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U of I Study: Add variety of plant species, soak up emissions
Indiana Correspondent
 CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — One strategy for saving the world from global warming could be farmers being paid to grow a variety of plants to absorb more greenhouse gases from the air.
The results of a recent study by a team of University of Illinois researchers shows just how much adding one or two additional plant species to an ecosystem means in dollars and cents.
Going from one to two species of plants on a 2.47-acre tract over 50 years would take an additional 9.1 metric tons of carbon out of the air. That translates into a potential $804 reduction in the cost now paid by society to reduce emissions contributing to the warming of the planet, according to the study. On a much larger scale, adding just one species to the 29.5 million acres of cultivated lands restored to grasslands under the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program could reduce the tab of keeping the Earth from heating up by $700 million, the study shows.
There’s not a real market for it yet, but the results could be used to establish a rate of compensation for farmers and other landowners if there was ever an attempt to use biodiversity for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, said Amy Ando, an professor and economist in agriculture and consumer economics at U of I.
“If there are markets for carbon abatement, then if you can quantify how much abatement your land is doing, then possibly you can get paid for that,” she said. “Money is a language that speaks, and showing the economic value of biodiversity underscores the importance of conservation and the policies that support it,” said Bruce Hungate, director of the
Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University. He led the team of researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Science
Advances. The study also revealed the biggest gain in carbon reduction from a percentage standpoint was from adding just a few additional species to an ecosystem.
Going above that reduced carbon levels even further, but the gains were less with each additional plant, and the most impact on greenhouse gas reduction was from restoration of the most degraded, species-poor lands. Specifically, a change from five to six species stored almost 10 times more carbon than a change from 15 to 16 species – showing that the biggest benefit came from adding species to the least diverse plots.
“If you plant grasslands with more different kinds of things and not just one grass but maybe a couple of different kinds of grass, maybe some flowers, then that land will soak up more carbon per acre and that’s a service to society,” Ando said.
Concern about climate change led economists to put a dollar value on reducing carbon emissions. Plants for energy and growth absorb carbon dioxide, the key component in greenhouse gas emissions, then store the carbon in their leaves, stems and roots and later, the carbon transfers to the soil through decay. Ando said the impact biodiversity can play in saving the world is small, but still would be a useful tool, while citing other research that shows forests and agriculture could reduce as much as 17 percent of the carbon necessary each year for keeping climate change at manageable levels.
“You cannot do it all with grass. It’s one tool in the tool kit,” she said.
According to a report from the Risky Business Project – founded in 2013 to assess economic risks to the U.S. associated with climate change – the impact here is already being felt and will likely grow over the next 5-25 years.
For agriculture, for example, farmers in the Midwest and South could see a decline in yields of corn, soy, wheat and cotton by more than 10 percent during the same time period, the report shows – unless they adapt to changing conditions. The average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico from higher sea levels and storm surge could go up from $2 billion to $3.5 billion within the next 15 years.
The tab could grow to as much as $35 billion a year when factoring in hurricanes and other coastal storms, according to the report.
Ando said more plant diversity can reduce those costs by helping to keep global warming at bay. “We’re researchers.We do this research for the long run to increase knowledge and that knowledge is there when called for,” she said.