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Applying Rock Dust to Croplands Could Absorb up to 2 Billion Tonnes of CO2 from the Atmosphere, Research Shows

  • Major new study shows adding rock dust to farmland could remove carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent to more than the current total emissions from global aviation and shipping combined – or around half of Europe’s current total emissions
  • Research identifies the nation-by-nation potential for CO2 drawdown, as well as the costs and the engineering challenges involved
  • Findings reveal the world’s highest emitters (China, India and the US) also have the greatest potential to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using this method
  • Scientists suggest unused materials from mining and the construction industry could be used to help soils remove CO2 from the atmosphere

Adding crushed rock dust to farmland could draw down up to two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air per year and help meet key global climate targets, according to a major new study led by the University of Sheffield.

The technique, known as enhanced rock weathering, involves spreading finely crushed basalt, a natural volcanic rock, on fields to boost the soil’s ability to extract CO2 from the air.

In the first nation-by-nation assessment, published in Nature, scientists have demonstrated the method’s potential for carbon drawdown by major economies, and identified the costs and engineering challenges of scaling up the approach to help meet ambitious global CO2 removal targets. The research was led by experts at the University of Sheffield’s Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation, and the University’s Energy Institute.

Meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global heating to below 2C above pre-industrial levels requires drastic cuts in emissions, as well as the active removal of between two and 10 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This new research provides a detailed initial assessment of enhanced rock weathering, a large-scale CO2 removal strategy that could make a major contribution to this effort. 

The authors’ detailed analysis captures some of the uncertainties in enhanced weathering CO2 drawdown calculations and, at the same time, identifies the additional areas of uncertainty that future work needs to address specifically through large-scale field trials.

The study showed that China, the United States and India – the highest fossil fuel CO2 emitters – have the highest potential for CO2 drawdown using rock dust on croplands. Together, these countries have the potential to remove approximately 1 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, at a cost comparable to that of other proposed carbon dioxide removal strategies (US$80-180 per tonne of CO2).

Indonesia and Brazil, whose CO2 emissions are 10-20 times lower than the US and China, were also found to have relatively high CO2 removal potential due to their extensive agricultural lands, and climates accelerating the efficiency of rock weathering.

The scientists suggest that meeting the demand for rock dust to undertake large-scale CO2 drawdown might be achieved by using stockpiles of silicate rock dust left over from the mining industry, and are calling for governments to develop national inventories of these materials.

Calcium-rich silicate by-products of iron and steel manufacturing, as well as waste cement from construction and demolition, could also be processed and used in this way, improving the sustainability of these industries. These materials are usually recycled as low value aggregate, stockpiled at production sites or disposed of in landfills. China and India could supply the rock dust necessary for large-scale CO2 drawdown with their croplands using entirely recycled materials in the coming decades.

The technique would be straightforward to implement for farmers, who already tend to add agricultural lime to their soils. The researchers are calling for policy innovation that could support multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals using this technology. Government incentives to encourage agricultural application of rock dust could improve soil and farm livelihoods, as well as reduce CO2, potentially benefiting the world’s 2.5 billion smallholders and reducing poverty and hunger.

Professor David Beerling, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: “Carbon dioxide drawdown strategies that can scale up and are compatible with existing land uses are urgently required to combat climate change, alongside deep and sustained emissions cuts. 

“Spreading rock dust on agricultural land is a straightforward, practical CO2 drawdown approach with the potential to boost soil health and food production. Our analyses reveal the big emitting nations – China, the US, India – have the greatest potential to do this, emphasising their need to step up to the challenge. Large-scale Research Development and Demonstration programmes, similar to those being pioneered by our Leverhulme Centre, are needed to evaluate the efficacy of this technology in the field.”

Professor Steven Banwart, a partner in the study and Director of the Global Food and Environment Institute, said: “The practice of spreading crushed rock to improve soil pH is commonplace in many agricultural regions worldwide. The technology and infrastructure already exist to adapt these practices to utilise basalt rock dust. This offers a potentially rapid transition in agricultural practices to help capture CO2 at large scale.”

