12/10/2009 06:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Measure ag-sequestered carbon to improve cap-and-trade

Climate scientist James Hansen has been educating his peers and the public about the realities of global climate change since the 1980s. He's publicly hoping for a failure of the United Nations' international climate negotiations at Copenhagen. With the future of our civilization at stake, how does this make sense?

Hansen's concerns about the failings of cap and trade are legitimate. Annie Leonard's simple video explains these problems very clearly: she calls it Cap and Giveaway. She's right that much of the designed climate change legislation includes direct giveaways to polluters. James Hansen, Annie Leonard and I seek more meaningful change that garners enough public and political support to be viable.

No trade for no carbon

For example, the latest version of the climate bill from the U.S. House of Representatives has been modified by the agriculture committee to pay farmers for conventional no-till farming. These payments are supposed to reward carbon stored in soil as a result of responsible agricultural practices. However, science shows that conventional no-till may not provide any benefit when it comes to carbon sequestration (and may even be emitting carbon). Credits for chemical-based no-till actually end up paying farmers for increasing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, and for increasing the toxins in our soil, water and air.

Now that is a cap and giveaway - transferring our tax dollars to keep farmers farming in a way that increases the dead zone in the Gulf and the Chesapeake, erodes soils, keeps toxins like herbicides and pesticides on our foods and nitrates in our drinking water, while doing little to nothing for our climate crisis. We lose, and who profits? Agrochemical companies and large commodity traders profit, while our atmosphere gets warmer and the planet and civilization more stressed.

We must create a system where farmers are rewarded for practices that actually improve the environment. We need to invest in consistent auditing and measuring the carbon that soil holds when managed responsibly through regenerative organic practices that rebuild the soil.

We know this is possible because sound science reveals that carbon is naturally stored in soils that are not damaged by chemical agriculture or overgrazing practices. Some soils in the Midwest were comprised of up to 20 percent carbon before the plow turned those prairies under. Now some of those same soils contain only 1 percent carbon. The rest of that carbon was released into the atmosphere and turned into carbon dioxide due to our agricultural practices.

Measure what works

By investing in the biological value of the soil through regenerative organic soil carbon building methods, we could remove significant amounts of carbon from the air, while emitting less carbon into an already saturated atmosphere. It could be the most effective means to cleanse the atmosphere of excess CO2, and is available and scalable to any farm. Responsible farming and ranching practices can change our future trajectory if create policy that incentivizes these practices.

What would that policy entail? For one, it would have to pay farmers and ranchers around the globe for effectively sinking (sequestering) carbon onto their land. And pay them well. Farmers need a legitimate incentive to change their practices, and a targeted carbon reduction program could make all the difference.

Farmers know their land, and they are innovators in finding the most practical ways to respond to economic signals. Let's create incentives for farmers to develop new and efficient ways to sequester soil carbon. Their tactics will likely outperform our leading research institutions.

This brings us back to our cap and trade dilemma. In its current form, cap and trade programs will not productively cap carbon emissions, and will not effectively pay farmers for carbon sequestration. Cap and trade will likely become a reality, but there is still time to lobby for responsible, quantifiable and viable practices to be a part of this legislation.

Want to make a difference on this crucial issue? Write an email here . Or call your elected representatives and ask them to support this alternative.

By paying for measured credits, we can build a market that pays farmers for the good work they're doing, and we all can enjoy the benefits of healthier soils and a healthier planet.