IN THIS ISSUE – “Died With A Pretty Resounding Thud”
- First Big Money Ad Opens Governor’s Race
- Lt. Gov. Newsom Often MIA
- Villaraigosa Finds Path to Governor Goes Through Fresno
- Housing Reform Bill Ends With “A Resounding Thud”
DAMS & DIRT
- Feds Advance Shasta Dam Raise
- Plants: The Simplest Carbon-Reduction Machines
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
Ideas and inquiries are welcome: email@example.com
Stay current daily! For our focused updates via Twitter: @jrgualco / @robertjgore / @gualcogroup
FOR THE WEEK ENDING April 20, 2018
READ ALL ABOUT IT!!
First Big Money Ad Opens Governor’s Race
A big-money ad war in California’s governor’s race officially started Thursday when a billionaire-backed independent expenditure campaign touting Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa launched a “seven-figure” buy that will blast a commercial on TV screens statewide for at least a week.
The 30-second spot, titled “Ahead,” is intended to introduce the former Los Angeles mayor to voters who may not have been paying close attention to the June 5 primary race. It says violent crime in L.A. dropped by nearly 50 percent during Villaraigosa’s time in office, from 2005 to 2013, an assertion that the nonpartisan fact-checkers at Politifact California rate as “mostly true.”
The ad is funded by an organization called Families and Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018, which is run by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates. Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pledged $7 million to the independent group, and Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur Eli Broad promised $1.5 million.
The money is helpful to the Villaraigosa camp, which had only $5.9 million cash on hand at the end of 2017— less than a third of what Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom had. Campaigns and independent expenditure group are banned from coordinating their activities or co-mingling funds.
Most polls show that Newsom is leading the race, with Villaraigosa. John Cox, a GOP businessman from Rancho Santa Fe (San Diego County), for the other spot in the general election.
But backers of the pro-Villaraigosa independent expenditure group think voters are still searching for their favorite candidate in a race that has yet to catch fire. Newsom isn’t running away from the field, and about a third of voters remain undecided, said Josh Pulliam, a political consultant running the independent group.
Lt. Gov. Newsom Often MIA
After Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor, he repeatedly made clear his frustration with the job and its lack of responsibilities. The official portfolio for the office is thin, including sitting on boards that oversee the state’s higher education system and public lands, leading an economic council and serving as acting governor when California’s chief executive is out of state or otherwise unavailable.
Newsom, now the front-runner in the governor’s race, missed scores of meetings held by the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees and the California State Lands Commission, according to a Times review of attendance records.
He attended 54% of UC Regents meeting days, 34% for Cal State and 57% for state lands, according to a Times review of attendance records between 2011 and 2018. The Times included in the tally days when Newsom was present for only part of the day, and excluded days when Newsom had no committee meetings or other official business to attend.
Membership of the three panels is the most prominent duty of a lieutenant governor, a post considered to be largely ceremonial.
“There’s no denying that the official responsibilities of the lieutenant governor are more modest than some other constitutional offices — the English call it an ‘heir and a spare,'” said former California Gov. Gray Davis, who was lieutenant governor before being elected to lead the state. “But 43 states have a lieutenant governor whose primary function is to step in if something happens to the governor.”
Newsom’s opponents have criticized him for failing to fully participate in the three panels, which set policy on tuition, athletics programs and expansion for much of the state’s higher-education system, and manage issues including oil drilling and access to some of California’s publicly owned lands.
“Californians are working harder than ever before just to stay in the middle class. It appears Gavin Newsom is hardly working — or at least not working for the people who pay his salary,” said Luis Vizcaino, a spokesman for former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Newsom defended his record, saying it paralleled that of other elected officials on the panels.
“I’ve tried not to be the quote-unquote politician on the board. I tried to avoid being the guy who shows up just to give the press release. I tried to be constructive and I tried to be engaged,” he said in an interview. “Every tough vote, we were there — the ones that matter, the close votes.”
Observers of the UC and Cal State panels agreed that the elected officials on the boards had spottier attendance than appointees. The State Lands Commission comprises three members, so when one is absent, he or she typically sends an alternate to voice concerns and vote on the member’s behalf. Attendance on the panels has previously been raised as a campaign issue — Republican Dan Lungren poked Davis about his absences during a 1998 gubernatorial debate.
Newsom’s Democratic rivals in the race — state Treasurer John Chiang, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and Villaraigosa — held various roles on the same three boards during prior terms in elected office. Chiang served on the State Lands Commission when he was controller, and Villaraigosa and Eastin sat on the UC and Cal State boards while serving as Assembly speaker and state superintendent of public instruction, respectively.
