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Combating Overgrazing To Fight Climate Change: Ranchers

Financial incentives might help other ranchers make changes, he adds.

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Grasslands and the soils beneath them act as giant carbon sinks, the report notes. Flickr
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Meredith Ellis gets a bit rapturous about the little patch of earth under her feet.

When she bought this northern Texas land several years ago, it was overgrazed and overrun with weeds. Now, she’s thrilled to find a dark green blob of fungus she rolls under her sparkly-nail-polished thumb. She picks a tiny patch of the green moss from between clumps of tall brown grass gone dormant with the fall chill.

“Look at all these little bits of biodiversity,” she said. “That’s like a little fantasy world going on in there.”

Bringing it back has been a labor of love — love of the G Bar C Ranch where she grew up, and for the 4-year-old son she’s raising here.

“Everything I do, I think about him now,” she said. “I think about his future, and what is this world going to look like when he’s my age?”

Ellis worries about the droughts, floods and other calamities he may face from climate change. She wonders if there even will be enough food to go around.

It’s a big reason why she raises her cattle a bit differently than most.

The differences not only help to combat climate change. They also provide more clean water. They can even save ranchers money. And if one project goes forward, farmers may get financial rewards for making the changes.

Meadows vs. lawns

Ellis’s fields look like meadows. Her cattle forage among an assortment of thigh-high native grasses.

Ranch
Many of the steps ranchers could take to earn ecosystem service credits would help their bottom lines on ranch anyway. VOA

Other ranches nearby look like giant lawns. Cows have grazed the grass monocultures nearly down to the ground.

The difference matters, says rangeland scientist Jeff Goodwin with the Noble Research Institute, because the native grass is “not only feeding this cow herd. It’s also feeding the underground herd: the microbes, the biology in the soil. That’s what really makes that soil an active, living, breathing system.”

It’s a system with the potential to remove tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The more forage production that we’re getting, the deeper the root systems, the more carbon we’re sequestering out of the atmosphere,” Goodwin added.

That’s increasingly important. Scientists warn that the world needs to do more than just stop producing greenhouse gases in order to avoid the worst of climate change. Carbon dioxide needs to be actively removed from the atmosphere in order to keep the planet from potentially catastrophic warming.

Ranch
Bufflo Ranch. Flickr

While engineers puzzle over high-tech solutions, a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says nature offers tools that are ready to go today.

Valuable ecosystem services

Grasslands and the soils beneath them act as giant carbon sinks, the report notes.

But not if they are overgrazed.

Around the world, one estimate says, about 200 million hectares are overgrazed, an area roughly the size of Mexico.

One study estimates that optimizing grazing could cut greenhouse gas emissionsby about 89 million metric tons, roughly the same as permanently parking 19 million cars.

Plus, overgrazed land erodes more easily. That’s a double whammy. Ranchers lose fertile soil, and it ends up muddying drinking water downstream, which increases the cost to make it tap-ready.

On the other hand, healthy grassland soils that store carbon also store and filter water.

Those benefits should be worth money, Goodwin said. They’re known as ecosystem services, and the Noble Research Institute is working to develop a marketplace for them. Ranchers would earn credits based on their soil’s carbon content and its water storage and filtration capacity.

Ranch
Horse Ranch. Flickr

Some major food and beverage companies are interested in the market. Many have set goals to improve sustainability up and down their supply chains.

“There’s not really a solid path forward” for many of them to meet those goals, Goodwin said. “We feel like we’re sitting in a very good position to be able to provide that opportunity.”

All profits from the soil

Many of the steps ranchers could take to earn ecosystem service credits would help their bottom lines anyway.

“A lot of people want to talk about soil health building as a thing to do for the environment. But really, it’s something we need to be doing for our profitability as well,” said Michael Vance, managing partner at Stark Ranch, a short drive from Ellis’ operation.

“All your profit comes from the soil,” he added.

He stood in a field where cattle had recently been grazing, but you’d never know it. The grass still stood tall. His neighbors don’t understand why he doesn’t let the cows graze it all the way down. They think he’s wasting it.

Also Read: Climate Change To Get Worse in The Future: Study

“We get phone calls where people want to drive a bailer in here and bail up this grass, but they don’t realize the positives that come by leaving it standing,” he said.

The field grows more grass when cattle are moved off it sooner. That means Vance buys less feed.

Even if it’s more profitable, it’s not easy for people to change their ways, and ranchers are a conservative bunch.

“You realize things that you were raised doing, things that your dad and your granddad did, maybe weren’t the best things to do,” Vance said, “from an environmental perspective, maybe from even a profitability perspective.”

Financial incentives might help other ranchers make changes, he adds.

The Noble Research Institute plans to launch a pilot ecosystem services market in 2019 and is aiming for a full rollout in 2022. (VOA)

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Almost 200 Countries Agree On Rules to Curb Global Warming

Countries also agreed to consider the issue of raising ambitions at a U.N. summit in New York next September. 

