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Tue May 28, 2013 at 03:35 PM PDT

The 400 ppm threshold

by BiocarbonImperative

Cross-posted from the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative

By Rhys Roth

For the first time in more than 2 million years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reached 400 parts per million.

Two million years.  To put that in perspective, the first animals we now classify in the genus Homo – Homo habilis – showed up about 2 million years ago. But it would be another 1.5 million years until the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens, along with solid evidence for the controlled use of fire by humans.

In the last 200 years, our use of controlled fire has grown both extraordinarily sophisticated and, ironically, out of control. Atmospheric carbon dioxide held basically steady for the previous 10,000 years at about 280 parts per million – until we mastered the controlled burning of fossil fuels and the accumulation of carbon pollution in the air accelerated toward last week’s disturbing milestone.

In a world now supporting billions of Homo sapiens dependent on food production systems that are quite sensitive to climate, consider the crossing of the 400 ppm threshold a global emergency at least as urgent as a massive and deadly pandemic or the most obscene terrorist threat imaginable.

Experts on the climate emergency tell us the “safe operating space for humanity” is in the neighborhood of 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  You are right, astute reader -- we passed that threshold a while ago.

The only way back to Target 350 is to stop putting so much carbon pollution in the air and at the same time to remove a lot of the accumulated carbon from the air. In other words we need to move rapidly from a global economy powered primarily by fossil fuels to a clean energy economy. And at the same time, we’ve got to get busy on biocarbon to restore nature’s capacity to absorb CO2 from the air and store it in living soils, plants, and trees.

Biocarbon, or the second climate solution, is the focus of the Northwest Biocarbon Summit in Seattle on June 10.  The Summit is a unique opportunity for people engaged in the biocarbon arts—soil-building agriculture, conservation forestry, composting, biochar, natural infrastructure, and restoration of watersheds, wetlands and seagrass beds—to connect, collaborate, learn from each other, and hatch plans.

Together we can build the Northwest into a leading laboratory and incubator of biocarbon solutions that will inform and inspire action around the world.

_____

The Northwest Biocarbon Initiative is project of Climate Solutions

Discuss

By Patrick Mazza

How much carbon is stored in natural systems of the continental western US?  Over coming decades, how much of the fossil fuel carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere will western ecosystems absorb? A new US Geological Service survey provides some sobering answers.

The two crucial takeways:

--First, the capacity of western ecosystems to absorb carbon between now and 2050 depends on how rapidly we move now to reduce fossil emissions.  To put it simply, the hotter and drier we let the world become, the less will climate-stressed forests, grasslands and other systems be able to capture and store carbon.

--Second, even healthy natural systems can each year absorb only a small fraction of our fossil emissions.  To have any hope we can restore a stable climate, we have to rapidly and dramatically reduce the amount of new CO2 we dump in the air each year.

The new study, Baseline and Projected Future Carbon Storage and Greenhouse-Gas Fluxes in Ecosystems of the Western United States, covers US lands and waters west of the continental divide.  It is part of a national carbon storage assessment ordered by Congress.  Thick with numbers, the report’s four-page executive summary provides a good overview.  Here are several absolutely key figures:

--Estimated average 2005 carbon storage in Western ecosystems – 13,920 terragrams. (uncertainty range – 12,418–15,460)
--Projected 2050 carbon storage – 13,743-19,407 terragrams
--Annual average capture of carbon in western ecosystems – 91 terragrams – equals 4.9 percent of US net fossil-fuel emissions.

Those numbers hammer home the two takeways.  By 2050 western ecosystems might store less carbon than now, or substantially larger amounts.  The uncertainties are in climate change and land use change. And even the best performance will only make a small dent in atmospheric carbon accumulations if we continue to let them grow.  It is time to back out of fossil fuels fast through a combination of efficiency and clean energy.  Then we can direct natural carbon accumulation to its most critical climate task – the long-term project of reducing atmospheric CO2 to a level consonant with climate stability.  Now over 390 parts per million, it must be driven down to 350 and under.  That is the goal of the NorthwNorthwest Biocarbon Initiative.

