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The Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

Posted by Peter Donovan 13 years, 6 months ago

Seeing the carbon/climate problem differently: why we need a soil carbon challenge

1. Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil fuel emissions are only 3.4% of the annual flux of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (Lal 2008). Even with instantaneous and complete elimination of these emissions, it may take generations for atmospheric carbon dioxide to decline to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls safe levels (IPCC 2007a, 2007b).

Reducing fossil-fuel emissions may be a necessary part of long-term climate stability. But in the near term, emissions reductions would have little leverage on the factors of concern for IPCC scientists: positive radiative forcing driven principally by atmospheric carbon dioxide.

2. Taking responsibility means seeing the problem differently. The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a biologically driven cycle. It's a network of self-motivated creatures, most of them microscopic, powered by chemical energy from sunlight, who grow, strive, eat, multiply, respire, and die.

Most of our climate change ideas come from physical science. But biology runs the vast majority of the carbon cycle. Green plants take carbon from the atmosphere using solar energy and make the sugars and carbohydrates that fuel life and growth, and power every action, feeling, and thought. Most of this carbon is returned back into the atmosphere by oxidation, which releases energy: respiration, decay, and fire.

Fossil fuel deposits are the result of photosynthesis exceeding oxidation over a geological time scale. Soil organic matter—carbon compounds that are the residue of past life, the present habitat for underground biodiversity, and the substrate for future life—also stores a solar surplus, but on a shorter time scale.

Human activities have an enormous influence over the carbon cycle, particularly on land. Fire, tillage, drainage, and deforestation have had enormous effects on the carbon cycle over millions of acres. But several strands of alternative agriculture have discovered how to increase photosynthesis and reduce oxidation while raising food. The net gain can become stable, highly beneficial soil organic matter, which consists of carbon compounds in various stages of decay. In other words, land managers can now choose to build soil instead of destroying it, in a wide variety of situations.

Soil, even in its depleted state, contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Soil organic matter is the key to water retention and agricultural productivity. It is the largest, most stable, and most beneficial carbon pool that we manage. Taking responsibility for the carbon cycle means managing for soil organic matter, and keeping soil covered.

3. The system cannot change itself. Or, the thinking or decision making that created the problem is not the kind that will solve it. Thinking in terms of emissions, or anthropogenic emissions, or offsets to these emissions, or additionality, all get in the way of taking responsibility and bringing the needed biological leverage to bear on the carbon cycle.

These agricultural innovations have not come from the centers of institutional and economic power, but from the edges. Though incentives and markets for ecosystem services may help, transformation of agriculture will not occur from the top down, from international agreements, or through research, conferences, and reports on "best practices."

Changing the way we see the problem means asking different questions. Instead of asking what is the best way to store carbon, let's ask who can do it the best. If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, convene panels of experts on human physiology to make predictions, or do a literature search on how fast redheaded people can run? No, you run a race, reward the successful, and imitate them (see Dorsey 2000 on identifying "positive deviants").

Research and prediction help us focus on what we know. But for wicked problems such as climate change, water scarcity, and food security, this should not be our only strategy. The unforeseen risks, as well as the breakthroughs and big opportunities, will come from what we don't know, or can't recognize because it does not fit our policy tools.

4. Navigation beats prediction. The best way to predict the future is to create it. Navigation--understanding where we are, where we want and need to be, and the direction of the difference--is more useful. This means monitoring for changes in soil carbon.

Soil carbon can be measured. A January 2009 meeting convened by the World Bank concluded that "the carbon content of a soil sample can be measured with a high degree of accuracy and precision . . . Equipment and protocols for soil sampling are well documented and have been applied throughout the world for decades."

5. Prize competitions shift power and possibility. The Soil Carbon Challenge will move the leadership of the soil carbon opportunity to the land manager level, and increase the field of possibility.

The Soil Carbon Challenge:

How fast can land managers turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil carbon?

