President Barack Obama and the leaders of the industrialized (read: carbon emitting) nations of the world have
failed to turn the planet away from its plunge off the climate-change cliff. Fortunately,
there are people showing
them the way.
Here in the North Bay, efforts to combat the climate crisis are in full effect. We profile three of them in this year’s annual Green Issue. (Also read this week’s Open Mic from the Climate Protection Campaign’s Ann Hancock, p6). While none of these groups can save the world on their own—at least not yet—their actions are essential for showing the rest of us and our ineffectual leaders what can and must be done.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The effects of climate change are already upon us—extreme weather, changing ecosystems, mass extinction, failing crops. The doomsday scenarios will continue to unspool.
Is it too late? Maybe. But isn’t it better to do what we can? Let those leading the fight against climate change in the North Bay serve as our inspiration.
MARIN CARBON PROJECT
Most efforts to cool the planet focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and switching to cleaner, more energy efficient technologies. But there’s another approach that gets far less attention: carbon sequestration, which involves taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the ground, where most of it came from.
The Marin Carbon Project (MCP) has been quietly doing that work for the past six years. When the Bohemian first reported on the project in our 2012 Green Issue, they were very much in the proof-of-concept stage. They have since scaled up and taken the show on the road.
“It’s better than successful,” says co-founder John Wick.
The project began after researchers noticed that dairy ranches with high concentration of manure spread over them had high levels of carbon and organic matter in the soil, greener grass, and greater water retention. Guided by UC Berkeley scientist Whendee Silver, the researchers applied a half inch of compost to a test plot on Wick’s ranch in West Marin to see what was going on. They were thrilled by what they discovered underground.
After one year, test plots showed at least one ton of carbon per hectare. A year later, without adding additional compost, they found another ton of carbon in the soil. Same thing the year after that. And on it went.
If adopted widely enough, Wick believes the technique can make agriculture a global carbon sink and bring atmospheric carbon down.
“We can actually do this,” he says.
Tory Estrada, who serves on the MCP’s steering committee and is policy director for the Carbon Cycle Institute, the nonprofit organization that oversees the MCP, is working with ranchers to show them what compost and a host of techniques like restoring native plants and waterways will do for their soil—and their bottom lines.
Not all farmers are concerned about climate change, so he doesn’t always lead with benefits to the climate, but ranchers are very concerned about the cost of importing hay during times of drought. According to MCP research, using their techniques results in an average of 50 percent more grass growth because the soil holds more water. And banked carbon in the soil will become a valuable commodity as the cap-and-trade market grows.
Disseminating these practices via local resource conservation districts throughout the country could kickstart a whole new approach to farming—and a cooler climate. Estrada hopes better soil and pasture management will lead to agriculture being seen as an incentivized climate solutions, like electric vehicles and solar power, which both enjoy public subsidies.
“That’s when this thing will go viral,” he says.
Meanwhile, Wick is working with San Francisco to help nullify the city’s carbon emissions to make it the world’s first “climate beneficial city.” He’s also talking with Levi’s, the North Face and Patagonia to explore sourcing wool from carbon sequestering farms. Cool stuff for a hot planet.—Stett Holbrook
Trathen Heckman is in his backyard micro-ecosystem with the buzzing honeybees and the kiwis, the root medicines and the roosters, as he explains the mission of Daily Acts, the Petaluma organization he founded.
Heckman, a former pro snowboarder and happy refugee from corporate America, decided about 10 years ago that he wanted to become “less a part of the problem,” as he puts it, and set his shoulder to the wheel of activism with a plan to give people the tools and skills to act locally while fretting globally. He was feeling, he says, “a lack of connection, a lack of vitality.”
He was out there slogging away in the Babylonian trenches, until 9-11 and the death of his mom, twin events which became the catalyst for Heckman to zero-in on how he wanted to live. He sought out pioneer activists in what was then a new world of backyard wetland-to-forest systems, admired their spirit and sensibilities and wondered, he says with a gleam and a laugh, “what’s in their Wheaties?
Enter Daily Acts, a nonprofit that offers workshops, actions, networking and other activities to help engender a shared sense of connectivity, vitality and a general community joie de vivre that is heavy on volunteer labor and cross-generational appeal. Among its other successes, Daily Acts has spearheaded legislative efforts in Sonoma County, for example, to make it easier for people to set up graywater-reuse systems in their homes, through a project called the “Laundry to Landscape” program.
This is the lingo of the lush and fecund backyard ecosystem, replete with propagation guilds and edible landscapes, sustainability tours and “mulch madness” parties. Daily Acts also brings the edible-ecosystem model to schools, churches, government plots and, critically, minority communities. Heckman’s wise to the elitism critique and notes that the organization recently put together its 100 Salsa Gardens project that came complete with lots of donated wine barrels and buy-in from the county’s large Latino population. Add “ecological equity” to the vernacular.
We’re living in a period characterized by a “confluence of crises unlike anything we’ve seen in human history,” Heckman says as he plucks raspberries and boysenberries from his backyard food forest. With a sweep of his arms, he describes the layers, from the root medicines down below to the top of a lone towering redwood, with layers in-between yielding a bounty that Heckman says runs from between 500 and 1,000 pounds of food a year.
It’s a living embodiment of human-scaled efforts to combat climate change, a marvel of sustainable cool that pushes back against hardened notions of suburban life.
