The following is the last chapter of the book, “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal,” by Ronnie Cummins.
Read in Spanish here.
“We have the outline of a plan. We need a mass mobilization of people and resources, something not unlike the U.S. involvement in World War II or the Apollo moon missions—but even bigger. We must transform our energy system, transportation, housing, agriculture and more.”
—Stephanie Kelton, Andres Bernal, and Greg Carlock, “We Can Pay for a Green New Deal”
The final months of 2018 will likely be remembered as the time when the United States and global grassroots finally began to awaken to the existential crisis posed by global warming. Part of this great awakening was no doubt due to the fact that violent weather, forest fires, drought, floods, water shortages, crop failures, and unusually prolonged heat and/or cold waves became the “new normal,” striking home in both the Global North and the Global South, falling hardest on the poor and marginalized, but striking fear into the hearts of the middle and upper classes as well.
With international scientists finally dropping their customary caution and pointing out that the “end is near” in terms of irreversible climate change, the mass media, a significant number of global policy makers, and hundreds of millions of ordinary people seemed to simultaneously wake up across the world.
Young climate activists, under the banner of the Sunrise Movement in the United States and the Extinction Rebellion in the UK and other countries, sat in at politicians’ offices and blocked streets and roadways, demanding immediate and bold action. The Sunrise Movement captured headlines and mass public attention by calling for a sweeping change in US federal policy: the Green New Deal. An international school strike, known as Fridays for the Future, initiated in Sweden by high school student Greta Thunberg, has begun to spread globally, with millions of students in over a hundred nations walking out of classes and organizing rallies and protests to demand bold action from their governments to reverse climate change.
But, of course, this great global awakening is just the beginning. As 350.org climate action leader Bill McKibben and others have pointed out, we now likely are at the point of our last chance to act on the climate crisis before it’s too late. Here in the United States, we can’t wait one or two more presidential election cycles before we take decisive action. Either we bring about bold economic and policy change, starting immediately, or we are doomed. Either we elect and rally behind insurgent green and social justice leaders and implement sweeping changes, or our global awakening in 2018 will be judged by future generations as too little, too late.
The Green New Deal under Attack
In the United States, the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (GND), though endorsed by more than a hundred members of Congress, as well as leading 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and others, was immediately attacked as “too radical” or “utopian” by both climate-change-denying Republicans and neoliberals and indentured Democrats beholden to Big Oil and corporate agribusiness. In particular, the GND’s proposition of achieving zero emissions by 2030 was dismissed as an impractical and dangerous measure that would wreck the economy and put millions of working-class people out of work.
If you read the GND proposal carefully, the criticism it has received is not justified, but it underlines the importance of being able to clearly explain to the American public and the global body politic exactly what we mean by a full-blown green energy and regenerative economy, with jobs for everyone willing to work and a just transition to net zero emissions by 2030. To gain and maintain majority support for policies such as the GND, we must be able to explain to everyday people not only the basics of reducing fossil fuel use and drawing down carbon through regenerative practices but also, as outlined earlier, how we can readily finance this great transition by increasing today’s outrageously low taxes on the wealthy and large corporations and implementing a full menu of government appropriations, bonds, loan programs, jobs, and infrastructure projects, similar to the New Deal policies of the 1930s and ’40s.
If we can properly explain what net zero emissions (as opposed to zero emissions) and a green economy with decent-paying jobs for all would mean, a critical mass of people and voters will likely see the GND for what it is: our last and best hope, a practical and comprehensive program based on sound science, public need, and commonsense survival.
Initial polls in the United States in December 2018 found that 81 percent of the public (Democrats, Republicans and Independents) basically supported the idea of a GND. Later polls in 2019, even after prolonged criticisms (and misinformation) in the mass media, showed continuing majority support by 63 percent of Americans. But, of course, the oligarchy and its indentured politicians and media spokespersons will continue to attack the GND. They will try to deny or ridicule the idea that we can actually change our current fossil fuel–dependent system, provide good jobs for everyone willing to work in reconstructing our urban and rural infrastructure and agriculture, and reverse climate change. To overcome these naysayers and gain critical mass, we will have to get organized and united as never before. We will have to carry out an unprecedented campaign of mass public education and mobilization, catalyzing a ballot box revolution that will put an end to the corporate domination of the US political system—and inspiring others around the world to do the same.
Zero and Net Zero Emissions
Unfortunately, most of the public, and even some of the early proponents of the GND, don’t yet properly know how to explain what natural carbon sequestration actually means, what net zero fossil fuel emissions means, or what we’re talking about when we say that regenerative food, farming, and land use, combined with renewable energy, can actually stop and then reverse, not just slow down, global warming.
In this regard, it is extremely important for Regeneration and GND advocates to be able to explain the difference between zero fossil fuel emissions and net zero fossil fuel emissions. Net zero emissions refers to the point in time at which we will be drawing down as much of our GHG emissions as we are still putting into the atmosphere and into our oceans. But zero emissions, in the minds of ordinary people, means literally just that—no fossil fuel or greenhouse gas emissions, period. A worthy goal to shoot for, but something that will likely take us more than ten years to achieve.
