Native Shrubs and Why They’re Essential for Carbon Sequestration

“Shrubbiness is such a remarkable adaptive design that one may wonder why more plants have not adopted it.” (H. C. Stutz, 1989)

In light of the newest IPCC and US climate change reports, coupled with reports of the ongoing declines of wild species—birds, insects—you name them, just so long as they aren’t human, I have turned to thinking about shrubs. It is precisely their adaptive characteristics that give shrubs their potential to be powerful players in soil carbon sequestration and ecosystem regeneration in certain parts of the world, such as the Midwest.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Although alarming, the reports are not surprising to anyone who’s been keeping track. The IPCC report says human global society has 12 years to reduce carbon emissions to 45% below 2010 levels if there is to be any hope of holding overall average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).


US Could Cut Emissions More Than One-Fifth Through ‘Natural Climate Solutions’ Like Reforestation

More than one-fifth of current greenhouse gas emissions in the United States could be kept out of the atmosphere and stored in the land, according to new research.

A study led by Joseph E. Fargione, director of science at The Nature Conservancy, looks at the natural solutions that could help the US do its part to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (approximately 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the goal adopted by the 195 countries who signed the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015.

Photo credit: Pexels

Fargione and team examined 21 natural climate solutions that increase carbon storage and help avoid the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, including conservation and restoration initiatives as well as improved management of forests, grasslands, farmlands, and wetlands. According to a study published in the journal Science Advances last week detailing their findings, the researchers’ analysis reveals that all of these natural climate strategies combined could reduce global warming emissions by an amount equivalent to about 21 percent of US net emissions in 2016.

“We found a maximum potential of 1.2 (0.9 to 1.6) Pg CO2e year−1 [petagrams of CO2 equivalent per year], the equivalent of 21% of current net annual emissions of the United States,” the researchers write in the study. “NCS would also provide air and water filtration, flood control, soil health, wildlife habitat, and climate resilience benefits.”

The majority — some 63 percent — of the climate mitigation potential of natural solutions in the US is due to increased carbon sequestration in plant biomass, with 29 percent coming from increased carbon sequestration in soil and 7 percent from avoided emissions of methane and Nitrous oxide. Of the 21 natural solutions the researchers analyzed, increased reforestation efforts had the largest carbon storage potential, equivalent to keeping 65 million passenger cars off the road.

Climate mitigation potential of 21 NCS in the United States. Credit: Fargione et al. (2018). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat1869

“Reforestation has the single largest maximum mitigation potential (307 Tg CO2e year−1 [teragrams of CO2 equivalent per year]),” the researchers write. “The majority of this potential occurs in the northeast (35%) and south central (31%) areas of the United States. This mitigation potential increases to 381 Tg CO2e year−1 if all pastures in historically forested areas are reforested.”

Forests provide a number of other solutions with great potential, such as increasing carbon storage by allowing longer periods between timber harvests and reducing the risk of mega-fire through controlled burns and thinning of forests, the researchers found.

“One of America’s greatest assets is its land. Through changes in management, along with protecting and restoring natural lands, we demonstrated we could reduce carbon pollution and filter water, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and have better soil health to grow our food — all at the same time,” Fargione said in a statement. “Nature offers us a simple, cost-effective way to help fight global warming.”

Fargione and his co-authors note that close to a million acres of forest in the US are converted to non-forest every year, mostly as a result of suburban and exurban expansion and development, but that this source of greenhouse gas emissions could be addressed with better land use planning.

“Clearing of forests with conversion to other land uses releases their carbon to the atmosphere, and this contributes to rising temperatures,” said co-author Christopher A. Williams, an environmental scientist and associate professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. “Land owners and land managers are thinking about how they might use their land base to slow the pace of climate change, but until now they lacked the data needed to assess this potential.”

Williams added: “We estimated how much forest is being lost each year across the U.S., and the amount of carbon that releases to the atmosphere. Turning these trends around can take a dent out of global warming, and now we know how much and where the potential is greatest.”