USGS scientist Ben Sleeter underscored the varying effects of different climate pathways during a Wednesday report release at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.  He showed a slide depicting how Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios affect projected western carbon accumulations.  Under less aggressive emissions reductions scenarios (A1b and A2) annual additions to western carbon storage by 2050 dip as much as 16 percent, to 76 terragrams a year.   Under a scenario in which the west is comparatively less hot and dry (B1) annual carbon accumulation increases 11 percent to 101 terragrams.

Because other factors are in play, there is a wider uncertainty band.  USGS projects that western ecosystems might absorb 114 terragrams in any given year, or actually emit 2.9. This has to do with land use changes such as conversion of forests to residential development, and assumptions about the projected level of wildfires.  Indicatively, much of the projected decline in carbon storage capacity is in grasslands, shrublands and forests of the Western Cordillera. Essentially the west’s higher mountain regions beyond the maritime West Coast forests, the Cordillera stores the largest share of the west’s carbon, an estimated 8,163 terragrams.  These are areas that have already seen an upsurge of drought-driven wildfires such as last summer’s in Colorado and New Mexico.

We urgently need to preserve our current natural carbon stocks by limiting land use change and fossil fuel emissions driving climate change.  We also will likely have to consider more active efforts to upgrade carbon sequestration beyond natural accumulation projected by USGS, such as reforestation and planting new forests.  What we cannot do is continue to add to growing atmospheric carbon levels and hope to return to anything like a stable climate system.  The new USGS study provides the carbon math to conclusively nail home that point.

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Patrick Mazza is research director at Climate Solutions, a Northwest research and advocacy group dedicated to advancing practical global warming solutions. Patrick has written extensively on new energy systems including the smart grid and electrified transportation. Through the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, a project of Climate Solutions and conservation community partners, Patrick is focusing much of his current work on models and policies to improve carbon storage in natural systems.

Discuss

By Patrick Mazza

Also posted at Northwest Biocarbon Initiative and Grist.org

While the East Coast still struggled to recover from Superstorm Sandy, a Nov. 13 Climate Risk Roundtable  convened in San Francisco to explore the challenges of keeping society’s vital systems running as the climate grows more turbulent.

Under the auspices of the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) composed of the chief executives of the West Coast states and British Columbia, the gathering drew over 50 representatives of public agencies and NGOs grappling with the critical issues of climate risk and resiliency. Scheduled well in advance of Sandy, the roundtable focused on infrastructure, the circulatory systems that make modern life possible. Submerged New York subways, blacked out Long Island neighborhoods and New Jersey gas lines formed a powerful backdrop to the meeting.

The issue is timely, with Hurricane Sandy devastating the East Coast,” noted Wade Crowfoot of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s office in remarks opening the meeting. “We have a great opportunity to spur climate initiatives, an opportunity that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Canada or the U.S.”

The idea of Pacific Coast as global climate leader is coming to the fore.  The meeting was slated in conjunction with the first carbon emissions auction, held the next day, under California’s economy wide cap-and-trade system, first in the U.S.  British Columbia has charged a carbon tax for several years.  The election of former Congressman Jay Inslee as Washington governor places one of Capitol Hill’s true climate champions at the head of the Washington statehouse.  With Brown and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Inslee fills out a coastal line-up of visionary chief executives who understand climate risks and clean economy opportunities.

In 2007 flooding from a record storm shut down I-5 between Portland and Seattle.  Record wildfires nearly devoured a substantial piece of LA’s telecommunications infrastructure in 2009.  Fires in bug killed forests are increasing floods and wrecking roads in central BC. These and other climate extremes are in the face of West Coast leaders and governments.  And unlike electeds in other parts of the continent, they are not evading the issue

A climate agenda for the Coast and North America was set out in a written statement made by Coastal chief executives made in association with the Roundtable.  Brown, Kitzhaber, BC Premier Christy Clark and outgoing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who also has led important climate initiatives, said:

“Confronting climate change requires concerted effort within each jurisdiction and across the region on several, interconnected fronts.