They also failed to attend many meetings.
Chiang attended 46% of Lands Commission meeting days between 2007 and 2014 when he was state controller. Villaraigosa and Eastin each attended less than 10% of the Cal State meetings during their time on that board. Though they both routinely skipped UC meetings, the full picture of their attendance is unclear due to a lack of available records documenting their time on the boards in the 1990s.
But their jobs at the time were more demanding than the role of lieutenant governor. The speaker must be in Sacramento during the legislative session, and the state schools chief oversees curriculum, testing and finances for the 6.3 million students in the state’s schools. As controller, Chiang was California’s chief bookkeeper, administering the state’s payroll and serving on more than 70 boards and commissions.
Newsom’s responsibilities as lieutenant governor are much more limited in scope, a point he has frequently drawn attention to.
Before he ran for lieutenant governor in 2010, he derided the role as having “no real authority and no real portfolio.”
After he was elected, he drafted legislation to put the office of lieutenant governor on the gubernatorial ticket — similar to how a president and vice president are elected together — but couldn’t find a legislator to carry the bill. If elected governor, Newsom said he hopes to revisit the proposal.
Two years into the job, during a break in filming his Current TV show, Newsom was asked by friend and hotelier Chip Conley how frequently he went to Sacramento.
“Like one day a week, tops,” Newsom said. “There’s no reason.… It’s just so dull.”
A few months later, as a Times reporter trailed Newsom in the Capitol, he stopped when a woman asked him to pose for a picture with her son. The boy asked him what a lieutenant governor does.
“I ask myself that every day,” Newsom replied.
He has repeatedly joked about the post over the years, including in an interview with The Times during his 2014 reelection campaign when he paraphrased a line from then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, himself a former lieutenant governor: “Wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor’s name doesn’t appear in there, go back to sleep.”
Garry South, a former advisor to Newsom who is not publicly backing a candidate in the governor’s race, recalled urging him to knock it off.
“I did convey to him on a couple of occasions … that I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell voters they had elected you to a worthless position,” South said. “To his credit, I think he’s done much less of that in the last few years.”
Newsom said that the transition from mayor of San Francisco — when he worked on issues including same-sex marriage, universal healthcare and homelessness — to lieutenant governor was difficult.
“In honesty, I totally get it. I’m not even going to be defensive about it. There was absolutely early frustration. That’s all it represented years and years ago,” he said, noting that his time in Sacramento has been much slower than his life as mayor, a change he described as a “major cultural transition.” “It’s a different pace. That was reflected in those lazy comments of mine [that] I by definition regret because we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But it expressed a sentiment at the time.”
Newsom said he grew into his job and realized he could use his bully pulpit to promote issues he cared about, including successful 2016 ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana and implement stricter gun controls.
Still, Newsom’s statements about his job have provided plenty of fodder for his rivals.
“If he was so bored, why did he refuse to show up for his job on the UC Board of Regents, or on the CSU Board of Trustees or at the State Lands Commission? Where was Gavin when he was supposed to be working on behalf of all the Californians who actually show up for their jobs?” said Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Chiang. “California needs a serious leader, not someone who’s in it just for show.”
But parties with business before the panels and fellow members said Newsom has been active and attentive when present.
“He has been engaged and thoughtful, and particularly interested in the financial structures and financial stability and financial accountability,” said Shane White, chairman of UC’s Academic Senate and a dentistry professor at UCLA.
A fellow UC regent, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about Newsom’s tenure on the board, agreed.
“He’s been substantially more engaged than the vast majority of elected officials who have served on the board,” said the regent, who is unaligned in the race. “He does his homework.”
Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a Villaraigosa backer who sits on the UC Regents board, said Newsom’s attendance is not that different from other elected officials who sit on the panel.
“If you want to hit him for attendance, it’s a valid hit. If you want to hit him for only being involved in the most high-profile issues, it’s a valid hit. But it’s not inconsistent with other ex officio board members,” Pérez said, adding that he personally liked Newsom and the two men frequently voted on controversial issues the same way. “The difference is he made such a big deal about [how] the office doesn’t do anything, and then he doesn’t go to the things it does.”
Villaraigosa Finds Path to Governor Goes Through Fresno
Antonio Villaraigosa is not the sort of politician who would scuff his well-shined shoes with the dust from San Joaquin Valley farms, or so you might think.
