Offsets or ecosystem services?

In the United States, the current carbon market at the Chicago Climate Exchange buys offsets or "pollution credits" as some have called them. The amount of carbon sequestration purchased is directly related to emissions of carbon into the atmosphere by industries, for example. As the trading price of carbon offsets increases, presumably emissions will go down, but then so will the purchase of offsets.

Know-that and know-how

Will reducing carbon dioxide emissions slow down global warming? Hardly, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century" (IPCC Fourth Assessment FAQ, section 10.3).

Carbon dioxide is a stable gas, requiring energy to break its molecular bonds. With 100 percent reductions in 2007, we will maintain what NASA climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous levels—not just for a few years, but for generations. The area under the Keeling curve will remain huge, and that translates into ocean heating.

What this means is that our current widespread advocacy of CO2 emissions reduction has little leverage on what most scientists regard as the cause of global warming—the highest atmospheric CO2 levels in hundreds of thousands of years. The assumption that CO2 emissions reductions will do the trick has become popular groupthink, not subject to scrutiny because it's what we all know, and may seem like the only available option. Once again, we are goading ourselves into a gallant cavalry charge into the barbed wire.

What's needed is to reverse the Keeling curve, to quickly and significantly reduce existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2. According to NASA's figures on the global carbon cycle, fossil fuel burning represents less than 3 percent of the annual flux of CO2 into the atmosphere (3.4% according Rattan Lal's figures). The rest is biology, which also responds to human management.

The politics of soil carbon

Building soil organic matter on a large scale could reverse global warming, but it also has near-term, local benefits. These include better water cycling (fewer floods and droughts, more moderate and consistent streamflow, as well as better water quality), better mineral cycling (e.g. less nitrate pollution), increasing biodiversity above and below ground, an increase in the quantity as well as quality of human food, less reliance on chemical and fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, and greater self-sufficiency and economic independence of the agricultural sector.

The soil carbon opportunity

Cutting fossil fuel emissions is not enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Too much carbon is already in the atmosphere, and the oceans are continuing to heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2007 that "Complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century" (about 9% to 1985 levels; see IPCC's 7 Mb pdf file here, section 10.3).

In other words, the strategy of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, by itself, has little effect or leverage on the atmospheric concentrations. By treating global heating as a problem of energy, emissions, or technology alone, we only get to decide whether to wreck our climate slightly faster or slightly slower.

There is a biological side to global warming and the carbon cycle. Carbon is a main ingredient of all life, and of its remains. While planting trees is rightly discounted as a way to reduce atmospheric carbon, we could increase soil organic matter (58% carbon by dry weight) rapidly and cheaply. This will pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere while also enhancing soil fertility, water quality, food quality and human health, and also reducing floods, droughts, and agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals.

How it works

Biological processes, such as photosynthesis and respiration, drive 99% of the carbon cycle. There is more carbon in soils than in vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Soil carbon can be more stable than plant carbon (less subject to oxidation or burning).

Welcome to the Soil Carbon Coalition website

The Soil Carbon Coalition was begun by Abe Collins (Vermont), Terry Gompert (Nebraska), and Peter Donovan (Oregon) to raise awareness of the opportunity we have to increase soil organic matter and reverse global heating.

For a short overview of the soil carbon opportunity, see the slideshow (about 3.5 Mb and 5 minutes), see below, and http://soilcarboncoalition.org/other_side_of_global_warming

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