Most Americans support soil carbon storage as a climate strategy

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Last year, as countries around the globe locked down because of the coronavirus, carbon emissions fell sharply. It was an important reminder that society is capable of quickly and dramatically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to curb climate change. But emissions reductions alone might not be enough. Removing carbon that is already in the atmosphere may be necessary to avoid catastrophic warming. 

Enter soil carbon storage, which President Joe Biden has called “the next frontier for storing carbon.” This carbon mitigation strategy involves managing farms, forests and wetlands in ways that keep carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere. To be successful, the approach requires cooperation among various groups including government, industry and farmers. This has led some to argue that soil carbon storage — while technically feasible  — may face political resistance due to the polarization that surrounds climate change policy in places like the U.S.

But do politics really make soil carbon storage “elusive,” as some have suggested? 

To investigate, we surveyed a random sample of 1,222 U.S. adults who reported believing in climate change at least “somewhat” (92 percent of our initial sample) about their support for soil carbon storage as a strategy for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because we anticipated many people might be unfamiliar with this climate mitigation strategy, respondents were first provided with a brief description of soil carbon storage alongside other carbon dioxide removal strategies

Rather than resistance, our research shows broad public support. A majority of our respondents (62 percent) said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to support soil carbon storage as a carbon dioxide removal strategy. Slightly fewer — but still a majority (55 percent) — supported a different version of soil carbon storage that involved biochar, a form of charcoal made from unused plant material and manure from farms that is then mixed into soil.  

But what about political partisans? Unsurprisingly, Democrats expressed more support than Republicans for both soil carbon storage (73 percent) and soil carbon storage with biochar (65 percent). However, even Republicans said they were more likely (52 percent) than unlikely (16 percent) to support soil carbon storage, which was also true when the approach included biochar (47 percent likely vs. 25 percent unlikely). The remainder said they were “neutral.”                                                                                                            

What about farmers, a group that could store a critically important amount of carbon if incentivized to adopt soil carbon practices? They voiced clear support as well. Although our survey included only 48 respondents who identified as “a farmer,” a majority of this group said they were likely to support soil carbon storage, with (59 percent) or without (66 percent) biochar. Only 16 percent and 7 percent, respectively, said they were unlikely to support it (the remainder were “neutral”). If farmers were truly resistant to soil carbon storage as a carbon dioxide removal strategy, we might have expected the opposite pattern. Instead, we see much more acceptance than resistance.

To be sure, these findings might have looked different had our survey included opinions from those who said they didn’t believe in climate change. But because this was such a small group (just 8 percent of our initial sample), it is unlikely that the results would have changed by much. 

Overall, these findings suggest that using soil carbon storage to address climate change is not only technically feasible but that it may enjoy more bipartisan support than previously assumed. It also suggests that U.S. farmers, who are poised to play a key role in its adoption and implementation, are open to the idea of using farmland to store carbon in order to address climate change.

As countries around the world, including the U.S., commit to ambitious climate targets and carbon dioxide removal strategies are more frequently debated in policy circles, understanding where resistance among the public lies — and where it doesn’t — is more important than ever. 

Jonathon P. Schuldt is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and board member of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

Shannan K. Sweet is a research associate in the Department of Communication and the Soil and Crop Sciences Section at Cornell University.

Johannes Lehmann is a professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section at Cornell University.

Deborah Bossio is the lead soil scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

Dominic Woolf is a senior research associate in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section at Cornell University. 

Tags carbon emissions Carbon sequestration carbon storage Climate change Global warming Joe Biden soil carbon storage

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