And yet the natty former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker is going beyond traditional Democratic sources of money in Hollywood, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley as he fights for his political life in the race for governor.
The one-time union organizer and Southern California ACLU board member has tapped farmers, many of them Republicans, for more than $640,000, nearly 10 percent of the money he has raised since the start of 2017, a CALmatters analysis of his campaign contributions shows.
This unlikely pairing of the big-city Democrat and farmers suggests that Villaraigosa sees central California as a path to one of the top two slots in the June primary election so he can compete in the November run-off—presumably against the front-runner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Villaraigosa will be in Modesto later this month for a fundraiser hosted by almond growers, one of dozens of trips he has made as a candidate to the Other California. It’s paying off. Political action committees representing pistachio growers, berry farmers and dairy operators have given him $20,000 or more each.
J.G. Boswell Co., one the state’s largest farmland owners, has given him $50,000. Fresno almond farmer Donald Peracchi chipped in $25,000. Peracchi is president of the Westlands Water District, which supplies water to farms in Fresno and Kings counties, and no issue is more important to farmers than water.
Sarah Woolf said Villaraigosa spent “two full days” with her Fresno-based farming operation last year, “learning about water and agriculture,” and has returned multiple times since.
“He wasn’t coming with answers. He was coming to listen,” said Woolf, a Republican. Woolf Farming donated $15,000 to his campaign.
Villaraigosa supports the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir east of Fresno and Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, projects embraced by farmers. He opposes the Delta tunnel project, intended to deliver water from the Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, as too divisive. And he calls for a “grand bargain” to end water wars. Governors including Jerry Brown have tried that.
In the Fresno County town of Reedley, Dan Gerawan and his family lay claim to being the nation’s largest growers of peaches, plums and nectarines.
Gerawan also has the distinction of being the target of Cesar Chavez’s last organizing drive, in 1990, before the iconic founder of the United Farm Workers died in 1993. Ever since, Gerawan and the union have been enmeshed in an epic struggle that has spread from the fields to the California Agriculture Labor Relations Board, the Legislature and the courts. It continues to this day.
On Feb. 9, Gerawan gave $5,000 to Villaraigosa’s run for governor, one of the few times Gerawan has donated to a Democrat. Two weeks later, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez delivered the union’s endorsement of Villaraigosa: “Antonio has consistently stood with and worked with farm workers in good times and tough times over the course of many years.”
“Farmers and workers share a lot of the same goals,” Villaraigosa told CALmatters. “They want a healthy economy and they want the Central Valley to get its fair share.”
Villaraigosa arrived in Sacramento as a liberal, hardly a go-to legislator for farmers. The first bill he introduced as a freshman assemblyman in 1995 would have raised income taxes on rich people. In another early bill, he aimed to tax bullets. Republicans still had clout in Sacramento then, so neither bill got far. Later, as Assembly speaker, he helped make Chavez’s birthdate a paid holiday for state workers, with votes from several Republicans.
Farmers might prefer a Republican as governor. But they can count. With Republicans only a fourth of California’s voters, a Democrat almost surely will succeed Brown, who is leaving because of term limits.
They are wary of Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, seeing him as too liberal.
In March, Newsom and Villaraigosa raised more than $3 million between them, their biggest fund-raising month of the campaign. But they are limited by caps on contributions. Not so wealthy individuals beyond the candidates’ control. That became evident recently when Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad infused an independent, pro-charter-school campaign fund with $8.5 million to benefit Villaraigosa, a supporter of the cause. Expect more in the days ahead.
For now, Newsom has a significant lead, followed by Republican businessman John Cox and Villaraigosa, according to the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. But many voters are undecided. That’s especially true in the San Joaquin Valley, where 29 percent of the likely voters have not made up their minds.
No wonder, then, that Villaraigosa, Cox and other leading candidates for governor will appear at a debate later this month in Fresno, though Newsom is skipping it. The race in June is one for second place.
Nor is it surprising that Cox, who lives in the San Diego area, is airing a radio ad in the Central Valley deriding “L.A. Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.” The ad singles out Villaraigosa’s support for spending “billions on the bullet train.” Cox knows the high-speed rail project being built in the Fresno area is unpopular in the valley, particularly among Republicans who might be tempted to vote for Villaraigosa.
“For the political elites, the Central Valley is just another whistle stop,” Cox’s ad says.
Yes, it is a whistle stop for out-of-town politicians. But for Villaraigosa, it’s also an ATM and, he hopes, a well of votes.