Professor James Hansen, a partner in the study and Director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said: “We have passed the safe level of greenhouse gases. Cutting fossil fuel emissions is crucial, but we must also extract atmospheric CO2 with safe, secure and scalable carbon dioxide removal strategies to bend the global CO2 curve and limit future climate change. The advantage of CO2 removal with crushed silicate rocks is that it could restore deteriorating top-soils, which underpin food security for billions of people, thereby incentivising deployment.”

Professor Nick Pidgeon, a partner in the study and Director of the Understanding Risk Group at Cardiff University, said: “Greenhouse gas removal may well become necessary as we approach 2050, but we should not forget that it also raises profound ethical questions regarding our relationship with the natural environment. Its development should therefore be accompanied by the widest possible public debate as to potential risks and benefits.”

Ends

Contact

Sophie Armour, Media & PR Officer at the University of Sheffield: 07751 400 287 / 0114 222 3687 / sophie.armour@sheffield.ac.uk 

Notes

Embargoed study available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1m2zUuQMTd_KeJwH9wcNT8jHukHDOKKAs/view?usp=sharing 

FAQs on carbon drawdown with enhanced weathering developed by the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation are available here: http://lc3m.org/faqs/

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

About the Leverhulme Trust

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education.

Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, currently distributing £100 million each year. The Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield is part of a network of seven Leverhulme Trust research centres based in universities throughout the UK.

For more information about the Trust, please visit www.leverhulme.ac.uk  and follow the Trust on Twitter @LeverhulmeTrust

‘Carbon Farming’ Could Make US Agriculture Truly Green

ON A FARM in north-central Indiana, Brent Bible raises 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans that go into producing ethanol fuel, food additives and seeds. In Napa Valley, California, Kristin Belair picks the best grapes from 50 acres of vineyards to create high-end cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc wines. Both are part of a growing number of “carbon farmers” who are reducing planet-warming greenhouse gases by taking better care of the soil that sustains their farms. That means making changes like plowing fields less often, covering soil with composted mulch and year-round cover crops, and turning drainage ditches into rows of trees.

Now Congress is considering legislation that would make these green practices eligible for a growing international carbon trading marketplace that would also reward farmers with cash.

This morning, Bible is scheduled to testify at a Capitol Hill hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee that is considering the carbon farming legislation.

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Regenerative Products Just Might Save the Planet – and the Economy

With the help of science, we’ve come to understand our impact on the planet that is our home. With each item we produce, building we construct, forest we cut down, acre we plow, and journey we make — enabled by resources we derive from our planet’s prehistoric past — we do small amounts of harm to the fragile balance of nature that sustains life. As we’ve replicated our capabilities and developed our ability to scale, those tiny harms have multiplied to the point that the cumulative damage now threatens our planetary life-support system.

Efforts to address this situation have so far consisted of denial, modest efficiency improvements, recycling, and, in some cases, the substitution of products less harmful than their predecessors. But these well-intentioned actions are not nearly enough to stop, let alone reverse, the effects of global climate change. What we need is a way to rewind the ecological tape — a regenerative approach — and the leadership to make it happen.

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Native Plants Sequester Carbon in the Soil for Longer

Exotic plant species release 150 percent more carbon dioxide from the soil than native New Zealand plants, according to a new study from the Bio-Protection Research Centre published in Science.

The research is the latest development in an extended scientific debate over whether to prioritise planting native or exotic species to increase biodiversity and fight climate change.

While it doesn’t upset the longstanding scientific consensus that faster-growing plants sequester more carbon – and that exotic species planted outside their usual range will grow faster – the study does complicate the picture of the carbon cycle.

Carbon cycling and the soil

So what is the carbon cycle and how does CO2 get into the soil in the first place?

“It’s really important to think of it as a cycle,” the study’s lead author Dr Lauren Waller told Newsroom. Waller is a researcher at Lincoln University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Bio-Protection Research Centre.

While most people understand that plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they don’t always realise what happens next.

