For peat’s sake

British policymakers are worried. They are stewards to 15% of the world’s peatland, a percentage that is shrinking because of domestic use. The New York Times cited the chair of a British governmental peat taskforce earlier this month as saying with current harvest rates the United Kingdom could exhaust their peat supply within decades.

To protect their soggy, boggy places, Parliament proposed a ban on all horticultural peat use, a move that has Britain’s gardeners abuzz. The suggested ban requires eliminating amateur gardener use of peat by 2020 and commercial horticultural use by 2030.

Why would the United Kingdom completely ban what is, for gardeners, partially-decomposed organic gold? For the same three reasons many natural resources become regulated: carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Peat! On a hike in Glendalough, Ireland.

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The politics and science of soil carbon

When it comes to discussing climate change, knowing the role of carbon is important. It pops up everywhere: carbon dioxide, carbon sequestration, carbon emissions, and carbon markets. A big driver of the shifting climate is the change in carbon’s location. More and more of it is being stored in the atmosphere, instead of in Earth’s crust and vegetation.

Many solutions for righting this imbalance suggest reducing emissions and recapturing the carbon we pumped into the air. I recently read a blog by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) about one such solution: a soil carbon market. The author described the debate about such markets among international climate change policy makers at their October meeting in Panama. That meeting was a primer for the UN’s climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, which began on Monday and finishes December 9th.

Me, doing a little soil science

It seems that there was contentious discussion around soil carbon markets in Panama. Some people argued that targeting soil carbon is a “mirage” or diversion from action that will really make a difference. Whether a market mediating soil carbon storage and release is fast or effective is beyond my scope of expertise. But I did take issue with a couple of the author’s statements about the state of soil carbon itself. I work in a biogeochemistry lab where soil organic carbon is a major research subject and the science of carbon is our specialty.

There were two statements in IATP’s blog with which I disagreed. I will list each and explain why, as a soil scientist, I find them empirically false. Continue reading