Natural ecosystems like forests, mangroves, peatlands, and tidal marshes have an exceptional capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans.
Plants and soils absorb carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis and store it in biomass and sediment. Conversely, when forests are cut down or coastal ecosystems and soils degraded, net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increase.
To bolster the carbon uptake of these systems, it is important to manage them properly. Countries can take a variety of actions to preserve forest health, including reforestation (reestablishing tree cover in destroyed or degraded forests), extended timber rotations (allowing trees to grow older and larger before harvest), and fire management (restoring forests through activities like thinning and prescribed burning to prevent catastrophic wildfires). Agricultural practices that disturb the soil and release carbon—such as tilling, overgrazing, and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides—can be mitigated through farmer education and policies encouraging agriculture and land-management practices that increase soil carbon. Nature-based solutions have the added benefit of building resilience to climate impacts and improving biodiversity. These solutions can also directly benefit the low-income and historically marginalized communities that have not had access to carbon management practices.
Technology Innovation Examples
Crops and soil can sequester larger amounts of carbon. High carbon-input crop phenotyping, for example, can be achieved by genetically modifying crops or by perennializing grain, seed, and other crops to keep their root residues in the soil. Another approach is to apply biochar (plant matter turned to charcoal) or compost to cropland, which can improve soil health.
Accurate, low-cost, and efficient technologies are needed for quantifying soil carbon and nitrogen stocks in the field. While technologies exist to measure soil carbon and bulk density, they are currently time-consuming and expensive. Developing remote-sensing soil-carbon technology that is economical, accurate, and standardized is fundamental to quantifying and scaling soil carbon sequestration.
Nitrogen measurement technologies also have the potential to significantly improve nitrogen use efficiency, thereby reducing nitrogen losses to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide and to water as nitrate.
Research and Development
Federal investment in research and development (R&D) supports economic growth, drives down costs for key technologies, and promotes U.S. leadership on clean energy and climate. Investment in R&D for nature-based sequestration is driven primarily by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Further R&D for nature-based sequestration comes from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Labs and the Advanced Research Projects Area-Energy’s (ARPA-E’s) ROOTS program.
Federal policymakers should increase investment and enact programmatic reforms to ensure federal agencies focus on advancing R&D for:
- Soil carbon measurement technologies;
- Remote sensing and inventories to support improved carbon data for forest management, blue carbon, and peatlands;
- Next-generation nitrogen management in crop production;
- High-carbon-sequestration and resilient soils, plants, trees, and crops;
- Capture and isolation of CO2 in coastal and deep ocean waters; and
- Carbon mineralization in surface and subsurface rock formations.
Validation and Early Deployment
Before we can deploy natural carbon removal technologies at scale, we must demonstrate and validate their cost and performance in real-world conditions. Demonstration projects reduce the economic and institutional risks of new technologies. As such, the federal government should develop a robust portfolio of demonstration projects for soil management and carbon sequestration best practices that can illustrate their benefits.
Rapid, Large Scale Deployment
Strengthening conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will improve environmental outcomes on farm and ranch land. For example, tying federal financial assistance and crop insurance to conservation practices will reduce erosion, build soil carbon, and increase nitrogen-use efficiency. USDA and Department of Interior conservation programs for forests, grasslands, and wetlands should also be strengthened. These programs will increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Forest-management objectives include maintaining ecological diversity and health, restoring degraded ecosystems, and reducing fire hazards. To coordinate these efforts, regions should share best practices for forestry management and conservation. This type of information sharing occurs at the federal level through the USFS’ network of research stations, which operate under the USDA. The robust research system provides an effective framework for sharing forestry knowledge across the nation, and can be further improved by collecting and sharing data on incentives to increase private landowner engagement with forest management efforts.
The USFS has programs to assist private forest owners who aim to protect their lands (the Forest Stewardship Plan, for example). The federal government can expand these fiscal incentives, through tax credits and payouts, to encourage landowners to employ best practices in forest stewardship. Such programs also increase the long-term economic viability of forest-land ownership.
The federal government can expand programs whose mission is restoring federal forests and coastal wetlands. For instance, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund is now limited to 10 projects per year across the country. Expanding this and other programs can accelerate the restoration of federal forest and wetlands and increase the nation’s natural carbon-removal capacity.