The researchers also estimated the emissions reductions that could be accomplished for $10, $50, and $100 per megagram of CO2 equivalent, and found that 25 percent, 76 percent, and 91 percent, respectively, of the maximum mitigation could be achieved at those prices. This is a key finding, they say, because “a price of at least USD 100 is thought to be needed to keep the 100-year average temperature from warming more than 2.5°C, and an even higher price may be needed to meet the Paris Agreement <2°C target.”

US President Donald Trump has said he plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, but the earliest any country can do so is 2020. The US’ Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement calls for the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Reaching that goal will require the US to drastically scale back the burning of fossil fuels, but this new study shows that NCS will also have a crucial role to play.

“Reducing carbon-intensive energy consumption is necessary but insufficient to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement,” the researchers write. “Comprehensive mitigation efforts that include fossil fuel emission reductions coupled with NCS hold promise for keeping warming below 2°C.”

Forest in Borderland State Park, Massachusetts. 35 percent of the climate mitigation potential of reforestation in the United States occurs in northeastern forests. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC0.



• Fargione, J. E., Bassett, S., Boucher, T., Bridgham, S. D., Conant, R. T., Cook-Patton, S. C., … & Gu, H. (2018). Natural climate solutions for the United States. Science Advances, 4(11), eaat1869. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat1869

Reposted with permission from Mongabay

Landscapes That Work for Biodiversity and People


Biodiversity is under siege, with greatly enhanced rates of local and global extinction and the decline of once-abundant species. Current rates of human-induced climate change and land use forecast the Anthropocene as one of the most devastating epochs for life on earth. How do we handle the Anthropocene’s triple challenge of preventing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and sustainably providing resources for a growing human population? The answer is in how we manage Earth’s “working lands”; that is, farms, forests, and rangelands. These lands must be managed both to complement the biodiversity conservation goals of protected areas and to maintain the diverse communities of organisms, from microbes to mammals, that contribute to producing food, materials, clean water, and healthy soils; sequestering greenhouse gases; and buffering extreme weather events, functions that are essential for all life on Earth.

Photo credit: Pexels


Protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation.


This German Teen Is Leading a Global Plan to Plant a Trillion Trees

Felix Finkbeiner, 19, has already planted 15 billion saplings.

Author: John Vidal | Published: March 27, 2018

Felix Finkbeiner is a young man in a hurry to get the world to plant trees. The 19-year-old from a small Bavarian village near Munich, now studying at a university in London, has founded a global youth movement, Plant For The Planet, which has spearheaded the planting of over 15 billion saplings, signed up 75,000 children as climate ambassadors.

Alongside setting up Change Chocolate, a successful fair-trade chocolate company to raise money, the tall, spectacled teenager has joined with three of the world’s biggest conservation charities to launch the most ambitious reforestation project in history.

The Trillion Tree campaign aims to get the world to plant 1 trillion trees in the next 30 years. To put that into context, scientists calculate there are currently 3 trillion trees growing worldwide.

Each mature tree absorbs about 22 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, Finkbeiner says, “so one trillion could capture 25 percent of all human-made CO2 emissions and help to keep global temperature rise below the crucial 2-degree C limit. It does not replace the need to avoid carbon emissions, as agreed in Paris, but is a necessary addition.”


The Park City Council Considers Using Animals To Reach Their Netzero Goals

Author: Melissa Allison | Published: July 20, 2018

The Park City Council has some big goals to eliminate the city’s carbon footprint. Staff’s latest find includes putting cows and horses out to pasture.

Two years ago the Park City Council signed a proclamation to have a zero carbon impact by 2022 for city operations. City leaders instructed staff to look for new ways to go green. Since then, the city has increased its use of solar, collaborating with Rocky Mountain Power to build a solar farm. The city also added electric buses to its fleet.

At Thursday’s meeting Environmental Sustainability Manager Luke Cartin told council about a new idea – using animals to graze the city’s open space.

By using cows, horses and other animals to graze on the city’s open space, they’re allowing nature to step back in and as the animals churn the ground with their hooves, the natural order of things will return.


An Open Goal: Why Forests and Nature Need to Be at the Center of the Sustainable Development Agenda

Author: Alistair Monument and Hermine Kleymann | Published: July 9, 2018

In fewer than 900 days, the world will have halted deforestation, taken urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity, and ensured that ecosystems are being conserved, restored and sustainably used.

