Can Dirt Save the Earth?

  • Agriculture could pull carbon out of the air and into the soil — but it would mean a whole new way of thinking about how to tend the land.
  • The I.P.C.C. is preparing a special report on climate change and land use, to be finalized in 2019, that will consider in greater detail the potential of sequestering carbon in soil.

  • The biggest international effort to promote carbon farming is a French-led initiative called “four per 1,000″ to increase the amount of carbon in the soil of crop- and rangelands by 0.4 percent per year through agroforestry (growing trees and crops together increases carbon retention), no-till agriculture (plowing causes erosion and carbon loss) and keeping farmland covered (bare dirt bleeds carbon) among other actions. Doing so, the French argue, could completely halt the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • By 2050, California aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans.

April 18 2018 Read full NYTimes article here

…Climate change often evokes images of smokestacks, and for good reason: The single largest source of carbon emissions related to human activity is heat and power generation, which accounts for about one-quarter of the carbon we put into the atmosphere. Often overlooked, though, is how we use land, which contributes almost as much. The erosion and degradation of soil caused by plowing, intense grazing and clear-cutting has played a significant role in the atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gases. The process is an ancient one. Ice cores from Greenland, which contain air samples trapped thousands of years ago, reveal increases in greenhouse gases that correspond with the rise of farming in Mesopotamia.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, agricultural practices and animal husbandry have released an estimated 135 gigatons — 135 billion metric tons — of carbon into the atmosphere, according to Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University. Even at current rates, that’s more than a decade’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions from all human sources. The world is warming not only because fossil fuels are being burned, but also because soils, forests and wetlands are being ravaged.

In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask whether we can put some of that carbon back into the soil and into living ecosystems, like grasslands and forests. This notion, known as carbon farming, has gained traction as it becomes clear that simply reducing emissions will not sufficiently limit global warming. According to the 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an authority on climate science that operates under the auspices of the United Nations, humankind also needs to remove some of the carbon already in the atmosphere to avoid, say, the collapse of polar glaciers and the inundation of coastal cities worldwide. “We can’t just reduce emissions,” Keith Paustian, a soil scientist at Colorado State University and an author of an earlier I.P.C.C. report, told me. “It’s all hands on deck. Things like soil and land use — everything is important.”…

…Nearly all the carbon that enters the biosphere is captured during photosynthesis, and as it moves through life’s web, every organism takes a cut for its own energy needs, releasing carbon dioxide as exhaust. This circular voyage is the short-term carbon cycle. Carbon farming seeks to interfere with this cycle, slowing the release of carbon back into the atmosphere. The practice is often conceptualized and discussed in terms of storing carbon, but really the idea is to change the flow of carbon so that, for a time at least, the carbon leaving a given ecosystem is less than the carbon entering it.

Dozens of land-management practices are thought to achieve this feat. Planting or restoring forests, for one: Trees lock up carbon in woody material. Another is adding biochar, a charcoal made from heated organic material, directly to soil. Or restoring certain wetlands that have an immense capacity to hold carbon. (Coal beds are the fossilized remains of ancient marshes and peatlands.)

More than one-third of earth’s ice-free surface is devoted to agriculture, meaning that much of it is already managed intensively. Carbon farming’s fundamental conceit is that if we change how we treat this land, we could turn huge areas of the earth’s surface into a carbon sponge. Instead of relying solely on technology to remove greenhouse gases from the air, we could harness an ancient and natural process, photosynthesis, to pump carbon into what’s called the pedosphere, the thin skin of living soil at the earth’s surface. If adopted widely enough, such practices could, in theory, begin to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, nudging us toward a less perilous climate trajectory than our current one….

…The I.P.C.C. is preparing a special report on climate change and land use, to be finalized in 2019, that will consider in greater detail the potential of sequestering carbon in soil. But for now the biggest international effort to promote carbon farming is a French-led initiative called “four per 1,000.” The proposal aims to increase the amount of carbon in the soil of crop- and rangelands by 0.4 percent per year through a variety of agricultural and forestry practices. These include agroforestry (growing trees and crops together increases carbon retention), no-till agriculture (plowing causes erosion and carbon loss) and keeping farmland covered (bare dirt bleeds carbon). Doing so, the French argue, could completely halt the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

….But it is California, already in the vanguard on climate-mitigation efforts, that has led the way on carbon farming. By 2050, the state aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans. San Francisco, which already has the largest urban composting program in the country, hopes to become a model carbon-farming metropolis. Cities don’t have much room to plant trees or undertake other practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere, says Deborah Raphael, the director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. But they can certainly produce plenty of compost. “If we can show other cities how doable it is to get green waste out of landfills, we can prove the concept,” Raphael told me. “We like to say that San Francisco rehearses the future.”

Many of California’s carbon-farming efforts owe a debt to Wick, Creque and Silver. In 2008, they founded the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of ranchers, scientists and land managers. The goal is to develop science-based carbon-farming practices and to help establish the incentives needed to encourage California farmers to adopt them. Silver continues to publish her findings in respected journals. Creque also started a nonprofit, the Carbon Cycle Institute, that assists farmers and ranchers in making carbon-farming plans.