Ten steps to better management of our soils

Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal writes, "We are dealing with 10 global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, energy demand, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic instability, and rapid population increase. The solution to all of these lies in soil management. It doesn't mean that agriculture is the only solution, but it plays a major role in addressing these issues."

For the rest, including 10 recommended steps to better soil management, see

Turning air into dirt: Using atmospheric carbon and solar energy to grow the water-holding soils that can feed the world

Our best opportunity for an effective, near-term, and broadly inclusive strategy to address climate change lies beneath our feet. The soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere and forests combined. Though human actions and decisions control them, these enormous flows of carbon in and out of the soil are invisible, and largely outside our awareness and intention.

We can take advantage of this opportunity if we can see it. What follows is not a pet theory or idle speculation. It is based on years of on-site reporting on farms and ranches on several continents.

Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil-fuel burning contributes only about 3.4% of the annual global flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation or land use change, about 0.75%.[1]

Though just a sliver relative to the big picture, these emissions contribute to the likelihood of dangerous climate change. They're bad. But what might happen if we reduce them, or stop them?

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that "both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the time scales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere."[2] Furthermore, "complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century."[3] In other words, with the stiffest reductions imaginable, it may take generations to get atmospheric concentrations down to what climate scientist James Hansen calls safe levels—350 parts per million.

Burning fossil fuels and forests also generates aerosols or fine particles that reflect solar radiation back into space, with significant cooling effects.[4] Loss of these short-lived aerosols would likely result in immediate warming.

FAO recognizes carbon farming

At the recent soil carbon conferences (West Lafayette, Indiana, and Orange, New South Wales), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognized conservation agriculture as a way to sequester carbon in the soil, and recommended that soil carbon be included in the Kyoto treaty as a tradable offset.

Here are two pdf files from the conferences (right click and save link as to download).

The Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

Seeing the carbon/climate problem differently: why we need a soil carbon challenge

1. Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil fuel emissions are only 3.4% of the annual flux of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (Lal 2008). Even with instantaneous and complete elimination of these emissions, it may take generations for atmospheric carbon dioxide to decline to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls safe levels (IPCC 2007a, 2007b).

Reducing fossil-fuel emissions may be a necessary part of long-term climate stability. But in the near term, emissions reductions would have little leverage on the factors of concern for IPCC scientists: positive radiative forcing driven principally by atmospheric carbon dioxide.

2. Taking responsibility means seeing the problem differently. The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a biologically driven cycle. It's a network of self-motivated creatures, most of them microscopic, powered by chemical energy from sunlight, who grow, strive, eat, multiply, respire, and die.

Most of our climate change ideas come from physical science. But biology runs the vast majority of the carbon cycle. Green plants take carbon from the atmosphere using solar energy and make the sugars and carbohydrates that fuel life and growth, and power every action, feeling, and thought. Most of this carbon is returned back into the atmosphere by oxidation, which releases energy: respiration, decay, and fire.

Fossil fuel deposits are the result of photosynthesis exceeding oxidation over a geological time scale. Soil organic matter—carbon compounds that are the residue of past life, the present habitat for underground biodiversity, and the substrate for future life—also stores a solar surplus, but on a shorter time scale.

UNCCD executive secretary highlights link between land degradation and climate change

“The land can be… an opportunity to solve most of the ongoing global crises,” Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), told a news conference in New York.

“If we want to tackle climate change challenges, we must look to the untapped potential of the soil to sequester carbon,” said Mr. Gnacadja, calling it a “win-win” situation. “By doing that, we are improving biodiversity of the soil ecosystem and improving the productivity of the soil, therefore impacting the livelihoods of affected populations.”

The Wrong Trousers

Last year Steve Rayner and Gwyn Prins wrote a fine paper on climate change policy. Though the authors do not show awareness of the soil carbon opportunity, or of biological factors in the carbon cycle in general, the 41-page paper is a splendid takedown of the top-down carbon market approaches exemplified by the Kyoto protocol, and projects a framework into which the soil carbon opportunity fits nicely.

Christine Jones presents at Queensland Landcare Conference

Dr Christine Jones keynote presentation at the 2008 Queensland Landcare Conference, "Sustainability by Design", September 22, 2008, at Monto, Queensland, Australia. For more video visit www.qldlandcareconference.com. Camera by Beryl and Cec Bleys, Monto History Centre. Video and Web Production by eco2oh and THINKeEXTENSION.

Christine Jones has spent 20 years working on the soil carbon opportunity. She is the founder of ASCAS, the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Rodale Institute on the soil carbon opportunity

The Rodale Institute has recently come out with a policy document titled "Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming."

"Successful implementation of regenerative organic farming practices on a national basis will depend on two factors: a strong bottom-up demand for change, and a top-down shift in state and national policy to support farmers in this transition."

Download the report from http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20080425/gw6

Methane: ruminant livestock a minor player in atmospheric levels

Methane is an important greenhouse gas that contributes to global heating. But methane emissions from ruminant digestion play a minor part in atmospheric methane levels, according to a recent article published on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Animal Production and Health branch.

From the oil age to the soil age

A recent PowerPoint presentation by Abe Collins, attached below this article, outlines the soil carbon opportunity, the role of carbon farming, and policy directions to realize the opportunity. Right click and choose "Save link (or target) as" to download it.

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