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Hyde Farm Could Make Duke U Carbon Neutral

Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center.
Jason deBruyn

On Duke University's campus, near the Washington Duke Inn, there's a wetland area that reduces stormwater flooding and improves water quality. Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center and professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment, spearheaded the project.

"We're looking at the water retention pond at the end of the swamp project, which is part of the water restoration, stream and wetland restoration that was done on the Duke campus over the past 10 years," he said.

The area is open to the public and joggers passed regularly on what was a sunny and warm day for mid-December. Richardson said he goes out there twice a week or more. He likes to check on the heron that lives there.

"He's here every day along with a few ducks. He's here to fish every morning and in the evening," Richardson said. "And he's sort of the resident guru of the pond, lets you know the health of it is; and he's doing quite well."

Richardson's new project is by the coast and has more of a climate change goal in mind.

Duke University has acquired rights to create a 10,000-acre carbon farm on privately owned land in Hyde County. If Richardson's plan comes to fruition, the land will help Duke toward its goal of becoming carbon neutral.

"Out there we're trying to store carbon in the ground and in the trees by re-wetting former farmland and using that stored carbon, preventing it from going into the atmosphere.

The farm sits on a tract of pocosin peatlands formerly drained for agriculture. This kind of land is particularly good at soaking up carbon, according to Richardson. Duke doesn't own the land, but has a contract with the landowner – who wished to remain anonymous – to buy carbon credits. In short, Duke emits carbon from its campus and elsewhere through normal energy use. This farm will soak up carbon. In buying carbon credits from this 10,000 acres, Duke could offset its pollution in Durham through the carbon farm in Hyde County.

In addition, Richardson estimates the farm will generate more credits than Duke needs, and those additional credits could be sold to other polluters seeking to offset carbon emissions.

Carbon farming is a new approach for fighting global warming that uses enhanced land management and conservation practices to increase the amount of carbon that current or former agricultural lands pull out of the air and lock away in their soil and vegetation.

"By rewetting and reverting these former peatlands to their natural wetland state, we can significantly increase their capacity for long-term carbon storage," said Richardson.

Environmentalists applauded the project, though emphasized that reducing emissions was still the No. 1 goal to save the planet.

"I think it's a great step the University is taking," said David Rogers with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "It's great news and we're excited that the University is really taking a lead on mitigating the largest impacts of climate change here in North Carolina."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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