Article by Intern Soleil Gaylord

Colorado is known as the state of 14,000-foot peaks and world-class ski resorts. However, many — residents included — fail to realize that plains comprise about two-thirds of our state; the Rockies make up a comparatively small sliver. 50 percent of Colorado’s plains, categorized as shortgrass prairie, have been converted to other uses, such as agriculture — the largest-scale transformation of any of the state’s ecosystems. The shortgrass prairie was once rich with pronghorn, bison, deer, elk, and prairie dogs; the American Serengeti is now only a shell of what it once was. Fortunately, Colorado’s shortgrass prairie has an advocate in the form of a non-profit land trust that combines conservation with climate change mitigation. 

Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) was one of the first entities to develop a grassland carbon credit program, a novel market-based solution to the conundrum of preserving undervalued shortgrass prairie land while easing the climate crisis. After all, more than one-third of U.S. lands are grasslands — an enormous carbon repository. SPLT’s website states: “The prairie is the inverse of the rainforest —most of the biomass in rainforests is above-ground in lush vegetation and tall trees, while most of the biomass in the prairie is below-ground, in the native grasses’ thick roots that stretch many feet deep and form dense mats.” This, of course, makes grassland preservation a more stable way to combat climate change, particularly in fire-prone regions like Colorado. Scientists estimate grasslands will generate 150,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions on approximately 185,000 acres in the U.S. every year, equivalent to taking 32,609 cars off of the road for a year.  

SPLT, launching its program in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has used conservation finance to protect prairie land. Based on the sale of carbon credits, companies such as Microsoft, Stonyfield, and Burton, hoping to offset their emissions, have helped fund SPLT’s land purchases. Once under SPLT’s protection, the shortgrass prairie is prevented from becoming cropland.  

On farmed grasslands, 50-70 percent of the soil’s carbon is released as carbon dioxide. EDF uses biogeochemical modeling and emissions factors to quantify the amount of carbon that would be released from the ground, if it were to be tilled, to determine the value of their carbon credit — also known as “avoided grassland conversion.”

SPLT sells around 15,000 tons of carbon per year, after subtracting for its own carbon footprint. Alongside the primary benefit, carbon sequestration, are the co-benefits: funding for SPLT to buy more land and the preservation of rapidly diminishing habitat for bison, black-footed ferrets (which was once one of the most endangered species in North America), and pronghorn.  

The Conservation Finance Network, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Climate Action Reserve worked to create the robust “Grasslands Project Protocol” program under which SPLT operates. They determined that purchasing grassland credits can be “charismatic to buyers” — meaning there are added benefits like wildlife protection, improved water quality, and enhanced corporate social responsibility.  

SPLT served as the pilot for this new grassland protocol program; EDF then used its success in southeastern Colorado to effectively scale the program and demonstrate more widely that the protocol can generate revenue for landowners and provide proof of interest in the market. EDF worked to decrease transaction and verification costs — ultimately incentivizing markets to reward farmers for conservation. SPLT is currently engaged in the forward sale of years worth of credits; in partnership with Native Energy, SPLT acquired 6,600 acres of grassland and prevented an estimated 190,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere over the next 50 years — the equivalent of 208 million pounds of unburned coal.

When conceptualizing carbon sequestration and carbon markets as a potential solution, it’s essential to keep in mind that it is a tradeoff. If an individual or company buys carbon credits, they’re burning carbon elsewhere. It’s an offset, not a subtraction, and the true cost of carbon is greater than a few dollars per ton. Currently, the EU is engaged in pushing carbon prices higher to incentivize cutting emissions. Carbon creditors like SPLT also hope to see higher prices for grassland carbon — higher prices propel more extensive land protection. Expanding habitats such as the shortgrass prairie is vital amidst calls to protect 30-50% of the earth in coming decades. When combined with goals to restore biodiversity, carbon markets can and do have net positive benefits. Still, we can’t forget that climate change will require solutions that get to the heart of how we use energy and challenge our reliance on fossil fuels.

The phrase “dual crisis” to describe the worrying trends of climate change and biodiversity loss has become colloquial. These natural emergencies will require innovative, swift action to avert catastrophe. Why not make the solution two-in-one?

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