Net zero emissions takes into consideration the equivalent effect or impact of carbon drawdown. Of course we can’t immediately, or even within a decade, move to global zero emissions by shutting down all cars, manufacturing, home heating and air conditioning, construction, and all commercial enterprises that utilize fossil fuels without wrecking the economy. But we can, even on the same tight ten-year time frame of 2020–2030, achieve net zero emissions through a combination of aggressive fossil fuel emissions reduction and aggressive regenerative carbon drawdown. Net zero GHG emissions will have the same practical impact on reducing global warming as zero emissions.
Of course, beyond net zero emissions, our long-term goal is to achieve net negative emissions, as soon as possible, whereby we begin to draw down and transfer 200 to 286 billion tons of excess atmospheric carbon—the dangerous legacy load of 820 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere, where it’s undermining climate stability—into our living soils and forests, where it will bring enormous benefits. Over a long period of time, this net negative process, as part of a new green economy, will enable our supersaturated oceans to release some of the excess carbon that they have absorbed from human-caused emissions, reducing the acidity of the oceans and restabilizing global habitat for marine life as well.
Reaching Net Zero Emissions in the United States by 2030
As emphasized in chapter 2, don’t let a bunch of numbers confuse you. Basically, what we have to do in the United States and the rest of the world over the next ten years is to cut fossil fuel emissions in half and then draw down the equivalent of the remaining GHG emissions into our soils, forests, and plants through regenerative practices.
In order to achieve the goal of net zero emissions in the United States by 2030, as called for in the GND, the most practical and achievable plan will be to reduce our current levels of net fossil fuel emissions from 5.7 billion tons of CO2e to 2.75 billion tons of CO2e, a reduction of 50 percent, while we simultaneously draw down and sequester in our soils and forests an equal amount (2.75 billion tons of CO2e).
In 2018, US GHG emissions amounted to approximately 16 percent of total global emissions (37.1 billion tons of CO2e). In comparison, the US population of 330 million amounts to only 4.27 percent of the world’s population. In other words, the United States is emitting approximately four times as much GHG per capita as the average person on the planet. In fact, the United States is responsible for an estimated 28.8 percent of all human-derived global emissions since the onset of the industrial revolution in 1750.
A GND for achieving a carbon-neutral economy in the United States by 2030 will necessarily involve eliminating 45 to 60 percent of our current 5.75 billion tons of CO2e fossil fuel emissions, while sequestering the remaining two to three billion tons of CO2e through regenerative agriculture, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration. This represents an ambitious but realistic goal, according to numerous experts and current best practices, assuming we can generate sufficient political pressure to force the White House, Congress, and state and local governments to reject business as usual and take bold action.
Categories of Emissions
The EPA breaks down the sources of the United States’s gross GHG emissions into five broad categories: transportation (29 percent), electricity production (28 percent), industry (22 percent), commercial and residential (12 percent), and agriculture (9 percent). Taking the agriculture category at face value, you’d likely infer that food, farming, and land use are no more than a minor factor (9 percent) in the United States’ contribution to the global climate crisis. However, if you look more closely at the carbon or CO2e “footprint” of the food, farming, and land use sector as a whole (including fossil fuels used in on-farm production, food and crop transportation, food processing, packaging, and refrigeration, as well as the chemical inputs of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, off-gassing of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide from soils and landfills, and destruction of wetlands and soil organic carbon), you start to realize that food, farming, and land use are actually responsible for almost half of all US GHG emissions, not just the 9 percent attributed by the EPA and the USDA to “agriculture.”
On the other hand, organic and regenerative farming and land management practices and forest growth in the United States are routinely overlooked as being important solutions to global warming and climate change. Properly managed lands and forest growth actually draw down a considerable amount of excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Currently they sequester 714 million tons of CO2e (or 11 percent of US gross emissions) annually, even according to the EPA, and even in their currently degraded condition.
We Need Net Zero Emissions by 2030, Not 2050
There is a debate in progressive political circles about whether we should adopt a more conservative goal, as put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and most nations, to achieve net 45 percent reductions in GHGs by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, or whether we should instead aim for a much more ambitious goal, in line with the goals of the GND, to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
A number of nations have already pledged to reach net zero emissions before 2050, including Bhutan (which has already achieved net zero emissions), Norway (2030), Uruguay (2030), Finland (2035), Iceland (2040), and Sweden (2045). The state of California, too, can be added to this list (2045). The European Union is currently operating under a net zero 2050 timeline but will likely set a stricter goal soon.
Let’s now look in more detail at how we can reduce fossil fuel emissions in the United States by 45 to 60 percent in the next decade through energy conservation and making the transition to renewable energy. Following that, let’s look at how we can draw down or sequester the remaining two to three billion tons of GHGs that we will still be emitting in a decade, so as to achieve net zero emissions.