“First, we need to move forward together on policies that will drive investment in home-grown renewable energy and energy efficiency projects – jobs we can’t outsource.

“Second, we must better account for the environmental impacts associated with using fossil fuels that are detrimental to the health and well-being of our communities – and future generations.

“Third, we need to protect our taxpayers’ investment in infrastructure by making sure these investments are resilient and account for climate risk.

“And (citing California and BC examples) we must also look at how best to consider and then account for the cost of carbon and our costly reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources.”

The Roundtable was a demonstration of coastal leadership.  The four jurisdictions are all leaders in climate adaptation.  They are beginning to bring considerations of increased storms, floods, mudslides, drought, wildfires and sea level rise into infrastructure planning.

Washington state, for example, has mapped climate risk to its road system.  British Columbia is doing extensive sea level rise vulnerability assessments along the 155 miles of coast in the Greater Vancouver area, including somestunning visualizations.  The province has supplied sea level rise guidelines to local governments.  Oregon is preparing its first statewide water bond with the challenge of declining snowpack water supplies in mind.  California requires the state’s 48 water planning areas to assess climate risk as a condition of funding.

Infrastructure sits at a vital nexus of climate change response.  It is also one of our hugest investments.  The four West Coast jurisdictions will make over $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 30 years, noted Kitzhaber advisor Dan Carol in a Roundtable presentation on a new investment tool to close infrastructure funding gaps.  The West Coast Infrastructure Exchange is a PCC-generated alignment of the four jurisdictions to attract capital into a wide range of infrastructure investments. It was officially announced the day after the meeting.

With a goal to bring climate risk assessments into infrastructure strategies, the Exchange is a potentially powerful tool to drive huge amounts of capital into investments that both prepare for climate change and reduce the carbon pollution driving it. For example, green infrastructure including forests, wetlands and urban natural features both regulates water flows and takes climate changing carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Pacific Coast is positioned to lead on climate, and has a huge stake in the outcome.  With carbon revenues and new infrastructure investment strategies, it has some serious money to bring to the climate table.  How the four jurisdictions can work together to advance climate strategies that adapt to climate change while reducing its intensity, in the process pulling their respective nations and federal governments along, will be the subject of upcoming posts.


Patrick Mazza is research director at Climate Solutions, a Northwest research and advocacy group dedicated to advancing practical global warming solutions. Patrick has written extensively on new energy systems including the smart grid and electrified transportation. Through the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, a project of Climate Solutions and conservation community partners, Patrick is focusing much of his current work on models and policies to improve carbon storage in natural

Discuss

Literally. We originally posted this on October 19, before the elections, but it got lost in the hurricane of activity. Some helpful DK readers suggested we bring it up again when the storm had quietened down some.

Natural systems can play in reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to ensure long-term climate stability. Let's look to the soil for solutions to the current climate crisis. We have lots of work to do on the climate front and getting our hands dirty is essential:


Literal grassroots leadership: The Soil Carbon Challenge

By Patrick Mazza

Sitting down to talk about his work to focus the climate-saving power of soil carbon, Peter Donovan starts off with a trick question.

“What’s the major greenhouse gas?”  I fall right into it. “Carbon dioxide.”

“No, it’s water vapor.”

Of course, he’s right, and I know it.  I have answered the question I thought I heard – What is the human-emitted pollutant that is the largest source of climate change?  But in terms of actual gases in the atmosphere, good old H2O is hands down the greatest heat trapper.

So what does this have to do with carbon in the soil?  Everything, explains Peter.  Carbon-rich organic matter covering and laced through soils makes the medium and space which holds moisture in soils.  “Carbon is the key to building water in the soil.  Carbon is the key to water.”

