By Jim Blackburn and Susan Combs
Houston Chronicle, June 5, 2022
Farmers and ranchers in Texas today are facing one of the largest transformations in their industry since barbed wire and tractors. The agricultural industry is uniquely positioned to become a key player in solving our climate crisis, and we all need to help them make this transition.
Imagine an industrial device that sucks air through a giant vacuum cleaner to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s not that far-fetched: research is already being done into making these devices a reality and pilot plants exist. Although they may eventually make a difference, they are very expensive to make and large numbers of these devices will be required to make a dent in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Now consider a farmer changing practices. Rather than plowing, that farmer is now using no-till cover crop methods that remove carbon dioxide from the sky and deposit it securely in the soil. And in the process, they use less nitrogen fertilizer and release less nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Or imagine a rancher who intentionally restores native grass species that have root systems 10 or 15 feet deep — roots that pump carbon from the plant into the soil. Or imagine another rancher who adopts regenerative grazing techniques that replicate the action of buffalo herds that helped deposit large amounts of carbon in the grasslands of the United States in the past.
In the last two examples, photosynthesis is the carbon removal technology. It is a wonderful process that enables plants to use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build their cells, turning it into leaves and wood and roots as well as carbohydrates that are stored in the soil as organic carbon. If we are smart about it, nature-based carbon capture and removal will become one of our key climate change adaptation strategies.
Nature’s technology — photosynthesis — is time-tested, relatively inexpensive and already exists around the world. Grasslands, farmlands, forests, coastal marshes and even oyster reefs can pull billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil and trees as organic carbon. Unfortunately, the United States does not currently have the infrastructure to support nature-based transactions at the scale that will be required, and we need to develop it.
Nature-based infrastructure refers to the trading framework that will pay landowners to bring more carbon from the atmosphere into their soil or forests. It also refers to the project developers who work with landowners to bring this carbon removal to market and to the buyers who support nature-based carbon credits. Included as well are the registries that certify these transactions, all of which are accomplished via contracts.
Stated otherwise, nature-based infrastructure is about building, supporting and maintaining the organizational structure that will foster a market that pays farmers and ranchers for removing carbon even as they continue to raise cattle and crops. The current agricultural market system does not sufficiently recognize the value that landowners could offer in addressing our global climate challenge. They should receive fair payment for this essential service, and that will encourage more landowners to help build a greener future.
One major problem is creating a credible basis for certifying these transactions, which are so far voluntary. The current international carbon credit trading system comes from a 1997 international agreement, and it does not work very well. In the international community’s zeal to prevent abuse of the trading system, we have suffocated the market with rules that prevent us from achieving the scale necessary to make a difference in our atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Now stop and think for a minute. We need a market that can transform our past negative impacts and make them positive. That means we must think and act differently from the existing system. We are not talking about band aids. We are talking about a new approach that must reach a huge scale.
Markets are not created by regulation. Instead, we need a basic incentive system that pays landowners for the carbon dioxide that they remove and store in their soil or trees, rewarding them for being carbon farmers and ranchers.
This system design emerged from a stakeholder group formed by the Baker Institute at Rice University. Here, we assembled landowners, buyers, academics, environmentalists, carbon experts and interested individuals to discuss what was needed to make nature-based transactions happen. From these conversations, it became clear that we needed to open up markets in order to reach scale.
To accomplish this goal, we created a non-profit registry called BCarbon. With input from the stakeholder group that now numbers over 400 entities and individuals, rules restricting the development of this voluntary market were removed and replaced with scientific measurement requirements and landowner commitments to keep the carbon in place. Early results are very positive that this approach can work. Landowner interest and action has been high and the soil measurements are proving that carbon is being removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the soil.
The key to unleashing nature is for buyers and all levels of government to support these creative initiatives. Recently, Exxon Mobil created a grant to support soil carbon research with BCarbon to investigate differences in rates of carbon storage within different types of grasslands in three states on seventeen ranches, including many areas of the United States with few if any soil carbon studies. The development of information such as this is essential because in the past, carbon research was seldom funded, and we lack critical information about many aspects of this natural system.
Here, buyers are key. But buyers are often reluctant to support a system that is just emerging and perhaps not uniformly accepted. They need to be encouraged by all of us — governments, environmentalists, citizens — to spend a portion of their carbon reduction budget to help develop this nature-based market.
The development of this market could be huge. In Texas, 169 million acres were devoted to agricultural uses in 2016. It is feasible that much of this acreage could generate carbon income with various management techniques. Assuming one ton of carbon dioxide removed per acre and $20 per ton net to the landowner, this market could represent over $3 billion in income per year. As the price of carbon rises and management practices become more efficient, the potential simply increases.
Climate change can be addressed, but it requires new thinking about solutions and infrastructure. Just as we are facing storms that challenge our design concepts of resilience, so too do we require new design concepts for carbon emission reduction and the infrastructure to support it. If we work together, we can make it happen, enabling a new economic reality for the agricultural sector as we help Texas industry transition to a more promising future.
Jim Blackburn is a professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice University, the chairman and CEO of BCarbon, a Houston-based carbon credit registry, and a member of the Carbon Neutral Coalition Advisory Board. Susan Combs is chair of the Carbon Neutral Coalition Advisory Board, and is the former Texas agriculture commissioner and Texas comptroller.