US Roadmap Part One: Reducing Fossil Fuel Emissions by 45 to 60 Percent
The United States is fortunate to have the natural resources to help lead the global community in a transition to a green energy future, complemented by regenerative agriculture and land use. We not only have some of the best wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and biomass resources on Earth, but our forests, soils, farmlands, grasslands, wetlands, and marine ecosystems have the inherent capacity, if properly managed and regenerated, to sequester as much CO2e as we are currently emitting, and even more. Perhaps most important of all, we have a new generation of youth, personified by the Sunrise Movement, supported by a new wave of climate-conscious, insurgent politicians, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ready and willing to take the lead.
On the renewable energy front, the United States, under a new administration in 2021 and beyond, will need to step up the pace. We must rapidly expand the US solar, wind, and renewable energy economy, which in 2017, according to the EPA, provided approximately 13 percent of our energy needs, including 22 percent of our electricity. As we ramp up renewables, we must phase out coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power plants, as rapidly as possible. Germany, with a powerful economy similar to that of the United States, has been operating under a plan for ten years to reduce emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and will likely soon be raising its goals for emissions reductions even higher. If the United States sets a goal for a 60 percent reduction in fossil fuel use/GHG emissions by 2030, similar to that of Germany, we should be able to sequester the remaining 40 percent of GHGs through regenerative food, farming, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration practices, enabling us to reach net zero emissions (carbon neutrality) by 2030. Although 60 percent in emissions reductions is an achievable goal, as we will demonstrate below, even with 45 to 50 percent reductions we can still reach carbon neutrality by maximizing regenerative agriculture and forest/land management practices.
To reduce fossil fuel use and GHG emissions by 45 to 60 percent over the next decade, we will need to generate 75 to 85 percent or more of our electricity (which now releases 28 percent of our total emissions) with renewables, basically shutting down coal generation for electricity. This will reduce current overall emissions by approximately 20 to 24 percent. Energy conservation measures across all sectors (utilities, transportation, buildings, manufacturing, agriculture) will need to go along with this renewable energy revolution in the electricity sector.
According to a comprehensive study published in 2015 by Mark Z. Jacobson and a team of experts in the peer-reviewed journal Energy and Environmental Science, all fifty states in the nation have the potential to convert their fossil fuel–based electricity, transportation, heating and cooling, and industry systems to ones powered entirely by wind, water, and sunlight, replacing 80 to 85 percent of existing fossil fuel and nuclear energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. In terms of the economic impact of this mass conversion to renewable energy on employment, the study’s authors state: “Over all 50 states, converting would provide ~3.9 million 40-year construction jobs and ~2.0 million 40-year operation jobs for the energy facilities alone, the sum of which would outweigh the ~3.9 million jobs lost in the conventional energy sector.”
In terms of technological innovation, according to numerous studies, it is now cheaper and more profitable to build and operate electricity generation systems using solar and wind power than it is using coal, nuclear, or petroleum power.
But in order to replace coal, natural gas, nuclear, and petroleum as our primary power sources, our national (and international) electrical grid infrastructure will have to be rebuilt to facilitate decentralized power production and electricity sharing across regions. Also, we will obviously need to stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure (including pipelines), curtail oil and natural gas exploration and extraction, phase out polluting power plants, and electrify manufacturing, transportation, and heating. All of these measures mean leaving most, and eventually all, remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
To pay for this transition, we will need to transfer massive government subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables and, at the same time, ensure a just transition and program of retraining for four million current workers in the fossil fuel sector, as outlined in the GND. If we don’t ensure a just transition (job retraining, job replacement, and/or retirement) for fossil fuel workers, we will likely never gain the political support for the GND that we need.
In the transportation sector (29 percent of current emissions), we will need to double or triple vehicle fuel economy standards and replace our gas and diesel guzzlers with as many electric cars, buses, trucks, tractors, and trains as possible so as to achieve 50 percent market share for electric vehicles by 2030. In order to do this, we will need to pay consumers, businesses, and municipalities a subsidy to switch over to electric vehicles and electrified mass transportation. This could potentially cut overall emissions by approximately 50 percent in the transportation sector. According to MIT Technology Review, given battery technology advances and cost reductions (electric cars will soon be cheaper to buy and operate than gas-driven vehicles), over half of new auto sales in 2040 will be electric vehicles.
Beyond automobiles, a growing number of nations are leading the way in terms of converting petroleum-driven buses, trucks, and trains to electricity. According to a report released at the San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit in 2018:
Every 5 weeks, China adds a fleet of electric buses equivalent to the entire London bus fleet—9500 buses. Technologies are now market ready, societally acceptable and economically attractive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 51% by 2030, through electric vehicles, mass transit and adapting the global shipping fleet. . . . However, the transformation will slow dramatically without strong national and city policies, for example setting target dates to ban internal combustion engines.
