Prairie Soil Could Play A Key Role in Reducing US Carbon Emissions

Northern Plains Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument      Photo: National Park Service

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

An innovative way of decreasing our carbon footprint that is gaining acceptance is sequestering carbon in prairies, The Washington Post recently reported. Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy is designing a system to pay ranchers and farmers to store carbon in their soil.  And large corporations like McDonald’s and Cargill are now pledging to fund restoring grasslands in the Great Northern Plains that will store carbon as well as create habitat for native species. If all the grasslands in the US were used to store carbon, we could sequester up to 1 billion metric tons of carbon each year and could put a significant dent in the nation’s emissions.

Why This Matters: To avoid the effects of global warming, scientists believe the world would need not only to cut out 50% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but also remove existing carbon from the atmosphere.   Storing carbon in native grasslands could be a particularly effective way of siphoning excess carbon from the atmosphere, and doing so also restores soil health. Grass, like all plants, consumes carbon dioxide and stores it in leaves, roots, and stems. Prairie grass is unique in that it keeps the majority of its carbon in its roots and soil — one acre of prairie can store 5 tons of carbon.

Will this save US prairies?

Every year, 2 million acres of US farmland is paved over and developed, and tilling these prairies releases massive amounts of carbon. Creating a financial incentive for landowners to maintain their grasslands could be a turning point in restoring the nation’s prairies.

However, farmers worry that the cost of maintaining natural grasslands outweighs the potential payment for carbon storage. For example, a Texas landowner featured in the Washington Post story, B.F. Hicks, has spent $220,000 on gravel for roads around his property, and $2,500 on a thermal imaging scope to prevent pigs from eating the grass, in addition to fees for fencing. These costs can be steep for farmers, who could make much more money developing their land rather than conserving it.

The Baker Institute hopes to create a market for carbon across the nation— mirroring programs like California’s Forest Carbon Plan. https://news.rice.edu/2019/12/03/baker-institute-led-group-to-develop-nationwide-protocol-for-storing-carbon/, sequestering carbon in prairies could be a win-win for carbon buyers and sellers alike: companies could find a scalable way to offset their carbon footprint, and farmers can rejuvenate their soil.

To Go Deeper:  Watch this short film by The Post about the value of restoring grasslands.

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