The persistent drought covering much of North America’s food growing land over past months brings the carbon-water connection to the fore.  When it remains hot and dry over long periods, water evaporates from soils, and that creates a feedback loop which makes it even hotter.  The poorer soils are in terms of organic content, the quicker the water goes.  Standard agricultural practices promote just this result.

“Our food mostly comes from ground that is bare most of the year,” Peter notes.  To illustrate the point we go over to my computer and he calls up Google Earth Engine.  Remote sensing imagery of croplands shows a lot of yellows and brown and not so much green.

Peter’s answer is the Soil Carbon Challenge, a “competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter.”  The basic approach is empirical, as the contest text underscores:  “If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction? No, you run a race. Or a series of them.”

Here the race is taking place among 60 landowners on nearly 150 plots of land scattered from Massachusetts to California and Saskatchewan to Mexico.  A great Google map-based database on these and other monitoring projects is here.  The Challenge is based on the realization that human management can make a big difference in soil carbon, and that these changes are easier to measure than has been commonly Peter Donovan supposed. The approach employs permanent plots that can be repeatedly monitored with field sampling and laboratory analysis of carbon content. Monitoring is done almost entirely by Peter himself.  This past March he returned to his Wallowa County, Oregon home base after a continent-wide 12,000-mile monitoring journey in the school bus that doubles as his home.

The Challenge is seeking out what Peter describes as “positive deviants.” The term originates in a theory that sees change in communities coming not from outside, but led by examples of success within communities, those who deviate from the norm in a positive direction.  The Challenge aims to document and recognize soil carbon success to encourage replication.

Peter reflects the best in citizen science. With a full head of gray hair, and a hardened face that reflects his past life as a rancher, Peter has educated himself on soils science by reading literally hundreds of papers.  And he has found critical gaps in knowledge, originating in the fact that many monitoring projects only run several years.  It takes at least four years to develop a good baseline, and the Soil Carbon Challenge will run a decade, to around 2020, before winners are named.

His ranching background brought Peter to the Challenge.  He has been involved in the holistic range management movement led by Allan Savory.  Also known as active grazing management, this series of practices moves herds across the landscape in a systematic way, rather than letting them move around on their own overgrazing pasture lands.  The result is improved forage growth.  Most of the Challenge participants come from the holistic ranching network.  There are indications these practices do build soil carbon in deep root structure, perhaps to an even greater extent than annual row cropping. But the jury remains out.  Developing a long enough baseline to validate carbon accumulation on grazing lands is crucial.

Farmers and ranchers have a bottom-line interest in building soil carbon because it reduces the need for costly inputs to enhance fertility, Peter notes.  And they are “receptive to the idea of building water in the soil.”  But because of variations in soils, climate and other conditions, developing generalized knowledge on carbon accumulation is notoriously difficult.  That is why local knowledge and examples of success are critical.

“We need to turn leadership to the creativity of land managers,” Peter says.  “The Soil Carbon Challenge shifts leadership to the grassroots.”

Quite literally.

------------------------------

Originally posted at Grist.org and Climate Solutions

Patrick Mazza is research director at Climate Solutions, a Northwest research and advocacy group dedicated to advancing practical global warming solutions. Patrick has written extensively on new energy systems including the smart grid and electrified transportation. Through the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, a project of Climate Solutions and conservation community partners, Patrick is focusing much of his current work on models and policies to improve carbon storage in natural systems.

Discuss

By Patrick Mazza

Sitting down to talk about his work to focus the climate-saving power of soil carbon, Peter Donovan starts off with a trick question.

“What’s the major greenhouse gas?”  I fall right into it. “Carbon dioxide.”

“No, it’s water vapor.”

Of course, he’s right, and I know it.  I have answered the question I thought I heard – What is the human-emitted pollutant that is the largest source of climate change?  But in terms of actual gases in the atmosphere, good old H2O is hands down the greatest heat trapper.