In the industrial and manufacturing sector, including heavy industry, light industry, feedstocks, and food processing (22 percent of all fossil fuel emissions), we will need to reduce coal and petroleum use by at least 50 percent through dramatic increases in recycling rates, switching over as quickly as possible to electrical power generated by renewables, and efficiency improvements, such as “making products more material-efficient . . . extending lifespan and reducing weight.” In the light industry sector, including food, textile, wood, printing, and consumer products manufacturing, as well as more fossil fuel–intensive industries such as steel, aluminum, cement, and plastic production, according to experts, we can reduce overall emissions by 50 percent using current technologies and efficiencies. Of course, addressing overconsumption and waste on the part of consumers, especially more affluent consumers, will need to be part of this mission.
A transition from cement to timber in the construction industry (a growing number of buildings, even high-rise buildings, are now being built from wood, using new techniques) could eliminate 5 to 6 percent of all GHG emissions. Similar climate-friendly changes in the manufacturing, construction, and industrial sector will reduce emissions by another 10 percent, for a cumulative total reduction of emissions of 45 to 49 percent in the electricity/utilities, transportation, and manufacturing sectors.
Residential and commercial buildings now account for almost 11 percent of all fossil fuel use in the United States. We can achieve a 50 percent reduction in emissions in this sector with retrofitting, insulating, changes in building codes, and greater energy efficiency, utilizing heat pumps, solar power, heat storage, and district heating systems based upon renewable energy. This retrofitting of our buildings will reduce our overall emissions by another 5 to 6 percent, while creating millions and millions of new jobs.
This brings us to 50 to 55 percent in overall fossil fuel emissions reductions by 2030. We can achieve a further 5 to 10 percent overall emissions reduction in the food and farming sector by reducing the consumption of fossil fuel–derived materials and products (plastics, food packaging, highly processed foods), by eliminating food waste and clothing waste, by recycling organic waste instead of dumping it into landfills, where it releases methane and CO2, and by drastically reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from fracking, natural gas, and chemical-intensive agriculture and factory farm inputs and practices (diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers, and petroleum-derived pesticides). Sixteen percent of all US GHG emissions comprise the potent heat-trapping gases nitrous oxide and methane—a significant percentage of which come from chemical-intensive industrial agriculture emissions from heavy pesticide and fertilizer use.
Implementing all of these transformations/reductions in the electricity, transportation, manufacturing, residential and commercial buildings, food, farming, and consumption sectors, as called for by the GND, can enable the United States to basically match the emissions reduction goals of Germany, with a 60 percent decrease in GHG emissions by 2030 (from 5.9 billion tons of CO2e to 2.36 billion tons).
The remaining 40 percent of net reductions (2.36 billion tons of CO2e) required to reach net zero emissions and a carbon-neutral USA by 2030 will need to be sequestered in our 1.9 billion acres of croplands, pasturelands, rangelands, wetlands, forests, urban landscapes, and vegetation through regenerative food, farming, forestry, land management, and ecosystem restoration practices. Let’s now look in more detail at a Regeneration and carbon sequestration plan for the next decade.
US Roadmap Part Two: Sequestering Remaining CO2e through Regenerative Food, Farming, and Land Use Practices
Utilizing satellites, surveys, and other sources, the USDA categorizes the 1.9 billion acres of the Lower 48 (i.e., all the states excluding Alaska and Hawaii) as follows: 654 million acres of pasture or rangeland (much of which is degraded), 539 million acres of forest (much of which needs to be reforested), 392 million acres of cropland (most of which is degraded in terms of soil carbon), 169 million acres of “special use” lands (parks and national/state forests), 69 million acres of urban land, and 69 million acres of “miscellaneous.”
Currently, as estimated by the EPA, the Lower 48 (1.9 billion acres) are sequestering 714 million tons of CO2e (or 11 percent of US gross GHG emissions). To reach our goal of net zero emissions by 2030 (assuming energy conservation and renewable energy can reduce gross emissions by 60 percent), these 1.9 billion acres, or rather a significant percentage of these acres, will have to be regenerated and reforested over the next decade so that they can sequester approximately three to four times as much atmospheric carbon as they are currently sequestering. Looking at scaling up existing best practices, we can see that this great sequestration and recarbonization of our soils and biota is indeed possible.
Let’s look at the practices (and the math) of potential carbon sequestration (and reduction of methane and nitrous oxide emissions) on the 1.9 billion acres of US farmland, pastures, rangelands, forests, and other landscapes by 2030.
Regenerating US Pasture and Rangeland
US pasture and rangeland (654 million acres) covers more than one-third of the Lower 48. One-quarter (158 million acres) of this acreage is administered by the US government and is usually open to livestock grazing by ranchers for a fee. Another 127 million acres that the EPA classifies as croplands are used by farmers to grow animal feed for livestock. This means that the livestock and livestock feed portions of our agricultural lands adds up to 781 million acres, 41 percent of all the land in the Lower 48.
