A catch to carbon

Agriculture.com Staff 03/17/2009 @ 11:31am

Al Gore could be your new friend. That's right -- the liberal, inventor-of-the-Internet former vice president who is a crusader against global warming.

Congressional committees are gearing up to write climate change legislation this year. It would force businesses that put out greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to cap those emissions and to buy carbon credits if they can't meet mandates. Farmers will benefit if prices in a mandatory carbon market rise and you're allowed to sell carbon credits.

Yet there's no guarantee that agriculture will even be considered. The two committee leaders who will write cap-and-trade legislation are urban Californians: Senator Barbara Boxer from the San Francisco Bay area and Representative Henry Waxman, whose district includes Beverly Hills. Waxman wants a cap-and-trade bill out of his committee by Memorial Day. Boxer, who is shooting for the end of the year, laid out her goals in February. She wants a cap-and-trade law to be science based, but she said nothing about agriculture.

Al Gore did, when he recently testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging Congress to act before the next round of global negotiations on climate change in December in Copenhagen, Denmark. In his list of fixes for global warming, Gore included this:

"The addition of sinks including those from soils, principally from farmlands and grazing lands with appropriate methodologies and accounting. Farmers and ranchers in the U.S. and around the world need to know that they can be part of the solution."

Ratan Lal, a soil scientist who heads Ohio State University's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, worries that agriculture could be left out of a cap-and-trade bill. He liked Gore's comments.

"I hope that somebody was listening," he said recently.

A native of India, Lal has spent his life working to improve soil fertility, in the U.S. and in developing nations suffering from soil degradation.

He has a global understanding of agriculture's potential to literally clean the planet's atmosphere of a big fraction of man-made carbon pollution.

It would be tragic -- perhaps fatal -- for the human race if Congress and international negotiators of the next global warming treaty ignore scientists like Lal.

They also should hear from farmers like Gale Lush in Nebraska and Kevin Struss in Kansas. Both are no-tillers who have sold carbon credits. They are true environmentalists, who know the ecology of their chunk of the planet.

If policy-makers don't pay attention to these experts on soil, efforts to combat global warming are likely to fail. There are some really bad ideas out there. A column in the New York Times last winter praised scientists at the Universities of Washington and California who want to capture carbon in crop waste, bale it up, and dump it in the ocean. That's an exceptionally stupid way to mine the fertility of soils.

Instead, Al Gore's common sense needs to be heard. Katy Ziegler Thomas, a lobbyist for National Farmers Union, is doing her part, sending his comments to members of Congress. "That is fantastic for us," she says. "We're working it hard."

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