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
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
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 www.chicagoclimatex.com.
On the NFU
website, rates for different regions of the country are shown.
Another exchange exists in Europe for the same purpose. No-till
crop production can add about 300 pounds of carbon per acre each
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 farm development.
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 soil.
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