The majority of these pastures and rangelands were once a diverse landscape—grasslands and natural prairie covered with native (deep-rooted) grasses, trees, bushes, and plants. This carbon-rich, climate-friendly landscape sequestered large amounts of atmospheric carbon, supported biodiversity and wildlife, and efficiently infiltrated rainfall and snowmelt into the topsoil and groundwater, springs, and aquifers. Before the advent of the plow and the repeating rifle and the ruthless occupation of Native lands, large herds of migratory buffalo, elk, deer, and other mammals grazed on the grasslands as they moved across the continent, while millions of “keystone species,” including beavers (wetlands builders), prairie dogs (soil excavators), and wolves (forcing grazing herds to band together and killing off sick and diseased animals), worked in natural harmony to keep the landscape regenerated and hydrated.
At the present time, most of these 781 million acres have been plowed under, deforested, and/or overgrazed, leaving them eroded, degraded, and lacking in terms of soil organic carbon, soil fertility, and biodiversity. America’s once healthy pasturelands and farmlands have become major greenhouse gas emitters, rather than soil carbon sinks or repositories. But with regenerative changes in grazing practices and livestock management, including switching cattle and herbivores away from chemical-intensive, fossil fuel–intensive GMO grains to a 100 percent grass-fed diet, and moving poultry and pork from confinement to free-range pasture, raised on a diet of organic and regeneratively produced grains, we can bring US rangelands and pasturelands back to full life and vitality.
Cattle and other herbivores such as sheep, goats, and buffalo should be outdoors, grazing on pasture grass, while omnivores such as poultry and pigs should be moved out of confinement and raised outdoors in a free-range or agroforestry setting, getting some of their nutrition/food in their pastures or wooded paddocks, while getting most of their nutrition from grains and forage that have been grown in a regenerative manner (no-till, cover-cropped, alley-cropped, biodiverse, chemical-free, agroforestry). Cattle and other herbivores will thrive and produce healthier meat and dairy products once they return to a 100 percent grass diet, as will chickens and pigs raised in a natural free-range environment. And consumers, once they understand the nutritional, environmental, climate, and animal welfare superiority of grass-fed and pastured meat and dairy, will increasingly choose to buy these products, especially if current subsidies—direct and indirect—for factory farms and factory-farmed animal feeds are eliminated.
Of course, all of this will require major subsidies for farmers and ranchers (including guaranteed fair prices, supply management, and payments for soil conservation) as well as changes in consumer purchasing and consumption, including a drastic reduction in the purchasing and consumption of factory-farmed meat, dairy, and other grain-fed animal products (chicken, poultry, and factory-farmed fish).
To carry out this restoration on a large enough scale, we will have to put an end to wasting millions of acres of our valuable farmlands to grow grain for herbivores (cows, sheep, goats, and bison)—animals that should not be eating grains at all. We will also need to stop sacrificing thirty-eight million acres of our valuable farmlands to the production of ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybeans and instead convert these row-crop commodity farms back into diverse crop production and grazing. The process of producing ethanol and biodiesel from GMO corn and soybeans, contrary to industry claims, actually uses up more fossil fuels in its growing and production cycle than it saves by allowing us to burn ethanol or biodiesel in our cars.
Regenerative management of these pasturelands and rangelands will utilize soil-building techniques such as no-till farming, multispecies cover cropping, roller crimping (breaking the plant stalks and leaving them on the field rather than plowing or spraying pesticides when the cover crops mature), and grazing animals holistically and rotationally. Once restored and under regenerative management, these lands can sequester approximately twelve tons of CO2e per acre per year.
Guaranteed subsidies for soil conservation practices, a waiver of grazing fees on properly grazed federal lands, and fair prices (coupled with supply management) for farmers and ranchers for their meat, dairy, and grains are some of the key policies we will need to implement after the 2020 elections in order to promote regenerative, carbon-sequestering management of the majority of these 781 acres of pasturelands, rangelands, and animal feed croplands. The federal farm and soil conservation policies that we will need to fund in order to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2030 include the following:
Expansion of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with billions of additional dollars a year to increase regenerative practices such as cover cropping, prescribed grazing, riparian buffers, and no-till farming.
Expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to include 100 million acres by 2030, raising rental payments made to farmers, and promoting regeneration practices, including agroforestry and holistic grazing, on these CRP lands.
Expansion of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to substantially increase the acreage that farmers place into agriculture conservation and wetlands easements.
A major increase in the funding for research into conservation and holistic grazing, focusing on research into the reduction of carbon emissions in the agricultural sector and eliminating degenerative factory-farm production methods, as well as research dedicated to soil health.
Billions of dollars in increased incentives for local and regional food systems, as well as incentives for reforestation, regenerative forest management, and restoration of coastal wetlands. We will need to reforest over 65 million acres by 2030, on a combination of Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other federal lands, as well as on state, local, tribal, and nonprofit-owned lands. By 2050 we will need to reforest more than 250 million acres.
