Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carbon Management is the Key

by Joe Anderson, Chairman Idaho Wheat Commission

As we hear about the horrors that may befall us as a result of climate change brought on by mankind’s utilization of fossil fuels, I become concerned that we may do some of the right stuff but for the wrong reasons. And even more worrisome is that we may do a lot of the wrong stuff.

We must greatly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. However, there are ample reasons to reduce fossil fuel use that go far beyond concerns with climate change.

There is limited understanding of what carbon is, what the carbon cycle is, and what role man plays. I am an American farmer, not an organic chemist nor a climatologist. But, I see the miracle of how carbon dioxide (CO2), through photosynthesis, is utilized by the green plant to convert the energy of the sun to food, fiber and energy. Carbon is the building block of life. All living things are made of carbon (organic) compounds. When organic compounds are consumed, burned or decompose, oxygen (O2) is taken from the atmosphere and CO2 is released. The CO2 is then available for other green plants to convert the sun’s energy. Plant residue left on the soil is used as food for microorganisms. Soil organic matter is produced. Soil organic matter provides for soil health. A healthy soil can hold water and manage nutrients for plant growth. Hence we have a Carbon Cycle. A more complete and sophisticated description can be found at:

There are the same number of atoms of carbon in the world today as when God built it. Carbon takes the form of CO2; organic compounds in living and dead things, along with the products they produce; and fossil fuels that were living things eons ago. Long ago, instead of there being petroleum, coal and natural gas buried in the ground, the Earth’s carbon was above the ground. The atmosphere was rich in CO2 and green plant growth was lush.

Much of the discussion on climate change is centered on how CO2 can be stored. These discussions range from producing biochar to injecting CO2 into old oil wells to mixing it with cement and burying it. All of these options come at considerable cost. There are proposals to either cap or tax those that emit CO2 to encourage them to either use less carbon or use some of these questionable methods to store CO2. Other proposals would enable emitters to buy offsets from those that store CO2.

Our challenge should not be how can we store CO2. Our objective should be to manage carbon to better utilize the miraculous capability of the green plant to covert CO2 and the sun’s energy and to enhance soil qualities that provide for optimum plant growth.

By some estimates, only four percent of the energy from the sun that strikes the Earth’s surface is converted by green plants. What if we could make that six or eight percent? If we increase yields, or plants grow under less hospitable conditions, not only would more CO2 be converted by the sun’s energy, but less of that energy would be reflected in the form of heat.

We are going to have to figure this out. Within fifty years there will be twice as many people to feed. We may well need all the atmospheric CO2 we can find to meet this challenge. Remember, there are a finite number of carbon atoms on Earth and all living things contain and consume a lot of carbon.

We need a massive effort to increase efficiencies of photosynthesis, nutrient use, water use, etc. of green plants. Increased efficiencies can only happen through science and education. But, we keep constraining our ability to meet this challenge because of budget issues.

We need to expend and focus our energies and resources to increase the efficiency and ability of green plants to convert the energy of the sun into food, fiber and energy. Options that focus on storing carbon are ill-conceived and short sighted. Using less fossil fuel has many positive benefits that may or may not include concerns of climate change. In any event, the miracle of green plant growth provides our most promising alternative.

The cup is half full, not half empty!

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