The Soil Carbon Challenge (World Carbon Cup) is a high-profile international prize competition for land managers, with regional divisions and varying timeframes, with "lap times" based on monitoring of soil carbon, announced periodically and posted on a map-enabled website. An individual entry consists of a defined piece of land, on which a third-party baseline sampling survey establishes three or more permanent plots to determine the starting tonnage and percentage of soil carbon.

The competition is scalable. Local, regional, and sector-specific (e.g. annual cropping) subcompetitions can be set up.

Success is turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon. Prizes can be awarded for the most tons per hectare per year, and greatest percentage increase.

A prize competition is a platform, not a blueprint. Any number of research projects or policy trials of ecosystem service markets could be built on this framework. A prize competition will tell the story of soil carbon, and the possibilities, in ways that research reports can never do.

A carbon-rich agriculture will not be achieved by analysis or research alone. It is a matter of design, locally adapted. A prize competition would be a type of farmer/grazier-driven design, using the innovation and creativity of people on the land to point out ways to solve the greatest problems of our time.

The Challenge will enable us to recognize, evaluate, and imagine the soil carbon opportunity. This is difficult for us to do now, because growing soil carbon is neither a technological innovation nor a conventional solution to an environmental problem. Governments and institutions, with public support, will then be able to design and implement appropriate, fair, and locally adapted policies and incentives, based on monitoring, that will result in widespread adoption of carbon-rich farming and grazing.

How to get involved

We are looking for partnerships of all kinds to make this happen. We will also be looking for ways to fund monitoring, and suggestions on the design and rules. Contact info at the bottom of the page.


See also Turning air into dirt

Dorsey, David. 2000. Positive deviant. Fast Company, vol. 41. A Soil Carbon Challenge would use all the elements of the positive deviance approach.

IPCC, 2007a. FAQ to the Fourth Assessment.

IPCC, 2007b: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Lal, Rattan. 2008. Sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in global carbon pools. Energy and Environmental Science 1, 86-100. This paper contains a current summary of global carbon cycle annual fluxes and pools in its Fig. 1 on p. 87.

Short Flash animation:

Short video:

And finally, a short pep talk from Bill Clinton, who spoke in the Netherlands. Even though he is talking about clean energy, everything he says applies so well to the soil carbon opportunity:

Why prizes work (from the Xprize Foundation website, the sponsor of several high-profile aeronautics and space exploration prizes)

Leverage and Efficient Investment

• Prizes are efficient. Sponsors pay the winners when and if the goal is accomplished. Prizes are performance-based investment. • Prizes are very high-leverage. Competitors spend 10 - 40 times the amount of the prize purse to achieve the goal. • Prize sponsors receive early benefits from launch, registration, and prize related activities and make the majority of their payments when and if there is a winner.

Powerful Innovation Strategy

• Prizes result in unexpected and unconventional approaches to problems without a clear path to solution. • Prizes result in multiple entries and often have the potential of multiple winners resulting in a new generation of solutions. • Prizes drive increased risk-taking by mavericks competing to win. Increased risk taking speeds innovation and results in breakthroughs. • A prize attracts teams from around the world, across boundaries.

Effective Change Strategy

• Prizes create hope and inspiration; the day a prize is launched the question changes from “Can it be done?” to “When will it happen?” • Highly visible prize launches and global competitions attract worldwide attention increasing the understanding of the problem and preparing markets for rapid innovation adoption. • Prizes create heroes symbolic of what’s possible. • Prizes can create or reshape an inefficient or blocked market more rapidly than market mechanisms. • Prizes result in rapid and widespread investment against a defined goal compared to the traditional philanthropic theories (i.e., research, pilot, demonstration, legislation, investment—a process that can take decades). • Prizes are low-bureaucracy and encourage non-traditional players to enter and bring non-traditional solutions. • Prizes force rapid policy change to accommodate competitions when an innovation is apparent (e.g., FAA regulations allowing suborbital trials due to the Ansari X PRIZE).