We must protect millions of at-risk acres of federal, state, local, tribal, and other lands by 2030 using forest management, controlled burns, and holistic grazing practices to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and to increase forest health/resilience. We need to plant an average of fifty million trees per year in urban areas across America to reduce the heat island effect and protect communities from extreme weather. In addition, we need to invest in wood product innovation and in biochar, creating jobs in rural and urban communities. Besides these measures, we need to restore or prevent the loss of 12 to 25 million acres of coastal and inland wetlands by 2030.
If holistic grazing and livestock/pasture management best practices were carried out on just a quarter of total pastureland, rangeland, and animal feed cropland in the United States, we would still be able to sequester 2.34 billion tons of CO2e—approximately 100 percent of the carbon sequestration we need (in combination with a transition to renewable energy) to reach net zero emissions by 2030.
Regenerating US Cropland
US cropland (392 million acres) includes 52 million acres idled or lying fallow at any given time, 38 million acres used for corn ethanol or soy biodiesel, 77 million acres for human food for US consumers, 127 million acres for livestock food crops (especially corn and soy), 22 million acres for wheat exports, 14 million acres for cotton (fiber and animal feed), and 69 million acres for other grains and food exports. Yet despite its enormous agricultural production, the United States imported 15 percent of its food and beverages in 2016, including 30 percent of its fruits and vegetables.
Disregarding the 127 million acres of cropland used for livestock grains and fodder, which we have discussed in conjunction with pasture and rangeland above, the United States’ 265 million acres of additional cropland can potentially be regenerated in order to store more carbon and improve fertility, water quality, biodiversity, food safety, and food quality or nutrition.
Traditional organic crop farming (no chemicals, cover cropping, minimum or no tillage, use of natural fertilizers) can sequester CO2e at a rate of up to 5.7 tons of CO2e per acre per year. However, Dr. David Johnson’s New Mexico lab and field research on regenerative compost shows that high-fungal-content, biologically rich, semi-anaerobic compost and compost extracts produce not just very high crop yields but also massive carbon sequestration, with rates of over four tons of carbon (fifteen tons of CO2e) per acre per year. As Dr. Johnson notes, if these compost practices were scaled up on the world’s four billion acres of croplands, “the entire world’s carbon output from 2016 could be stored on just 22 percent of the globe’s arable land.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Johnson’s methods mirror traditional and indigenous compost and agroecological farming practices utilized in India and other regions.
If traditional organic crop practices were implemented on all of the 265 million acres of US cropland (again, not counting land given over to animal feed crops), we could sequester 1.3 billion tons of GHGs. If organic practices were employed on just 50 percent of these croplands, we could sequester 650 million tons. With traditional organic practices on just one-quarter of this cropland, we could sequester 325 million tons.
But if advanced organic practices like Dr. Johnson’s were implemented, we could sequester 3.9 billion tons a year on 265 million acres, or 1.95 billion tons on half of this acreage, or almost 1 billion tons of GHGs on one-quarter of this acreage.
As a conservative estimate, with a combination of traditional organic and advanced organic methods on one-quarter of US cropland, we will be able to achieve 663 million tons of CO2e sequestration—approximately one-quarter of what we need.
Necessary measures to transform US crop production will include increasing the market share of organic food from its current 5.5 percent of all food sales and 10 percent of all produce (fruit and vegetable) sales to 50 percent of all sales by 2030. At the same time, we will need to convert thirty-eight million acres of corn (ethanol) and soybean (biodiesel) crops back into multispecies perennial grasslands and pasture and/or organic multispecies grain production. We will also need to implement soil restoration, regeneration, and agroforestry practices on our fifty-two million acres of idle or fallow land, utilizing government programs to subsidize farmers for restorative and regenerative practices.
Regenerating US Forestlands
US forestland (539 million acres), or rather “unprotected” forests and timberlands in the terminology of the USDA, account for one-quarter of the land in the Lower 48. These 539 million acres do not include the “special use” protected or semi-protected forest acreage in national parks (29 million acres of land), state parks (15 million acres), or wilderness and wildlife areas (64 million acres), or the “miscellaneous” (“low economic value”) acres of trees and shrubs located in marshes, deserts, and wetlands. Nor does this acreage include trees in urban areas.
If we count all these other forested (or “treed”) areas, however, forests comprise one-third of the total US land area. That may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that forests covered half the country prior to European settlement.
The EPA estimates that US forests currently sequester approximately 9 percent of all US GHG emissions (531 million tons of CO2e) every year. Over the next ten years, in order to reach carbon neutrality, we will need to embark upon a major program of reforestation and afforestation—preserving, expanding, and improving our forests (both private and publicly owned) and tree cover (both urban and rural).
According to the rather conservative projections made by the Nature Conservancy, reforestation of forty to fifty million acres in the United States could reach three hundred million tons of additional CO2e captured per year by 2025. But according to a more recent study by Dr. Thomas Crowther and others, mentioned in chapter 4, the United States has 254 million acres of degraded forests or treeless landscapes (excluding croplands and urban areas) that could be reforested, especially in the South, Southeast, and Northeast regions of the country. These 254 million reforested acres could potentially sequester, using the Nature Conservancy projections, 1.5 billion tons of GHGs annually.
