Nature-Based Carbon Sinks are Saving Us
Natural carbon sequestration doesn’t always get the attention or appreciation that it deserves. It is sometimes confused with carbon capture, human-engineered solutions for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Or it can be perceived as a solution proposed to delay reducing emissions generated by burning fossil fuels; corporations want to plant trees instead of transitioning to renewable energy. Without a doubt, we must reduce anthropogenic emissions by transitioning to renewable energy, but it would be a dangerous mistake to underestimate and overlook the importance of natural carbon sequestration. Today, healthy ecosystems, which are natural carbon sinks, are preventing catastrophic global warming and sustaining life on this planet. We need to make sure these systems are supported if they are to continue to help us.
A Critical and Proven Solution that is Billions of Years Old
For billions of years, natural carbon sequestration has been an essential part of the global carbon cycle, balancing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere so life can thrive. Carbon sinks, the ocean, plants and soil, absorb and store carbon produced from natural processes such as forest fires, volcanic eruptions and respiration of animals and plants. When animals and plants die, their carbon is absorbed and recycled to create new life. More recently, carbon sinks have been essential in absorbing anthropogenic emissions from agriculture and industry.
California’s Ecosystems Need Protection and Restoration
California’s natural and working lands, forests, farmland, rangeland, grasslands, wetlands and urban green spaces cover more than 90% of the state. Kelp forests, seagrass meadows, salt marshes and wetlands along the state’s coast also absorb carbon – blue carbon. California is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, home to endemic species like the incredible redwood forests which store more carbon dioxide per acre than any other forest, including the Amazon.
Over the past century, the health of our state’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems has deteriorated as California’s population has exploded and consumption increased. California’s population was fewer than 2 million in 1900 and is now more than 39 million. Forests have been damaged by logging and decades of mismanagement, including a policy of fire suppression that is contributing to catastrophic wildfires. Agriculture has transformed much of the state, particularly the Central Valley, where wetlands were drained and replaced with farmland. Destructive farming practices, such as tilling of soil and use of synthetic fertilizers and overgrazing of rangeland, have damaged soil health on millions of acres and contributed to climate change. Development has converted land once covered by carbon-sequestering plants and soil into paved cities and towns that pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
We must protect and restore our degraded natural and working lands to ensure that they continue to sequester carbon and support healthy ecosystems. Failure to do so will result in so much damage to these lands that they will become sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The sad fact is that some lands have already been so degraded that they are carbon sources. Recent research shows that California forests are losing their ability to recover from drought, wildfires and logging. Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to the impact of climate change: heat, drought, floods and other extreme weather events. In fact, natural carbon sequestration is the only climate solution that helps with emission reductions, sequestration, disaster mitigation, and climate adaptation.
Co-Benefits of Natural Sequestration
Policies and practices that support natural carbon sequestration have myriad environmental and public health co-benefits. For example, planting cover crops on agricultural land reduces emissions by reducing the need for mechanical tillage, helps sequester carbon in the soil, increases soil’s water holding capacity, and improves water quality. Compost diverts organic waste from landfills, reducing methane emissions, and can displace use of synthetic fertilizers which pollute air and water and are a significant source of nitrous oxide. Both compost and cover crops improve soil health, resulting in higher crop yields and increased profits for farmers. Recent research shows that regenerative agricultural practices produce more nutrient-dense food with higher levels of vitamins and phytochemicals. This has the potential to shift agriculture’s current focus from quantity (bushels per acre) to quality, which could profoundly impact public health.
Planting trees in urban areas reduces air pollution, mitigates the impact of flooding and filters stormwater, cools city streets, and provides physical and mental health benefits to urban residents in addition to sequestering carbon. Restoration of riparian areas helps to create healthy ecosystems that provide habit and food for insects, birds and other organisms that sustain life on our planet. Forests filter pollutants from water and air and provide habitat for biodiversity.
Conserving and restoring natural and working lands will benefit California’s most vulnerable human residents. The Nature Conservancy has identified 13 nature-based solutions that could be adopted on 28 million acres of the state’s natural and working lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty percent of the 28 million acres fall within disadvantaged and low-income communities. For example, adopting regenerative agricultural practices will reduce the dangers that farm workers currently face when working with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and to communities living near agricultural land treated with chemicals.
More research is needed to increase understanding of natural carbon sequestration, such as accurate measurements of the amount of carbon stored and the permanency of sequestered carbon. Measuring soil carbon is challenging because the type of soil and specific conditions impact sequestration. However, uncertainty about these issues is not a reason to delay adopting policies and practices because there are so many co-benefits to conserving and restoring California’s natural and working lands.
Support AB 2649: The Natural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Act of 2022
The Natural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Act of 2022 (AB 2649) sets California’s first statutory targets for natural carbon sequestration. The bill, sponsored by The Climate Center, defines natural carbon sequestration as “the removal and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalents by vegetation on natural, working, and urban lands.” It seeks technical assistance and support, such as workforce and infrastructure development, for farmers, ranchers and other land managers. AB 2649 addresses environmental justice by allocating 50% of state expenditures for low-income and disadvantaged communities, including historically underserved farmers. The bill has been endorsed by more than 80 groups, including 350 Bay Area Action.
AB 2649 seeks support for programs like The Healthy Soil Program that provides financial assistance to adopt conservation management practices such as use of compost, cover crops and planting hedgerows. Farmer and rancher demand for this program has exceeded available state funding. Additional existing government entities and programs that can support broader implantation of natural carbon sequestration solutions in California can be found in Appendix A of The Nature Conservancy’s report. Take action to support AB 2649 today!