One Good Idea

Add Carbon Sinks to the Climate Treaty

Could ‘restorative development’ reverse climate change?

This illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 5/23/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.  
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Molly Mirhashem
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Molly Mirhashem
May 22, 2015, 12:36 a.m.

William Moomaw has an idea that he believes will help to reverse climate change: “restorative development,” which he hopes will play a role in the international climate negotiations slated for later this year in Paris. I spoke with Moomaw, a professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, about his proposal. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.

—Molly Mirhashem

Could you explain “restorative development”?

We’re adding gases to the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, and this is not something that we can turn off in the future when we don’t like it. But if we could actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more rapidly than natural processes, like absorption by existing plants, then we could reduce the amount of warming. I think the simplest and most direct way to do that is to restore a lot of damaged forests, grasslands, agricultural soils, and wetland soils that have lost their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.

(David Senior)

What does this concept look like in practice?

One example: Two-thirds of all the world’s grasslands have been degraded by overgrazing in some way so that they are less productive. We’re raising cattle, sheep, and goats to graze in a way that basically destroys the grasslands.

If you look at the world before we began doing this, the Great Plains of America supported somewhere between 40 and 60 million wild bison. But they didn’t overgraze it, because of the way in which they eat grass. They eat a little bit and move on, whereas domestic livestock stand in one place until the grass is gone and then move on.

It has now been demonstrated on millions of acres of land in Africa, North America, Australia, and Asia that it is possible to manage cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals in a way that restores the grasslands, rather than simply taking from them. It’s a more labor-intensive method that requires moving animals periodically throughout grazing, so that they don’t overgraze any one area. It dramatically increases agricultural output. We could get a benefit of more livelihood, more food, and a more productive system that would start actively absorbing, rather than releasing, carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

What would it take logistically to make this happen? Does legislation need to be passed?

It’s happening now in some places without legislation being passed, but it would certainly be a lot faster if we could make use of some of the institutions that we already have. Changing how we support agriculture and livestock production, and the way we manage forest lands for timber production, would require some new policies locally, nationally, and perhaps internationally.

And part of that policy shift could be adding a section to the agreement made at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris?

Yes. The original climate treaty in 1992 recognizes “sinks”—which are the soils, forests, and grasslands that can absorb carbon dioxide—as a method of mitigating carbon emissions. That treaty said this should count toward each country’s efforts to reduce emissions. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the discussions of the new treaty that would say how sinks might be counted. And that’s unfortunate. There should be some provision to give countries credit for enhancing their forests, restoring their grasslands, and restoring carbon to soil in agricultural production.

What first got you thinking about this?

Global warming is really a symptom in the same way a fever is a symptom of an infection. If you just treat the fever and leave the underlying infection, you don’t solve the problem. There’s a system that’s already in place for resolving this, a system that we are compromising: the natural world. I began looking into it and discovered there were bits and pieces of restorative development happening all over the world, but nobody was seeing it in a comprehensive manner.

What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks to the idea?

The biggest problem is that people say, “Well, we’ve never done it that way before.” And particularly in agriculture, people do things the way their father or grandfather did because it worked for them. What they don’t fully appreciate is that we have changed the world so much that those techniques may no longer work the way they did for prior generations.

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