That, at least, is part of what the governments of the 193 countries of the United Nations agreed to in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The above commitments are just a few of the targets due to be achieved by 2020 under SDG 15, ‘Life on Land.’

So how is it going? Not too well, unfortunately. Recently released figures show that, far from being halted, global tree cover loss actually increased by 51% in 2016; for tropical tree cover loss, 2017 was the second-worst year on record. And with wildlife abundance projected to decline by two-thirds between 1970 and 2020, dramatic changes will be needed to reverse the long-term trend.

This should set alarm bells ringing. Failure to meet these targets wouldn’t simply be a setback towards achieving SDG 15. It would also threaten our ability to meet the other SDGs – which are closely linked to targets set out for Life on Land – and undermine the very foundation of sustainable development.


Restoring Degraded Landscapes in Niger with Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration

Author: Cathy Watson | Published: June 29, 2018

Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) of trees made headlines several years ago when 5 million hectares of Niger were found to have re-greened via the practice. FMNR is the encouragement of regeneration (and then management) of trees and shrubs that sprout from stumps, roots, and seeds found in degraded soils, such as those currently under agricultural production. Once established in farm fields, these new woody plants improve soil fertility and moisture for crops planted in combination with them, in a system known as agroforestry.

The news from Niger provided hope that a low-tech and low-cost approach could succeed after many years of failed tree planting efforts. Researchers crowded in and found that FMNR increased grain yields by 30%, boosted incomes, and was climate smart.

But a decade later, two scientists from Burkina Faso associated with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) are still drilling down into the data.

Dr. Jules Bayala is Chief Scientist for the Sahel and Dr Patrice Sawadogo is a senior scientist. Cathy Watson, Chief of Programme Development at ICRAF, interviewed them for Mongabay about trees, soil carbon, and productivity to discuss whether FMNR is the fastest way to restore degraded landscapes, and if it has utility beyond drylands.

Cathy Watson: Why are you studying FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Since childhood I’d seen farmers regenerate trees. Then, when I grew up, experts claimed that FMNR is climate smart. Yet in the literature, we didn’t have sound evidence. I wanted to build scientific knowledge.

A farmer removes side stems from a Guiera senegalensis, the first step in encouraging the strong central stem to take advantage of the root system. Photo courtesy of ICRAF/P. Savadogo


Jules Bayala: FMNR had been practiced in Niger for quite some years. Yet nobody had assessed it systematically. We knew it was good, but by how much? Our idea was to be neutral.

Cathy Watson: You wanted more than positive stories. What else?

Patrice Savadogo: Well, we already knew that the most important thing that trees can do in the Sahel to sustain soil productivity is to improve soil carbon because that improves soil structure. The soil stays moist longer and that increases the ability of cereals to take up nutrients. So, we wanted to look at FMNR and carbon sequestration in trees and carbon accumulation in the soil.

Cathy Watson: And how have you been doing this?

Jules Bayala: Earlier studies used classes of adopters – people who adopted FMNR 15, 10, five years ago and those who had not adopted. So, we divided 160 farmers into those classes and sampled soil from the trunks of trees to the open area where we expected no tree effect.

Patrice Savadogo: We calculated above ground carbon by inventorying the species and numbers of trees and measuring the diameter of the stem and crown. To see what is going on below ground, we sampled soil to one meter deep.

At the World Agroforestry Centre, Dr Jules Bayala is Principal Scientist in the Sahel. Dr Patrice Savadogo is its Dryland Agroforestry System Scientist. Both from Burkina Faso and grew up watching their fathers work with trees. Image courtesy of ICRAF


Cathy Watson: What did you find?

Jules Bayala: If we look at the pattern of carbon, we see a decreasing amount going from tree trunk to the open area. It shows clearly that trees contribute to soil carbon. We can say definitively that FMNR replenishes carbon in soil.

Patrice Savadogo: Also important was that the more the soil is sandy, the bigger the effect of carbon addition. That is very critical because most soil in the Sahel is sandy. Generally, for carbon, FMNR is very good. We’ve measured other elements but, for the soil in the Sahel, carbon is key. You can bring in nitrogen. It is much more difficult to bring in carbon.