Housing Reform Bill Goes Out With “A Resounding Thud”
The most controversial state housing bill in recent memory died with a pretty resounding thud.
Senate Bill 827, which would have forced cities to allow taller, denser development around public transit, got only four votes on the 13-member Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers voted against the bill.
Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, Democrat from San Francisco, the bill would have allowed developers to build five-story apartment buildings near major public transit stops, including neighborhoods previously zoned for single family homes. The bill received a ton of media attention, including a fairly flattering write-up on the front page of the New York Times.
Urbanist “Yes in My Backyard” (YIMBY) groups mourned the bill’s death as yet another roadblock to building the new housing the state so desperately needs. Cities and anti-gentrification groups cheered the demise of what they viewed as an unprecedented inroad on local control.
What to make of all the hubub? Some key takeaways:
Enemies, enemies, got a lot of enemies
It’s tough for anyone to take on cities and counties, who wield enormous power in Sacramento and to whom state legislators often give considerable deference. It’s tough for anyone to take on the construction trades’ union, a major source of campaign contributions for Democratic lawmakers. It’s tough for anyone to take on equity and social justice groups, who can bend the ear of progressive legislators.
It’s really tough to take on all three at the same time. That likely wasn’t Sen. Wiener’s strategy when he first introduced SB 827, but that’s ultimately what helped doom the bill. The support of realtors, developers, YIMBYs and a handful of affordable housing advocates couldn’t muster the votes he needed.
Supporters of the bill arguably made a misstep in not courting social justice groups early enough. A flurry of amendments to protect renters from being displaced and to force developers to include units reserved for lower-income tenants failed to calm their concerns.
Last year, Wiener was able to push through a bill that stripped local control over some housing developments by getting labor and affordability advocates on his side. That bill was also part of a larger package of housing legislation that had something for everyone, including a new revenue source. Gov. Jerry Brown was a driving force behind that package.
None of that that happened this time.
building next to a single-family home. But taking away the power of local governments to block those types of developments was a pretty radical step—a step that a growing number of Californians think is necessary to prevent cities from obstructing new housing.
The bill received a ton of media attention, both in California and nationally. It garnered support from prominent urban planners, environmentalists and civil rights advocates. It’s both cliche and premature to say it shifted the needle on the housing debate. But it certainly framed the conversation squarely around the state’s role in compelling cities to build.
Expect something like this to come back soon.
Nearly every Democratic legislator who voted against SB 827 caveated their opposition by praising the bill’s vision and audacity. Sen. Jim Beall, Democrat from San Jose and chair of the housing committee, said at the hearing that while he couldn’t support the bill in its current form, he was eager to work on something like it in the months ahead.
Could SB 827 ever rise from the dead? Well for his part, Wiener has vowed to re-introduce something like it in the future. Combining his push for density around transit stations with a broader mix of tenant protections and new funding for affordable housing could make it more palatable to the interest groups Wiener needs to succeed.
Feds Move Ahead with Shasta Dam Raise
Congress and the Trump administration are pushing ahead with a plan to raise a towering symbol of dam-building’s 20th century heyday to meet the water demands of 21st century California — a project backed by San Joaquin Valley growers but opposed by state officials, defenders of a protected river and an American Indian tribe whose sacred sites would be swamped.
The fight is over Shasta Dam, at 602 feet the fourth-tallest dam in California and the cornerstone of the federal Central Valley Project, which provides water to cities and farms throughout the state. One of its biggest customers is the Westlands Water District in the arid western San Joaquin Valley, which distributes water to numerous large farms.
With enthusiastic support from Westlands, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress want to raise the dam 18½ feet to store more water and guard against losing farmland to future droughts. Some farmers in the valley received no water at all from the Central Valley Project for two straight years during the five-year drought that ended with the winter of 2016-17.
Proponents also argue that raising Shasta would aid salmon runs decimated by its original construction in the 1940s, by storing more cold water to help the remaining downstream fish survive.
Last month, Congress gave the $1.3 billion project a $20 million cash infusion for design and other preliminary work, and the Interior Department declared that construction would start next year.
The project has been on the boards for years, but President Barack Obama’s administration shelved it because it would flood part of the McCloud River. California law protects the river as wild and scenic because it sustains “one of the finest wild trout fisheries in the state.” Congress would have to declare in separate legislation that federal interest in raising the dam supersedes the state’s authority.