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Climate Talks, Global Warming
Heads of the delegations react at the end of the final session of the COP24 summit on climate change in Katowice, Poland. VOA

After two weeks of bruising negotiations, officials from almost 200 countries agreed Saturday on universal, transparent rules that will govern efforts to cut emissions and curb global warming. Fierce disagreements on two other climate issues were kicked down the road for a year to help bridge a chasm of opinions on the best solutions.

The deal agreed upon at U.N. climate talks in Poland enables countries to put into action the principles in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

“Through this package, you have made a thousand little steps forward together,” said Michal Kurtyka, a senior Polish official chairing the talks.

He said while each individual country would likely find some parts of the agreement it didn’t like, efforts had been made to balance the interests of all parties.

“We will all have to give in order to gain,” he said. “We will all have to be courageous to look into the future and make yet another step for the sake of humanity.”

United Nations, Global warming
Participants take part in plenary session during COP24 U.N. Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland. VOA

The talks in Poland took place against a backdrop of growing concern among scientists that global warming on Earth is proceeding faster than governments are responding to it. Last month, a study found that global warming will worsen disasters such as the deadly California wildfires and the powerful hurricanes that have hit the United States this year.

Overhaul of the global economy

And a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, concluded that while it’s possible to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times, this would require a dramatic overhaul of the global economy, including a shift away from fossil fuels.

Alarmed by efforts to include this in the final text of the meeting, oil-exporting nations the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked an endorsement of the IPCC report midway through this month’s talks in Katowice. That prompted an uproar from vulnerable countries like small island nations and environmental groups.

Climate Talks, Global warming
A worker dismantles the exhibition pavilion of Austria as the U.N. climate conference drew to a close in Katowice, Poland. VOA

The final text at the U.N. talks omits a previous reference to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and merely welcomes the “timely completion” of the IPCC report, not its conclusions.

Last-minute snags forced negotiators in Katowice to go into extra time, after Friday’s scheduled end of the conference had passed without a deal.

One major sticking point was how to create a functioning market in carbon credits. Economists believe that an international trading system could be an effective way to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and raise large amounts of money for measures to curb global warming.

But Brazil wanted to keep the piles of carbon credits it had amassed under an old system that developed countries say wasn’t credible or transparent.

Push from U.S. 

Among those that pushed back hardest was the United States, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and promote the use of coal.

Climate Talks, global warming
COP24 President Michal Kurtyka speaks during the opening of the COP24 U.N. Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland. VOA

“Overall, the U.S. role here has been somewhat schizophrenic — pushing coal and dissing science on the one hand, but also working hard in the room for strong transparency rules,” said Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington think tank.

When it came to closing potential loopholes that could allow countries to dodge their commitments to cut emissions, “the U.S. pushed harder than nearly anyone else for transparency rules that put all countries under the same system, and it’s largely succeeded.”

“Transparency is vital to U.S. interests,” added Nathaniel Keohane, a climate policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. He noted that the breakthrough in the 2015 Paris talks happened only after the U.S. and China agreed on a common framework for transparency.

“In Katowice, the U.S. negotiators have played a central role in the talks, helping to broker an outcome that is true to the Paris vision of a common transparency framework for all countries that also provides flexibility for those that need it,” said Keohane, calling the agreement “a vital step forward in realizing the promise of the Paris accord.”

Climate Talks, global warming
Polish teenagers stage a protest in the U.N. climate conference venue on the last days of talks to urge negotiators from almost 200 countries to reach an agreement on ways of keeping global warming in check, in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 14, 2018. VOA

Among the key achievements in Katowice was an agreement on how countries should report their greenhouses gas emissions and the efforts they’re taking to reduce them. Poor countries also secured assurances on getting financial support to help them cut emissions, adapt to inevitable changes such as sea level rises and pay for damages that have already happened.

Some not hearing alarms

“The majority of the rulebook for the Paris Agreement has been created, which is something to be thankful for,” said Mohamed Adow, a climate policy expert at Christian Aid. “But the fact countries had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line shows that some nations have not woken up to the urgent call of the IPCC report” on the dire consequences of global warming.

But a central feature of the Paris Agreement — the idea that countries will ratchet up their efforts to fight global warming over time — still needs to be proved effective, he said.

“To bend the emissions curve, we now need all countries to deliver these revised plans at the special U.N. secretary-general summit in 2019. It’s vital that they do so,” Adow said.

United Nations, global warming
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 3, 2018. VOA

In the end, a decision on the mechanics of an emissions trading system was postponed to next year’s meeting. Countries also agreed to consider the issue of raising ambitions at a U.N. summit in New York next September.

Also Read: Green Groups In Brazil Prepare A Climate Change Plan

Speaking hours before the final gavel, Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna suggested there was no alternative to such meetings if countries want to tackle global problems, especially at a time when multilateral diplomacy is under pressure from nationalism.

“The world has changed, the political landscape has changed,” she told The Associated Press. “Still, you’re seeing here that we’re able to make progress, we’re able to discuss the issues, we’re able to come to solutions.” (VOA)