Even if we reforest only one-quarter of the potential area that could be reforested in the United States by 2030, we will still be able to sequester 375 million tons of CO2e—approximately 15 percent of what we need.
As a recent article titled “Let’s Reforest America to Act on Climate” points out: “Under the original New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted three billion trees and employed three million workers in the process. America is well positioned to advance a similar effort again, with almost 20 million acres of recently disturbed land needing reforestation.”
“Special use” lands (169 million acres), including parks, wildlife areas, highways, railroads, and military bases, include millions of additional acres suitable for reforestation and afforestation, as identified by Crowther and others.
Urban areas (69 million acres) make up 3.6 percent of the land area of the Lower 48 but include 81 percent of the population (19 percent of people live in rural areas). Urban areas are growing by a million acres a year. Lawn areas in US cities and towns are estimated to include forty million acres of turf grass, covering 1.9 percent of the land. Although Crowther and others do not include urban areas in their totals for land that could be reforested, obviously millions of acres in urban areas are suitable for planting trees, which would then sequester carbon, reduce summertime urban temperatures, and provide shade, food, and habitat for humans, pollinators, and animals. In the United States, we should set a goal for planting 500 million new trees in urban areas by 2030.
Regenerating So-Called “Miscellaneous Lands”
“Miscellaneous lands” (69 million acres) are categorized by the USDA as having “low economic value.” These lands include cemeteries, golf courses, and airports, but also marshes and coastal wetlands. Contrary to the USDA’s assessment, the nation’s marshes and wetlands are enormously important in terms of sequestering carbon, filtering pollution, buffering hurricanes, preserving water quality, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife. As part of a national campaign of ecosystem restoration and carbon sequestration in the United States, we will need to restore millions of acres of wetlands, marshes, and marine ecosystems. It is estimated that the continental United States (not including Alaska) once had 220 million acres of wetlands, most of which have now been drained or destroyed. Restoring 12 to 25 million acres of marshlands and wetlands in the Lower 48 would sequester 75 to 150 million tons of CO2e annually.
The Bottom Line for US Carbon Neutrality
The bottom line for achieving carbon neutrality in the United States by 2030 is to basically reduce fossil fuel emissions by 45 to 60 percent in our electricity, transportation, housing, construction, and manufacturing sectors, in line with what other advanced industrial nations such as Germany are undertaking, while simultaneously carrying out the regenerative, carbon-sequestering agriculture and land use practices outlined above. With changes in livestock and pasture management on just a quarter of total pastureland, rangeland, and animal feed cropland (781 million acres), by 2030 we can sequester more than 2.34 billion tons of CO2e annually. With changes in management, utilizing organic and advanced organic methods, on a quarter of our 265 million acres of croplands (not counting land used to produce animal feed), we can achieve an additional 663 million tons of CO2e sequestration. With reforestation and afforestation on 25 percent of the 254 million acres of degraded forests or treeless landscapes (excluding croplands and urban areas) in the United States, we can sequester an additional 375 million tons of CO2e. Restoration of wetlands can sequester an additional 75 to 150 million tons. Altogether, by 2030, this great regeneration will sequester 3.4 billion tons of CO2e annually, enough to enable the United States to reach carbon neutrality, even if the country only manages to reach 45 percent in fossil fuel reductions, rather than the 60 percent that Germany and a number of other nations will achieve.
Altogether, with the ongoing restoration and regeneration of our 1.9 billion acres of pasturelands, rangelands, croplands, forests, and wetlands—driven by changes in public policy, consumer demand, and farmer/land management innovation—we, as part of a GND, can lead the United States (and, by example, the world) away from climate catastrophe to carbon neutrality. This will then prepare us to keep moving forward beyond 2030: to draw down enough excess carbon from the atmosphere into our revitalized soils, forests, and plants to reverse global warming and restore our precious environment and climate. But the hour is late. We need a GND and a Regeneration revolution. And we need to step up our public education, coalition building, direct action, and electoral insurgency now.
Political Power Now: Greening the White House and the Congress
We have no choice but to move boldly forward with a system-changing GND in the United States and other nations, infused with the goal of 100 percent renewable energy and a massive scaling up of regenerative food, farming, and land use policies and practices. But if we hope to gain the support we need from working people and lower-income communities, renewable energy and regenerative food and farming must be delivered as part of a popular overall package for a just transition that includes full employment, livable wages, universal health care, debt relief, and free public education as well.
Like it or not, what the United States does or does not do in the 2020 election (and the 2020–2030 decade) is crucially important. We need a new president, we need a new green-minded majority in the House and the Senate, and we need new green and Regeneration-supportive government officials and public policies in all of our states, counties, cities, and towns. This means that our number one priority, given our limited timeline, must be to join and help build a mass movement to take power in Congress and the White House in 2020 and 2022.