The Trump administration is “pretty clearly setting up an attempt to override state law to build this project,” said Doug Obegi, a water lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “It hits the holy trinity of destroying Native American sacred sites, violating state law and harming fish and wildlife.”
The resurrection of the Shasta project was made possible by a 2016 law sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. It instructed the interior secretary to take the lead on recommending water storage projects and moving ahead on dam building throughout the West.
Feinstein and McCarthy’s bill was added as a rider to broad water legislation over the opposition of former Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who spent her last moments in office trying to block it.
Acting under this new authority, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put Shasta at the top of his list. McCarthy then inserted the $20 million that Zinke requested for Shasta in a catch-all spending bill that Congress passed last month.
John Laird, California’s secretary of natural resources, asked that lawmakers not pursue the project, “which disregards California law, and instead work with the state” on other water measures the state views as more worthy.
Dam proponents argue that the McCloud River would suffer no major harm. They say only two-thirds of a mile of the river would be inundated, and then only in wet years.
The added storage would provide water not just to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, but also to Bay Area cities that rely on Shasta water, they argue.
“Enlarging Shasta Dam will provide water supply, water quality and fishery benefits,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District.
Westlands supports raising the dam “for the simple reason that it is the most cost-effective surface water storage project currently being evaluated in the state,” Birmingham said.
Raising Shasta Dam is indeed among the cheapest of the four big dam projects that the state and federal governments have examined for California. All are so expensive that officials think two at most could be built.
The California Water Commission blocked Shasta from receiving any of the $2.7 billion in funding under Proposition 1, a ballot measure voters approved in 2014 to increase the state’s water storage. The commission is considering three other big dam projects among 11 water storage proposals. All would be in competition with Shasta for federal dollars.
Shasta provides 40 percent of the Central Valley Project’s reservoir capacity. Raising it would enlarge its maximum level by 634,000 acre-feet, or about 13 percent.
But that figure exaggerates how much water raising the dam would deliver. Reservoirs don’t always fill, and most of the available water is already captured by the existing dam. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, estimates that raising Shasta Dam would increase water deliveries by 51,300 acre-feet a year on average, and less during droughts.
“So it’s not a very good deal, which is why these projects have not gone anywhere,” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for the environmental group Friends of the River, which opposes the project.
Raising the dam also would inundate most of what remains of the sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose lands were flooded when the original dam was built, said tribal Chief Caleen Sisk.
The tribe, which once numbered an estimated 14,000 people, is down to 126 members. Sisk said many of them live in Redding or Sacramento because their ancestral land was flooded and its fish runs blocked by the dam.
The sacred sites include dance grounds, healing rocks and pools in the river.
“These all have significant spiritual reverence to the Winnemem people,” Sisk said.
Raising the dam “is going to flood out what we have left,” said Gary Mulcahey, a tribe member. “People are waiting with a finger on the trigger to file a lawsuit as soon as any decision is made.”
California Democrats said the $20 million being spent on construction planing is a waste of taxpayer money because the project will never get state permits to begin pouring concrete. But Congress has the right to preempt state law, and ultimately it could be up to the courts to decide whose authority prevails on the Shasta project.
“There are people who are opposed to any project that will help sustain irrigated agriculture, particularly on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” Westlands’ Birmingham said. “Environmental groups can and will file lawsuits for many often spurious reasons. Whether they win those is another question.”
Westlands bought the 3,000-acre Bollibokka Fishing Club along the McCloud River in 2007 in anticipation of raising the dam, paying $35 million for the property. It contains many Winnemem Wintu sites and would be inundated by the dam raising.
In a congressional hearing last month, Zinke assured Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who opposes the project, that none of the $20 million Congress approved will be spent buying the property from Westlands.
Westlands isn’t the only district that would welcome the Shasta expansion. The San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, which supplies water to Santa Clara County, told federal officials that it wanted to share the cost of raising Shasta dam. Doing so would provide a critical state partner for the project.
Seven environmental groups shot off a warning letter to the agency, saying water districts are agencies of the state and are banned from participating in a project that “violates California law.”
“It would have been nicer to see a letter coming that’s more, ‘Let’s have a dialogue and sit down and figure out are there paths forward,’ instead of thinly veiled threats to sue people,” said Cannon Michael, chairman of the San Luis and Delta Mendota agency.
Michael said the dam has to be raised not just to help farms, but also fish.
