Like the water cycle, carbon takes different forms as it cycles through the ocean, land and atmosphere.
In the gaseous form — carbon dioxide — it is absorbed by vegetation, which in turn is eaten by animals. At death, the carbon is returned to the soil as organic matter — accumulating over the eons into coal and oil deposits.
Since the onset of the industrial revolution, however, burning of these fossil fuels has created an imbalance in the cycle leading to a steady increase in atmospheric CO2.
Preindustrial CO2 levels measured about 280 ppm while present levels are closer to 380 ppm.
(Claudio Stockle, chair of biological systems engineering, develops computer modeling programs for agricultural systems — such as CropSyst, which is used by researchers worldwide. He and his team are working on a new software program called C-Farm, which will be used to analyze the potential for soil carbon sequestration. Photo by Becky Phillips)
Today, investigators in the field of carbon science are studying the complex relationships between carbon reservoirs and climate change in hopes of stabilizing CO2 levels.
WSU researchers Claudio Stockle, David Huggins and Hal Collins are among those seeking to balance carbon levels through farming innovations such as carbon sequestration studies, agricultural systems modeling and cropping system projects.
Banking on carbon
According to Chad Kruger, WSU Climate Friendly Farming program spokesman, one mandate of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty is to offset CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions through market-based trading of carbon credits.
“The mandatory carbon-credit market doesn’t exist in the U.S. because we did not sign the Kyoto agreement,” said Kruger, “but we likely will see some type of climate bill, such as Lieberman-Warner, passed by Congress within the next two years.”
In such a system, “emitters,” such as fossil fuel power plants, are allowed to buy carbon credits from CO2 “fixers” — farmers or landowners who plant trees.
“Farmers can reduce their (production) emissions and sell their credit to larger companies who need it … like energy utilities with a lot of coal in their portfolios,” Kruger said.
“Green tags,” or renewable energy certificates, are available and offer consumers the chance to buy “green” energy. Buying a tag guarantees a certain amount of sustainable energy — such as wind, solar or biogas power — will go into the electrical grid on the buyer’s behalf. Washington state requires utility companies to offer green-tag credit to its customers.
At Avista, the “Buck-A-Block” program allows consumers to buy 300 kilowatt-hour blocks of renewable energy for a dollar.
Washington is also among states signing the Western Climate Initiative, which Kruger said “will bring us in line with Kyoto Treaty goals by committing to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.”
Adding to the incentive, Gov. Christine Gregoire recently signed the Climate Action & Green Jobs law. It creates a structure and timeline for implementing the state’s Learning-to-Love-Global-Warming pollution reduction goals and creates a program to prepare Washington workers for good jobs in the clean energy economy, providing pathways out of poverty for lower-income communities.
Kruger, a member of the governor’s climate advisory team, said, “A majority of the ag related proposals in the governor’s package were directly influenced by WSU research.”