Fortunately, we already have the initial public support (63 percent of people in the United States currently support the GND), grassroots leaders (the Sunrise Movement and a growing activist rainbow of movements and Regenerators), and a new insurgent group of political leaders who share our vision, who will be welcomed by an already Regeneration-minded movement and government in the nations around the world. We already have 90 or more of the 435 members of the House of Representatives who have endorsed the GND, along with a dozen high-profile senators. All of the leading Democratic Party candidates for president in 2020, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed the GND. For the first time ever, climate change has become a major electoral theme in the United States and other nations.
Jump-Starting the Green Machine
The next step prior to the crucial November 2020 presidential and congressional elections in the United States (and elections in other nations) is to build mass awareness at the local, state, and congressional levels. We need local GND/Regeneration committees; we need speaker’s bureaus; we need media teams; we need fundraisers, coalition builders, and grassroots and grasstops lobbyists; and we need online and, most important, on-the-ground activism (petitions, teach-ins, door knocking, protests, electoral campaigns, ballot initiatives). We must start now to build broad-based, powerful, bipartisan if possible, statewide and national coalitions for a GND that highlight not only renewable energy, but regenerative food, farming, and land use policies and practices as well.
We have no choice but to break down the issue silos that divide us—we don’t have time for anyone to think, “My issue is more important than your issue,” or “My constituency is more important than your constituency.” We must connect the dots, create synergy, and unite a critical mass of heretofore single-issue, limited-constituency movements (climate, peace, labor, health, environment, food, farming, and social justice). At the same time, on the political front we must strive to bring together for discussion and common action progressive Democrats and conservation-minded Independents, Republicans, and Libertarians. We must build awareness and cooperation in a survival-oriented united front that can elect green and Regeneration-minded majorities in both urban and rural districts. Breaking down walls and issue silos, we must convince renewable energy and progressive political activists that regenerative food, farming, and land use practices and policies are essential, while at the same time getting food, farming, and environmental/conservation activists to understand that we must all become climate activists and renewable energy advocates and we must all get involved in political action.
The Power of One in Catastrophic Times
No doubt you’ve heard something like the message of this book before. I’ve personally been writing and campaigning around a host of life-or-death political, food, farming, and environmental issues like these for fifty years, starting with the threat of nuclear annihilation in the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The exciting, world-changing difference now is that objective conditions are finally ripe for a Regeneration revolution in the United States and around the world. What I’ve said and written before about the environment, food, health, politics, war, and peace, with every ounce of knowledge and passion I could muster, was basically true. It’s just that we, the global grassroots—farmers and consumers, students and workers, and our political and activist leaders—weren’t quite ready yet. The crisis of the past fifty years hadn’t yet reached its present intensity. In addition, up until now, we didn’t have a workable plan, strategy, and tactics. We didn’t have a GND or a set of radical political leaders at the federal level to rally behind. We didn’t have grassroots leaders in every community like those that we have now. We didn’t have a full understanding of the relationship between food, farming, land use, soil health, fossil fuels, climate change, deteriorating public health, environmental degradation, justice, international relations, war, and peace. Now we do. Now we can connect the dots and move forward together, not just in one region or country, but globally.
Here’s an excerpt from a speech I gave twenty-five years ago, on September 24, 1995, at the US-Canada International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. I think my message from then is even more relevant today:
The time bomb we call the future is ticking away even as we consider these matters. We have no time to lose. The time for standing around and feeling inadequate or frustrated is over. If you’ve been waiting for new movement leadership and new ideas to arrive, wait no longer. Look in the mirror, look at the people around you today. Go back to your community and form an affinity group of like-minded individuals, people whom you feel good about. Work with people who will make your social change efforts effective as well as fulfilling, and yes, even joyful. People bold enough to take on the corporate Global Lords, yet humble and grounded enough to practice what they preach. Once properly grounded, link up your core group and your outreach and coalition-building efforts with other compatible groups in your community, county, state, and region. If you’re not exactly certain of how to go about getting organized in your community, then search out the activist “coaches” and social-change movement “veterans” who are willing to help you. Don’t mourn about the state of the world or the state of your individual soul! Organize! There’s only one reason for joining up in the worldwide movement to save the planet and build a more democratic and ethically sound commonwealth: because it’s the best way to live.
It makes a great deal of difference what you and I do as individuals in our everyday lives. It makes a difference how you and I behave in the marketplace, and in the realm of civil society and politics. How we act, what we talk about with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. How we spend our money and our precious spare time. How we raise our children. What we read and share and write as we sit in front of our computers and cell phone screens. Which groups we join, support, and donate money to. Which politicians we lobby and vote for.
Never underestimate the power of one individual—yourself. But please understand, at the same time, that what we do as individuals will never be enough. We have to get organized, and we have to help others, in our region, in our nation, and everywhere, build a mighty green Regeneration movement. The time to begin is now.
Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of Regeneration International and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), and the author of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal.”
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