own, and that the two proposals offered complementary visions for dealing with the mess. None of the articles pointed out that both proposals support various forms of sky farming to mop up greenhouse gas emissions and boost the rural economy while making sure our food systems adapt to climate change.

So, what’s sky farming?

It’s my term for “climate smart agriculture” (CSA), which involves a slew of time-tested but long-neglected practices like using cover crops and trees to pull nitrogen and carbon from the sky, where they blend with oxygen to become greenhouse gasses. CSA infuses carbon and nitrogen into the earth, where they improve soil fertility while helping farmers wean themselves off of petrochemical fertilizers.  I like the term because it contrasts so sharply with the current practice of digging long-dead fossils up out of the earth and spreading them on the ground or pumping them into the air.

One sky farming tool is switch grass, which revives dead soil and produces extra biomass that some farmers want to use for bioethanol – a prospect that scares the hell out of fossil-fuel companies, but also gives environmentalists pause. Done badly, bioethanol expansion could increase emissions as people chop forests to make the stuff, but many farmers insist they can dramatically increase bioethanol production while restoring land and reducing emissions. The authors of the two contrasting proposals have clearly done their homework, and they’ve created fodder for healthy debate on an issue that we should all be focusing more on.

Feinstein’s proposal, for example, explicitly calls for “bio-energy power generation with carbon capture and sequestration” (BACCS), which pairs bioethanol production with “negative-emissions technologies” (NET) that capture carbon dioxide as the fuels are combusted, before they escape into the atmosphere. After that, the CO2 can be pumped into greenhouses, where it helps plants grow, or distilled into pure carbon and pure oxygen. The carbon can then be infused into rocks or fed into 3D printers – “sky mining”, anyone?

The authors of the New Green Deal intentionally avoid the issue of BACCS, and experts caution that BACCS is next-generation stuff at best; but climate-smart agriculture and sustainable forest management – two forms of sky-farming – are here right now, and both proposals clearly embrace it.

This is critical, because a landmark 2017 study showed that we can get  37 percent of the way to meeting the Paris Agreement’s 2-degree Celsius target just by scaling up 20 natural climate solutions that are already being practiced around the world, while last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that we must scale these practices up if we’re to meet the more ambitious 1.5-degree target.

Despite their importance, and the fact that they feature heavily in all credible climate proposals, natural climate solutions garner just 3 percent of climate-related media coverage and 1 percent of climate-related finance. This is tragic, because without finance, there is woefully little research, and that leaves farmers and other land-owners in a bind.

“Most farmers are living on small margins,” says Wil Burns, Co-Director & Professor of Research at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal. “They live and die by the profit from each individual crop, and they can’t afford failure. That makes it very difficult for them to embrace no-till agriculture or cover crops or agroforestry or anything that’s going to disrupt their model.”

Beyond farms, there’s huge uncertainty over the state of US forests, which currently act as a net “carbon sink” that absorbs about 15 percent of the country’s industrial emissions. That capacity will plunge as the climate changes – unless we nurture the forests better.

Both proposals aim to help help landowners do just that, but real policy requires knowing which activities will generate the best results – and what those results will be.

“The estimates are all over the place,” says Burns. “Some say forests can sequester just half a gigaton of carbon dioxide annually, while others go up to 10 or 12 gigatons.”

Despite that uncertainty, it’s clear that doing nothing isn’t an option, which is why forests, farms, and the rural economy feature so heavily in the New Green Deal – which, contrary to may reports, doesn’t aim for “zero” emissions, but rather for “net-zero” emissions. That little word is critical, because it means the authors realize we probably can’t eliminate all industrial emissions. The plan is to slash industrial emissions on all fronts while helping farmers and other land managers improve the giant carbon sink.

None of this is hidden, by the way. Dive into the text of the Green New Deal or into Feinstein’s draft proposal, and it will reach out and slap you.

So, why is everyone ignoring it?

Maybe they just need a catchier name.

This post appeared first on Ecosystem Marketplace.

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