10/01/2010 03:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Win-Win Policy: Conserving Lands and Mitigating Climate Change in a Public-Private Partnership

After the failure to pass an energy bill in the Senate this summer, we have been in limbo, waiting for comprehensive federal policies that will engage greenhouse gas-emitting industries, from farming to mining, from forestry to transportation. While several regional entities and a few states have adopted such programs (the Western Climate Initiative is a good example), they can't really flourish without federal initiatives.

Such policies must allow, indeed encourage, the U.S. economy to grow and flourish, rather than hamper innovation and growth. And for such policies to succeed, we need a consensus on GHG accounting systems and reputable and scientifically credible methods to standardize the documentation and measurement of GHG-emission reductions and sequestration.

Under the Bush administration, instead of building a framework that would embrace broader strategies, we invested, for instance, billions of dollars in iffy research to abate GHG emissions primarily from oil refineries and power plants, by pumping it into the subterranean geological strata. This requires pipes, tanker trucks, and expensive GHG emitting pumps and come with an unprecedented high level of uncertainty on the viability, durability, and risks.

While this money has literally been pumped into research on geological sequestration, a larger group of scientists, NGOs, and policy makers has been working on developing technical standards designed to allow soils, the second largest sink of carbon on the planet (after the ocean), to be put to work right now to sequester carbon. By rebuilding soils -- today, not a decade from now -- we can start to reduce atmospheric GHG levels immediately.

This soil sink already exists, and its carbon-sequestering capabilities can be significantly improved. Every farmer and property owner can contribute to rebuilding/re-growing soil carbon and organic matter stocks, which according to the USDA, have become depleted by 60-95 percent through erosion and poor farming and livestock grazing practices. The former soil carbon and organic matter levels can be regained through some simple soil-management principles (see my previous blog here).

These soil-management technologies are already proven, and, in many places, in practice. The right plants -- crop plants and cover crops in agricultural lands, and the deep-rooted native perennial grasses in conservation lands -- have been identified and studied. These plants will do the job of reducing GHG emissions from industrial operations and power plant discharges, and quickly. But these practices need to be incentivized by:

  1. protecting already existing areas of nature (forests, wetlands, grasslands, etc.) where this sequestration has occurred for eons;
  2. restoring land to the kinds of ecosystems that effectively rebuild soil carbon stocks; and
  3. 3re-growing soil carbon and organic matter in our nation's agricultural lands.

There's another reason to move ahead with creating national policy now. We have crafted and refined the first standardized soil carbon measurement method to do performance-based accounting. My colleagues and I at The Earth Partners, LLC, have brought together the top soil and carbon scientific talent and market transaction experts to create a practical, cost-effective and defensible method for tracking changes in soil carbon quantities and soil GHG emissions. Net positive changes would become saleable carbon credits in a regulatory cap-and-trade system, or the credits could be traded in a non-compliance market between power companies and companies such as The Earth Partners, with certifying organizations ensuring the marketplace claims are real and verified.

The Earth Partners was started by Applied Ecological Services, Inc., an ecosystem sciences and restoration firm headquartered in Brodhead, Wisconsin, and Brinkman Forestry, Ltd., a forest management and restoration firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. Based on the work of method writers, scientists, and market and transaction experts, we have spent four years testing the practicality and cost effectiveness of a soil carbon quantification method in many different parts of the world.

The method has been technically peer reviewed by the top soil scientists. It now waits for the implementation of federal policy before it can be deployed at meaningful scales, where hundreds of millions of acres and their landowners can benefit through incentives to re-grow and to protect their soils.

America can put the marketplace to work to address both soil degeneration and climate change mitigation. We have companies lined up as sellers and buyers, market trading platforms and registries to record and follow credit sale transactions, and the methodology for which the marketplace has been waiting. All we are waiting on is a set of policy commitments from the U.S. government.