The “crabgrass frontier,” as described by Kenneth Jackson in his landmark 1985 study of the same name on the social construct of suburbia, is giving way, slowly, to an actual model of down-home “conservative” values that highlights, well, actually conserving things, appreciating their value, and reusing resources instead of wasting them.
Heckman’s efforts speak to a curious—and welcome—turn of events in the development of the American suburb.
The suburban boom in the
U.S. kicked into gear in the post–WW II era, when cookie-cutter neighborhoods were carved out of farm fields for returning veterans. The war years themselves had seen the phenomenon of the “Victory Garden,” where Americans were encouraged to do their part to beat fascism by growing lettuce and tomatoes at home. Once the war ended, the homegrown gardens gave way to grass planted on former farmland, and the eco-nighmare lawnmowers invaded, like Patton.
Nowadays, efforts such as Heckman’s are part of a new push to achieve victory over the global scourge of rising temperatures and sea levels which has, despite the best efforts of the climate-change deniers, manifested in tangible impacts, such as the drowning of the Florida Keys and hundred-year storms that happen every three years.
For his part in this new war effort, Heckman installed a 1,500-gallon water tank that captures rainwater from his gutters and recirculates it throughout the property. The tank helps create the ground-level wetland that supports all measure of berries, fruits and veggies, stuff like jasmine, garlic and Pakistani black mulberries, and a plum tree that’s been grafted so several varieties grow from the main trunk.
Daily Acts’ offices are several blocks away from his homestead, and Heckman notes that you can see what his organization’s efforts have yielded. Most of the homes here in pretty Petaluma hew to standardized suburban practices of green lawns and mowers thereon, but every so often, there’s a wildflower outlier that’s been given over to an edible front yard.
“It was such a different world a decade ago,” he says.—Tom Gogola
SONOMA BIOCHAR PROJECT
There is a substance that’s easy to make that could reverse the trend of global warming, increase plant production, retain water and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. No, it isn’t that magic extraterrestrial spice from Dune; it’s something everyone can make in their own backyard. It can be scaled up for large projects. It can even be made as a byproduct of energy production. It’s virtually unknown to most of the world. It’s biochar.
“It seems too good to be true,” says David Morell, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and project manager of the Sonoma Biochar Project. “If it’s as good as its proponents say, why isn’t it used everywhere? And it feels like magic—we’re sequestering carbon, capturing energy, helping plants grow, saving the planet, yadda, yadda. And that makes something hard to sell.
“I’ve actually run seminars on this,” adds Morell. “‘If it’s such a good idea, why aren’t we doing more of it?’ The answer has to do with marketing.”
Let’s back up a step. First of all, what is biochar? It’s basically charcoal made from biomass like plants and trees that have been pyrolized—that is, burned at very high temperatures (650–930 degrees) without fire. “The heat drives off all the gasses that are in the wood, leaving pure, elemental carbon behind,” explains Morell. Carbon is retained much more efficiently through this process, and that sequestered carbon can be buried in the earth, where it retains about 80 percent of its carbon for at least a hundred years, according to Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University, one of the nation’s leading biochar scientists.
Lehmann theorizes that 10 to 12 percent of the world’s carbon emissions can be offset by replacing a slash-and-burn technique with slash-and-char, which would turn the waste plants into biochar through on-site pyrolisis units. So far, biochar has proven to be the most realistic—if not the only—carbon-negative energy production method we’ve ever known.
The idea of burying charred wood goes back to about 2,500 B.C.E., when indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest began making and burying primitive biochar to make the notoriously infertile soil better for growing crops. They didn’t worry about carbon sequestration, however. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 280 ppm in 1750 to 367 ppm in 1999, according to data from Cornell University, and the levels of today have not been exceeded at any time in the past 420,000 years.
But the data on biochar’s big four benefits—carbon sequestration, soil health, water conservation and energy production—only goes back about 15 or 20 years, says Morell. His work focuses largely on water retention, which he says has shown, in some cases, to be as high as 8 percent more than non-biochar soil.
The Sonoma Biochar Project kicked into gear with a $75,000 federal grant in October—which was matched by the Sonoma County Water Agency and by passionate experts like Morell and farms like Green String and Swallow Valley—to build the county’s first integrated biochar production system. It makes about 500 pounds of biochar per day, enough to just about cover a quarter-acre. Even with this breakthrough—they designed and built the unit from scratch to ensure minimal air emissions—they’re on “the low end” of biochar production. “It’s like buying a car that you have to crank on the front,” says Morell, adding that the top-tier units cost upwards of $250,000.
As for marketing, that’s something Raymond Baltar has been working on as director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, the nonprofit arm of the Sonoma Ecology Center which oversees the Sonoma Biochar Project. “There is not a huge market right now for biochar,” he says. “It’s growing, but it’s still pretty small compared to other soil amendments out there because it’s so new.”
For his MBA thesis at Dominican University, Baltar wrote a business plan for a gassification program at the Sonoma County landfill that also produced biochar. “We showed pretty conclusively that in order to make the project work you needed biochar and the electricity generation portion of it,” he says.
“Initially, I think, biochar caught wide attention because of the potential for carbon sequestration,” says Morell. “Putting carbon effectively into the ground is an attractive process. But the economics of that is near zero. In the U.S., we have no carbon credits. We have no ability to generate economic return from dealing with the planet’s climate challenge. That’s kinda crazy, but it’s true.”
One of the downsides raised about biochar is that if this is done at scale, people might start farming trees just to make biochar.
“But that might help carbon dioxide absorption anyway,” Baltar says.—Nicolas Grizzle