Cathy Watson: What do you mean by above and below ground carbon, and how do they relate to trees?

Jules Bayala: Carbon comes through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis takes carbon from the atmosphere and accumulates it as biomass. This biomass is recycled in the soil through leaf litter and root decay. In the soil’s top layer, carbon comes from leaves and animal droppings. Deeper down, it comes from fine root hairs that break down. By far the greatest amount of carbon in the soil comes from these roots for the simple reason that leaves get blown away and you have bush fires. What enters the soil from leaves is very little compared to what stays in the soil layer. Roots behave like leaves. The period you have the maximum leaves, you have a corresponding maximum of fine root hairs. When leaves decay, roots decay too.

Cathy Watson: And the relationship between FMNR, carbon and crop production?

Patrice Savadogo: Very strong. In fact, we believe that without FMNR, soil will have a very low yield or not produce any crop. Because the main problem with soil in the Sahel is the low carbon. We found that on farms where you have FMNR, soil carbon is better, and it relates to the presence of trees. Where you find a very limited number of trees, you find low production of cereals – maybe 200 kg/ha. As tree density increases, yield reaches 300 kg/ha. The most we found was 500 kg, usually where FMNR had been for quite some time. That doubling of yield is due to trees.

A field of millet in Mopti, Mali, already showing benefits from newly preserved individuals of Combretum glutinosum that a farmer is assisting to resprout from stumps. This is a fast-growing drought-resistant shrub common in the Sahel where rainfall is 200-700 mm per year. Photo courtesy of ICRAF/P. Savadogo

Cathy Watson: What about other benefits from FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Farms with no trees or a very limited number are more fragile when there is a shock. When you have a drought spell, the crops suffer more than in places with more trees. Crops that grow next to trees perform better than those further away because of the soil carbon but also the microclimate around the tree. You see the millet plant being taller with a bigger head of grain.

Cathy Watson: How does FMNR work? Is there a particular sequence?

Jules Bayala: FMNR is when farmers encourage naturally-occurring trees. In the 1970s in the Sahel, trees were top killed by a period of aridity and then cut for firewood. But the roots kept living in an underground forest. Farmers prune the stems from the living stumps to encourage the strongest ones to shoot up into trees. There is also germination of seeds from the bank of seed in the soil. But about 95% of the trees come from stumps.

Patrice Savadogo: The younger the farm is in its practice of FMNR, the less the tree diversity. Regeneration of those stumps and the germination of existing seed gives you trees. Those trees attract birds or mammals that bring in more seed, and you start to see new species and more diversity. In Niger, you start with Guiera senegalensis. The farmer will say, “This species was there when I started.” Then species like Acacia seberiana and Bosia sengalensis appear, and Balanitis aegyptiaca is brought in by camels in their droppings.

Cathy Watson: How many trees can a farmer achieve?

Jules Bayala: In the beginning they have few. They select and nurture them. Livestock are roaming around. You have to protect them until they reach a certain stage. It’s long. But the density can reach more than 200 stems per acre. Then farmers reach a point where they must reduce them. They get a lot of firewood that generates substantial income in countries like Niger where the fallows, bush and forest are gone.

Bayala showing a newly regenerated Faidherbia albida in a cotton field in Southern Burkina Faso. Besides fixing nitrogen, this species sheds its leaves during the cropping season thus competing less with annual crops for light. During the dry season, it puts out leaves, providing protein rich forage to livestock during this critical period of quality feed shortage. Image courtesy of ICRAF


Cathy Watson: Is it best to have many species or fine to have just Guiera, for instance?

Patrice Savadogo: Different species is best. We looked at the nitrogen-fixing trees and non-nitrogen fixers that farmers preserve. A farm with five to eight species, of which one to two are nitrogen fixers, will have more benefits for its soil than if you only have Guiera and Piliostigma, which don’t fix nitrogen.

Cathy Watson: Is FMNR better than planting trees?

Jules Bayala: It’s much easier. “Better” depends on what you want. If you are targeting soil restoration and wood energy, FMNR is far better. If you are targeting fruit trees and the seed for fruit trees is not in the soil, you will not get them. In the first years of FMNR, the farmer can only work from the stocks and seeds he has.

