16, 2007: In our atmosphere, carbon dioxide gas absorbs
warmth and acts like a planetary blanket. When gasoline, oil,
natural gas and/or coal are burnt, oxygen from our atmosphere
combines with carbon in the fuel source to create carbon dioxide
as a waste product. Since the Industrial Revolution, the intensified
burning of fossil fuels has led to continually increasing
carbon dioxide concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere.
These have now surpassed all geologically recorded concentrations.
How will this overabundance of greenhouse gas impact our climate?
And what will be our fate on a much warmer planet?
One way to reduce carbon dioxide is the so-called “cap-and-trade”
Advantages of cap-and-trade
Cap-and-trade is an administrative protocol for regulating
air emissions and meeting environmental goals. This framework
is based on methods developed for the reduction of sulfur
dioxide emissions governed under the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act.
Under this approach, businesses were given reduction targets,
such as a reduction of 50 percent emissions by 2010, and then
were allowed to buy excessive reductions, or credits, from
leaders in the field who had exceeded their overall targets.
This new free-trade approach has been effective in reducing
emissions at a fraction of the cost of traditional non-market
regulatory approaches. It rewards innovation and flexibility
for businesses in their efforts to achieve the requirements
using different approaches and at lessened cost. Because firms
can choose ways to comply with regulatory goals—by cutting
emissions, buying offsets or some combination—incentives
develop to reduce costs while achieving the goal of reducing
total emissions within the regulated area. This approach has
been more effective than the rigid attempts to regulate emissions
as previously practiced.
Most observers believe regulatory schemes for dealing with
carbon emissions in the near future are as inevitable as the
Clean Air Act was for reducing atmospheric sulfur. Corporations
in the United States are voluntarily joining up in efforts
to trade carbon and reduce its emissions despite a current
lack of political leadership at the federal level. In addition,
although there is no clear federal policy, many states, including
Pennsylvania, are advancing strategies for dealing with greenhouse
gases and energy issues.
Carbon as a commodity
Carbon credits are the heart of a cap-and-trade approach
for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. By offering a way to
quantify carbon sequestered from the atmosphere, carbon credits
gain a monetary value to offset a given amount of carbon dioxide
releases. Whether through cap-and-trade, or through other
policies that incentivize reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,
being able to scientifically document the impact of practices
which pull carbon out of the atmosphere will increase confidence
in offset schemes in general.
For instance, a coal-fired electrical generation plant can
meet its greenhouse gas reduction requirements by paying another
business to make the amount of emission reduction they need,
but cannot do immediately or as practically. This is particularly
useful when the emission reduction is urgently needed and
the large capital investment needed for a change at the plant
site is not feasible.
Another example would be a business in a highly industrialized
country, setting up forest development and preservation in
a developing country where costs are relatively lower. In
this scheme a market is created where businesses in need of
carbon credits can buy them on a free and open market from
legitimate approved sellers. Carbon credits are measured on
the acquired right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide which
is equivalent to burning about 600 pounds of carbon. Cap-and-trade
works best when the results of a release are generalized,
as in climate change. Other mechanisms are needed to effect
improvements when emissions have a negative local impact that
will not be mitigated by an offset elsewhere.
Agriculture as a carbon sink
Agriculture is a major potential seller of carbon credits.
Plants serve as a sink, or reservoir, of carbon dioxide and
the amount of soil carbon in organic matter is about two times
that of the total atmospheric carbon as carbon dioxide.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) is aggregating carbon credits
from farm acreage to be traded on the Chicago Climate Exchange
On the NFU
website, rates for different regions of the country are
Another exchange exists in Europe for the same purpose. No-till
crop production can add about 300 pounds of carbon per acre
Pennsylvania farmers are already engaging in practices that
could be factored into a carbon credit program. Livestock
farmers who are converting manure to renewable energy through
biodigesters can aggregate carbon credits. The application
of organic materials to the soil and no-till crop production
can also be sources of carbon sequestration. Farmers with
wind access could make carbon credits available through wind
In our work here at The Rodale Institute in Berks County,
we have shown that growing winter crop covers is even more
effective than no-till alone in increasing soil carbon. Cover
crops have shown two to four times the values cited by the
NFU. This suggests that our first attempts at carbon crediting
are just scratching the surface. For carbon credits to be
most effective, greater effort will be needed in their identification
and verification so the benefit of local, regional and national
farmers can be maximized.
Measuring soil carbon change
One of the biggest problems of assigning carbon credits is
dealing with the inherent variability of natural field soil.
We have approached this issue by taking many measurements
for the 27 years that we have been tracking soil carbon. A
rapid, precise and cost-effective means of carbon measurement
will need to be developed in order to be able to credit farmers
for their beneficial inputs in improving both our air and
Till, Biologically Based Production, and Compost Work Together
to Increase Carbon Sequestration
Biological No Till
Pennsylvania government officials have been trying to find
economic opportunities in our current environmental challenges,
including global warming. Since 2003, the secretaries of agriculture
and environmental protection, Dennis Wolff and Kathleen McGinty,
respectively, have sought to work with the Rodale Institute
to better understand agricultural carbon sequestration and
its potential to help the state meet its carbon emission goals.
Validating new technology that will give farmers accurate
measurements of carbon levels in their fields will help to
implement offset programs in the Commonwealth and beyond.
To read more about state-funded research scheduled to commence
in early 2008 at The Rodale Institute on new soil-testing
technology that could make assessment of soil carbon levels
much quicker, more practical and less expensive, click