In other words, the strategy of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, by itself, has little effect or leverage on the atmospheric concentrations. By treating global heating as a problem of energy, emissions, or technology alone, we only get to decide whether to wreck our climate slightly faster or slightly slower.
There is a biological side to global warming and the carbon cycle. Carbon is a main ingredient of all life, and of its remains. While planting trees is rightly discounted as a way to reduce atmospheric carbon, we could increase soil organic matter (58% carbon by dry weight) rapidly and cheaply. This will pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere while also enhancing soil fertility, water quality, food quality and human health, and also reducing floods, droughts, and agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals.
How it works
Biological processes, such as photosynthesis and respiration, drive 99% of the carbon cycle. There is more carbon in soils than in vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Soil carbon can be more stable than plant carbon (less subject to oxidation or burning).
Good topsoil is rich in organic matter. To create topsoil, combine minerals, air, water, living things in the soil, living things on the soil, and intermittent disturbance such as grazing (we typically overlook these last two). Do not turn the soil over with plows. Because the roots of perennial grasses give off carbohydrates, and periodically die off, carbon-rich topsoil can be formed fastest by grasslands. The cast-off grassroots, and the carbohydrates exuded by these roots, nourish entire underground communities of soil organisms. These interactions over time produce stable organic matter from dead plant material.
Outside inputs are not always required, but management is---working with rather than against biospheric processes such as water and nutrient cycling.
Why this may be surprising news
The development of soil organic matter in cropland and grassland soils in the world could take atmospheric carbon concentrations down to preindustrial levels, if we also quit burning fossil fuels. (See the calculation.) This would require a transformation of agriculture and land management, and of decision making and politics as well---all tending to increase the resilience of local communities.
Much current federal and local policies work against the creation and retention of soil organic matter. The farm bill, federal public lands policies, and state and local policies all have a huge bearing on soil organic matter, as does the structure and function of a carbon market. The newly formed Soil Carbon Coalition would like your help in spreading awareness of the opportunity and in developing sound policies.
Soil Carbon Coalition is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization