Can "carbon ranching" actually help California in the short term? The basic understanding is that carbon gets absorbed by plants and trees. The more plants and trees there are, the more carbon emissions can be removed from the air. However, things are not that simple as plants and trees require water and tending. Eventually, the plants and trees die. When they die, plants and trees release the carbon that was stored in them. According to a Sept. 23 WFDD article, scientists have been studying the vast tropical forests of Peru with an airborne observatory. Those scientists have some ideas about paying heavily forested countries not to cut their trees down because they store vast amounts of carbon emissions.
The idea of using plantings to capture carbon emissions is nothing new. In 2011, the idea of paying farmers to grow forests or dense fields of weeds came up in California. A December 7, 2011 NPR article hints that, when power producers are short on carbon offsets, such deals would provide some relief. The California Air Resources Board cited the NPR article, but there are still no clear programs that support paying farmers or ranchers to grow plants in exchange for carbon offsets.
When we look at the endless ranges of golden grasses that cover the hills in California, we are looking at plant material that has released any carbon it has stored. If those landowners could get enough water to keep some of those areas green, it could result in some serious carbon offsets.
Sadly, two things make the idea a difficult one to carry out. First, California cannot support both a boom in fracking for oil extraction and farming for food. This means diverting water to grow weeds or to keep the hillsides green is very unlikely. The watersheds are at record lows and the underground aquifers of the western U.S. are in trouble.
However, if fallow fields can be brought back to life with useful crops, there would be a reasonable expectation that carbon offset money could also help to grow food or fodder while creating areas that capture carbon emissions.