Although dams are the chief culprit behind the calamitous decline of the state’s native fish species, three-quarters of which are threatened, the Bureau of Reclamation argues that dams can help fish by mimicking nature’s springtime influx of cold water into rivers and streams. Providing cold water to salmon has become one of Shasta reservoir’s key functions, and the bureau lists helping fish as one of the main benefits of raising the dam.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed, saying in documents obtained by environmental groups that the benefit to fish was “not substantial” and that further restricting the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers that flow into the reservoir would inflict more damage.
Michael said climate change is making it harder for both fish and farms to survive, and that raising Shasta Dam would help both.
“We know climate change is going to make it almost impossible for (freshwater) fish to survive in the Sacramento River as the temperatures continue to warm,” he said. Dam operators are “taking the lion’s share of Shasta for cold water, and it still doesn’t appear it’s going to be enough if we continue with climate change.”
There is one dam-raising project that has drawn enthusiastic backing from environmental groups: expansion of the Los Vaqueros reservoir near Livermore. It promises to be a source of water for San Joaquin Valley wildlife refuges that often go dry in drought years.
“The wildlife refuges in the San Joaquin Valley never receive all the water they need to support Pacific Flyway birds and other wetlands creatures,” said Rachel Zwillinger, water policy adviser for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
Opponents of raising Shasta Dam fear it will divert money from such projects.
“This project was dead,” said Stork of Friends of the River. “Some people were thankful for that because their project then has a chance for more money.
“Then the election happened.”
Plants: The Simplest Carbon-Reduction Machines
In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask whether we can put some of that carbon back into the soil and into living ecosystems, like grasslands and forests. This notion, known as carbon farming, has gained traction as it becomes clear that simply reducing emissions will not sufficiently limit global warming. According to the 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an authority on climate science that operates under the auspices of the United Nations, humankind also needs to remove some of the carbon already in the atmosphere to avoid, say, the collapse of polar glaciers and the inundation of coastal cities worldwide. “We can’t just reduce emissions,” Keith Paustian, a soil scientist at Colorado State University and an author of an earlier I.P.C.C. report, told me. “It’s all hands on deck. Things like soil and land use — everything is important.”
Some of the proposed methods to begin this drawdown include scrubbing the air with great air-conditioner-like machines; fertilizing the oceans with iron dust to prompt algal blooms that, when they die, carry captured carbon to the bottom of the sea; capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that results when energy is produced by burning trees and other plants that removed carbon from the atmosphere during their growth; and crushing and spreading certain types of rock, like basalt, that naturally absorb atmospheric carbon. None of these approaches are yet proved or affordable at the scale needed to make a difference. The most obvious hurdle is the additional energy some of them require, which, unless it comes from a free, renewable source, adds more costs.
Plants, however, remove carbon from the atmosphere already, require no additional power and grow essentially free. During photosynthesis they harness the sun’s energy to make sugars by combining hydrogen atoms (acquired from water molecules) with carbon atoms (from carbon dioxide), while emitting oxygen as a byproduct. (Lest we forget, the fossil fuels that now power civilization contain carbon removed from the air during photosynthesis millions of years ago.) Every spring, as the Northern Hemisphere greens, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dips, before rising again the following fall and winter as foliage dies. Some scientists describe this fluctuation as the earth breathing.
Nearly all the carbon that enters the biosphere is captured during photosynthesis, and as it moves through life’s web, every organism takes a cut for its own energy needs, releasing carbon dioxide as exhaust. This circular voyage is the short-term carbon cycle. Carbon farming seeks to interfere with this cycle, slowing the release of carbon back into the atmosphere. The practice is often conceptualized and discussed in terms of storing carbon, but really the idea is to change the flow of carbon so that, for a time at least, the carbon leaving a given ecosystem is less than the carbon entering it.
Dozens of land-management practices are thought to achieve this feat. Planting or restoring forests, for one:
Trees lock up carbon in woody material. Another is adding biochar, a charcoal made from heated organic material, directly to soil. Or restoring certain wetlands that have an immense capacity to hold carbon. (Coal beds are the fossilized remains of ancient marshes and peatlands.)
More than one-third of earth’s ice-free surface is devoted to agriculture, meaning that much of it is already managed intensively. Carbon farming’s fundamental conceit is that if we change how we treat this land, we could turn huge areas of the earth’s surface into a carbon sponge. Instead of relying solely on technology to remove greenhouse gases from the air, we could harness an ancient and natural process, photosynthesis, to pump carbon into what’s called the pedosphere, the thin skin of living soil at the earth’s surface. If adopted widely enough, such practices could, in theory, begin to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, nudging us toward a less perilous climate trajectory than our current one.