So what does this have to do with carbon in the soil?  Everything, explains Peter.  Carbon-rich organic matter covering and laced through soils makes the medium and space which holds moisture in soils.  “Carbon is the key to building water in the soil.  Carbon is the key to water.”

The persistent drought covering much of North America’s food growing land over past months brings the carbon-water connection to the fore.  When it remains hot and dry over long periods, water evaporates from soils, and that creates a feedback loop which makes it even hotter.  The poorer soils are in terms of organic content, the quicker the water goes.  Standard agricultural practices promote just this result.

“Our food mostly comes from ground that is bare most of the year,” Peter notes.  To illustrate the point we go over to my computer and he calls up Google Earth Engine.  Remote sensing imagery of croplands shows a lot of yellows and brown and not so much green.

Peter’s answer is the Soil Carbon Challenge, a “competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter.”  The basic approach is empirical, as the contest text underscores:  “If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction? No, you run a race. Or a series of them.”

Here the race is taking place among 60 landowners on nearly 150 plots of land scattered from Massachusetts to California and Saskatchewan to Mexico.  A great Google map-based database on these and other monitoring projects is here.  The Challenge is based on the realization that human management can make a big difference in soil carbon, and that these changes are easier to measure than has been commonly Peter Donovansupposed. The approach employs permanent plots that can be repeatedly monitored with field sampling and laboratory analysis of carbon content. Monitoring is done almost entirely by Peter himself.  This past March he returned to his Wallowa County, Oregon home base after a continent-wide 12,000-mile monitoring journey in the school bus that doubles as his home.

The Challenge is seeking out what Peter describes as “positive deviants.” The term originates in a theory that sees change in communities coming not from outside, but led by examples of success within communities, those who deviate from the norm in a positive direction.  The Challenge aims to document and recognize soil carbon success to encourage replication.

Peter reflects the best in citizen science. With a full head of gray hair, and a hardened face that reflects his past life as a rancher, Peter has educated himself on soils science by reading literally hundreds of papers.  And he has found critical gaps in knowledge, originating in the fact that many monitoring projects only run several years.  It takes at least four years to develop a good baseline, and the Soil Carbon Challenge will run a decade, to around 2020, before winners are named.

His ranching background brought Peter to the Challenge.  He has been involved in the holistic range management movement led by Allan Savory.  Also known as active grazing management, this series of practices moves herds across the landscape in a systematic way, rather than letting them move around on their own overgrazing pasture lands.  The result is improved forage growth.  Most of the Challenge participants come from the holistic ranching network.  There are indications these practices do build soil carbon in deep root structure, perhaps to an even greater extent than annual row cropping. But the jury remains out.  Developing a long enough baseline to validate carbon accumulation on grazing lands is crucial.

Farmers and ranchers have a bottom-line interest in building soil carbon because it reduces the need for costly inputs to enhance fertility, Peter notes.  And they are “receptive to the idea of building water in the soil.”  But because of variations in soils, climate and other conditions, developing generalized knowledge on carbon accumulation is notoriously difficult.  That is why local knowledge and examples of success are critical.

“We need to turn leadership to the creativity of land managers,” Peter says.  “The Soil Carbon Challenge shifts leadership to the grassroots.”

Quite literally.

------------------------------

Originally posted at Grist.org and Climate Solutions

Patrick Mazza is research director at Climate Solutions, a Northwest research and advocacy group dedicated to advancing practical global warming solutions. Patrick has written extensively on new energy systems including the smart grid and electrified transportation. Through the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, a project of Climate Solutions and conservation community partners, Patrick is focusing much of his current work on models and policies to improve carbon storage in natural systems.

Discuss

Originally posted at Northwest Biocarbon Initiative

By Rhys Roth

I love pizza, but the anchovies? Not so much. Little did I know that by skipping the anchovies I may actually be helping protect Earth'€™s natural CO2 cleansing system. Anchovy poop, new research suggests, is a really effective biocarbon storage pump. Ah, the wondrous workings of Nature. Follow me below the twisty orange anchovy to learn how this works.
 

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