Are offsets — a way of balancing out the carbon one emits — our best chance at addressing climate change? Or are they nothing more than indulgences that assuage guilt? The controversy surrounding offsets has confused people into inaction. Offsets are often a cheap way — sometimes the only way — for one to achieve carbon neutrality. But not all offsets are created equal.
Choosing the Right Offset
To be legitimate, an offset must result in the real reduction of existing direct carbon emissions. Measures that remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as your activity emits can be considered a valid offset. Some offsets, like planting trees that die or take decades to grow, are scams.
My favorite option is funding farmers’ and ranchers’ conversions to regenerative practices. These alternative farming methods (e.g., holistic range management or no-till agriculture) result in a real sequestration of atmospheric carbon. We use Grassroots Carbon at Change Finance to offset the carbon of the stocks we hold in our ETF and the City Different SMA strategy. After extensive research, we believe that Grassroots Carbon is doing the best job of enabling ranchers to switch from industrial meat production (a cause of substantial carbon and methane emissions) to regenerative ranching.
Why Regenerative Ranching
Regenerative ranching is the best way to pull carbon from the air and return it to the soil, where it belongs.
Compared to a tree, grass has 40 times more carbon per weight, with most of its biomass below ground. When cows (and other grazing animals) eat grass, the roots slough poly-saccharides — sugar. This feeds the microbiological community in the soil that mineralizes carbon from the sugar, manure, trampled biomass, and other sources. This is the process that put ten feet of thick black soil into the American Great Plains. Those ten feet of carbon-rich soil are now mere inches, reduced by plowing, fertilization, and other industrial agricultural practices.
But we now know how to put that soil back: regenerative grazing.
In 1993, Gabe Brown, author of “Dirt To Soil,” began farming 2,000 acres near Bismarck, North Dakota. After generations of commodity farming, his soil quality was so poor that the shallow topsoil required annual inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to produce a crop.
In 2006, he introduced regenerative grazing practices. He converted to regenerative agriculture to cut costs that were threatening his business. Gabe implemented no-till production. Then deep-rooted cover crops. These measures allowed Gabe to stop using chemical inputs. This dramatically cut his costs and increased his profitability.
When Gabe bought his farm in 1993, it had 1.3% soil organic matter (soil carbon). By 2013, he had plots with more than 11% soil organic matter, some higher. As Gabe puts it, if your soil is healthy, you will have clean water, clean air, healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy people. In short, you will have a healthy ecosystem.
The Power of One Percent
Every 1% increase in soil organic matter sequesters five tons of carbon per acre, per year and increases water holding capacity by 20,000 gallons.
Scientists know that the earth decarbonized itself, from a CO2 concentration of 1,000 parts per million in the atmosphere to the 280 ppm that existed when humans first evolved. Scientist Greg Retallack published a paper showing that “global expansion of grasslands and their newly evolved, carbon-rich soils over the past 40 million years induced global cooling and ushered in Pleistocene glaciation.”
We can decarbonize again, using the same mechanism of grazing animals while regenerating rural economies. If we were to sequester one ton of carbon a year over all the world’s grasslands it would be possible over 60 to 100 years’ time to return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 280 ppm. That’s the equivalent of returning to the pre-industrial level. That’s one big offset.