Cathy Watson: Are there limits to FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Yes, we cannot regreen only with FMNR. We must combine it with tree planting because if the farmer does not have rootstock, what do you regenerate? We also need to improve soil moisture because even with FMNR, if you don’t have good soil moisture, trees will not develop well. Zai pits, stone lines, and half-moon techniques hold water.

Jules Bayala: I agree. In this very harsh climate where you have eight months of no rain, you need those water conservation structures. They catch a seed as rain washes it along, and the space around them is a niche with higher humidity which helps the seed survive.

Cathy Watson: Is the case closed? FMNR is good?

Patrice Savadogo: No, we need to know more to recommend the optimum density and diversity of trees to optimize crop production.

Jules Bayala: It is not closed. We need permanent plots where you go back frequently and do the same measurements and get solid data showing the trend with time.

Cathy Watson: What about the farmers?

Patrice Savadogo: In Niger, farmers now preserve trees and are very discerning. They can say, “We don’t want Acacia. The thorns puncture our bike tires.” But they preserve Balanitis despite its thorns because it is big, the leaves are sauce and fodder, and the seeds give oil. Farmers know a lot. They regenerate trees by feeding seed to livestock – some germinates better if it goes through the gut. But we need still more uptake of FMNR in Niger and across the Sahel.

This feature is part of an ongoing series about the global implementation of agroforestry, view all articles in the series here.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

Can Carbon Farming Help Save the Outback?

In Western Australia, pastoral lease reform raises hopes for people and their land

Authors: Pepe Clarke & David Mackenzie | Published: June 18, 2018

In the Outback of Western Australia, pastoral leaseholders have for years faced a tough choice: Graze livestock in an unsustainable and land-damaging way, or go easy on the land while sliding toward financial hardship.

That’s because the Western Australia pastoral lease system, which covers one-third of the state and an area bigger than Texas, historically restricted leaseholders to grazing livestock as their primary business, even though degraded land has rendered grazing unprofitable in many areas. As a result, a growing number of Western Australians have chosen a third option—leaving the region—just at a time when the Outback needs more occupants, not fewer, to prevent the spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and uncontrolled wildfires.

In an effort to reverse that trend and help repair the landscape, the Western Australian government in April began allowing a new line of business—carbon farming—on lands once reserved for grazing. Carbon farming, which essentially means working the land in a way that maximizes the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the native vegetation and soil, is a way for landowners to gain carbon credits that they can then sell to companies seeking to offset their emissions.


Savory Institute Offers Land to Market Pilot Program

Author: Kerry Halladay | Published: April 16, 2018

Are you a good steward of your land? Would you like to see that effort recognized in the market?

The Savory Institute is in the process of on-boarding producers in a pilot project to do just that. The “Land to Market” verification program is an attempt to market management practices that improve the landscape.

“Ranching has such an amazing story to tell that right now isn’t being shared,” Chris Kerston, Savory Institute’s director of public outreach, told WLJ.

“We have all these producers who are doing a good job—better than a good job, they’re doing amazing things on the land—and they don’t have a mechanism to share that with brands who will then share it with consumers. We really wanted to create a facilitation for that.”


When Nature Says ‘Enough!’: The River That Appeared Overnight in Argentina

A new watercourse is playing havoc with farmland and roads and even threatening a city – but also highlights the potential cost of the country’s dependence on soya beans

Author: Uki Goñi | Published: April 1, 2018

After a night of heavy rainfall, Ana Risatti woke to an ominous roar outside her home. Mistaking the noise for a continuation of the night’s downpour, she stepped outside to look.

“I nearly fainted when I saw what it really was,” said Risatti, 71. Instead of falling from the sky, the water she heard was rushing down a deep gully it had carved overnight just beyond the wire fence around her home.

The sudden appearance of a network of new rivers in Argentina’s central province of San Luis has puzzled scientists, worried environmentalists and disheartened farmers. It has also raised urgent questions over the environmental cost of Argentina’s dependence on soya beans, its main export crop.

“The roar was terrifying,” said Risatti, remembering that morning three years ago. “The land had opened up like a canyon. Water was pushing through as far as I could see. Huge mounds of earth, grass and trees were being carried along the water surface.”