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Global warming's invisible solution

Posted by Peter Donovan 13 years, 3 months ago

Suppose we cut fossil fuel emissions to zero by dawn tomorrow. Could we put a stop to global warming?

No. Yet reducing emissions seems to be the only prescription available. We argue about dosage and timing, whether it’s bitter or sweet, whether x or y is a better approach. No wonder most of us aren’t very motivated, and progress has been slight. Try as we might, we will only delay the inevitable planetary wreck.

Unless we also reclaim the extra carbon—the extra greenhouse blanket—from the atmosphere. This takes energy. It’s combustion in reverse. Where do we get the energy, and how do we dispose of all the resulting carbon dioxide? This is a very tough problem for our favored rocket-science approaches.

The elemental and sobering reality is that technology is not the answer to this problem. But the good news is that there is a huge opportunity to pull the excess carbon out of the air—using abundant, cheap, current solar energy. Not techno-green, but chlorophyll-green. Grass.

In wet places, trees extract more carbon from the atmosphere than grass. But even trees don’t hold this carbon very long before returning it to the air via decay or fire. Oceanic plankton fix a lot of carbon, but can’t hold much of it out of circulation either. To fix the other half of our climate problem, we need a large, long-term reservoir of carbon, supplied at a good rate by green plants, and over which we have lots of influence.

When we’re in the pasture, the field, or the garden, we’re standing on it. Even in its presently depleted state, the soil holds more carbon than the atmosphere plus all the world’s vegetation combined. Soil organic matter (which is mostly carbon) can last for centuries—barring exposure to the elements, tillage, harsh chemical applications, or significant warming. Unlike carbon dioxide burial, organic carbon in the soil enhances every aspect of our life-support system: water-holding capacity and drought resistance, water quality, biodiversity including underground and marine, human health, true fertility, viable rural communities, and the stability of the soil itself. In temperate climates under intense but observant management, perennial grasses can grow a huge underground crop of soil carbon as they periodically shed their roots.

Colin Seis, an innovative grain and sheep farmer near Gulgong in Australia, has doubled the organic carbon in his soil in little more than a decade. He didn’t set out to do this. In order to make his operation profitable, and to regenerate the fertility lost by a century of misguided farming practices, he began sowing cereal crops directly into perennial pasture, thus combining farming and intensive grazing while reducing herbicides and tillage. Profits increased because inputs decreased. Another thousand Australian farmers are following his lead, and the system is spreading to North America and Europe. “The hardest thing to change is your head. Once you’ve done that, the rest is easy,” he says. “Don’t spend a cent,” he advises farmers. “Throw away your disc plow. Put your animals into large mobs and start moving them around.”

Seis’s pasture cropping is only one of many branches of a growing rebellion against the input/output, monocultural, confined livestock, soil-wasting, and life-denying travesties of industrial farming. What these various branches have in common is a decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and chemicals, synergy between animals, grass, and soil, and the habit of enhancing natural processes such as water and carbon cycling, biodiversity, and solar energy in order to cut costs and enjoy a better life. In countless cases the result is a rising spiral that is totally at odds with the scarcity-based, zero-sum beliefs and behaviors of both industrial agriculture and protectionist environmentalism.

Were we to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and manage soils for rising spirals of organic matter, as Colin Seis and many others have already demonstrated, the ongoing destabilization of the world’s climate could be stopped. We could reverse the desertification and land degradation that drive the Dust Bowls and the Darfurs.

This marvelous opportunity is all but invisible. Why?

  1. Basic knowledge and awareness of soil processes and potentials is not widespread. With cheap fossil energy and chemical farming, it hasn’t seemed all that important.
  2. Because human impact is so often the villain, many of us believe that ecological problems will fix themselves if we simply restrict or reduce human impact. (They might, but not on a timescale that favors us or our descendants.)
  3. Our special interests–which influence our media, our government, and the research priorities of universities–aren’t fond of cheap low-tech solutions. They benefit, in both money and power, from things staying more or less the way they are.

Most of the academic research on soil carbon looks only at industrial agriculture, and what happens when you stop tillage, chemicals, or idle the land. The resulting modest gains suggest that soil might be able to mitigate or offset further fossil fuel burning, so as to extend business as usual a little longer.

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We citizens can opt out of this madness in lots of ways. First is simply recognizing the huge opportunity we have to solve the problem if we stop fossil fuel burning and store the atmospheric excess carbon as beneficial soil organic matter while revitalizing agriculture, soil stability, drought resistance, and human health worldwide. With enough grass-roots recognition, the ongoing racket of prescribing partial or ineffective solutions will ebb, along with the backlash it produces. Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming by Allan Yeomans simply describes this opportunity in detail, as well as the forces that oppose it.

Second, support the growing number of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are enhancing soil with passion and skill. These people are engaged in transformational change, to a new postindustrial agriculture. They are not polished executives or experts from the centers of power. They are from the edge, and they are ahead of us all, already doing what needs to be done. Let’s buy our food from them, and learn from them. Our current farm policies abet the continued release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, along with rising obesity and disconnect from our life-support system. Soil carbon could connect farm policy with what we all want.

Global warming requires us to transform our energy policy and technology. But solving it also requires us to keep our soils covered with plants, which feed the complex underground foodwebs that form soil organic matter. We could not ask for better opportunities.

See also this article by Allan Savory and Christopher Peck.