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A Vision for the Social and Ecological Regeneration of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Wetlands

By Mayra Rubio Lozano

MEXICO CITY – Xochimilco is a city south of Mexico City best known for its canals. The area’s wetlands,  recognized for their important biological and cultural value, are why Xochimilco is named as a World Heritage Site (UNESCO) and Site of Agricultural Importance (FAO). 

Humedalia is a Mexican organization that works for the conservation and restoration of the Mexican wetlands. It is part of the Regeneration International partner network and as such, has applied for the Scientific and Technical committee evaluation program of the 4 per 1000 initiative

Humedalia’s work focuses on the chinampas of Xochimilco. (Chinampas refers to a system of growing crops in floating gardens created in shallow lake beds, using farming techniques developed by the Aztecs).

Agricultural production in chinampas, or islands of arable land, started over 800 years ago.  When the first tribes that settled in the Mexico basin, they were able to produce 4t/ha of crops. These high yields allowed the development of big urban settlements, such as what we have today in Mexico City. These cities generated a big demand for water resources, and ultimately led to the transfer of agriculture to urban soil.

Today, Xochimilco’s wetland and its landscape of chinampas retain only 2 percent of the fresh water that was originally in the basin. This agricultural landscape is highly threatened by processes linked to urbanization and the devaluation of the farmers’ labor. About  80 percent of the chinampas are abandoned, and water pollution has deteriorated the soil’s fertility. The few agricultural producers that remain face steep competition and low profits, because the intensive agricultural model, mostly subsidized, has forced these producers to lower the prices.

Despite the negative impact of urbanization, Xochimilco’s wetlands remain vital for Mexico City. They provide multiple environmental benefits, such as microclimate regulation, water catchment and recharge of the groundwater reserves, oxygen and food production, nutrient recycling and carbon sequestration. In a city where air pollution levels usually exceed healthy standards, carbon sequestration is fundamental for the city’s resilience. Wetlands sequester large amounts of carbon (0.4-32 Mg ha-1 year-1) in their sediments because of their anaerobic conditions, which slow the rate of decay of organic matter, facilitating carbon accumulation. In turn, carbon sequestration can be optimized by using traditional farming techniques (sustainable) in the chinampas in combination with new organic farming techniques, such as the biointensive method. 

This project seeks to increase carbon sequestration through a water-soil systemic approach. By restoring canals and rehabilitating hectares of idle land, the quality of the water available for watering will improve, and the chinampas’ soil will be regenerated, leading to an increase in the amount of the ecosystem’s carbon sequestration.

The project also will contribute to the local endemic flora and fauna’s habitat protection, such as the axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum, a type of salamander known as the Mexican walking fish. Protecting local flora and fauna will help restore the cultural identity linked to ancestral agriculture that survives in the hands of traditional farmers.

This project for regenerating the chinampas soil (rehabilitation, growing and maintenance) will provide the local community opportunities to increase family income and engage multiple generations, creating a space for the exchange of knowledge and experiences about ancestral farming techniques. Women and children who typically don’t participate directly in food production can become involved in marketing, sales and processing. 

In turn, regenerated chinampas will produce healthier foods. 

As part of the Regeneration International partner network, and applying for the 4 per 1000 initiative, Humedalia project helps improve socio-ecological conditions of Xochimilco’s wetland. Carbon sequestration will have a positive direct impact on the air quality of one of the most polluted cities in the world. But the project will also focus on the social aspect, improving the wellbeing of the community by generating self-employment at the chinampas, and creating the right conditions for social participation through collaborative networks that strengthen the community. 

Mayra Rubio Lozano is director of scientific research and sustainable development for Humedalia A.C. To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

 

Regenerative Agriculture Could Save the Planet. Why Doesn’t Everyone Know About It?

Food giant General Mills recently announced that the company is set to partner with farmers to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The company committed to the idea after researching information about Will Harris’ cattle ranch in Georgia. His ranch, White Oak Pastures, uses targeted agricultural methods that have turned the land into a carbon sink, absorbing the majority of emissions caused by the beef production.

The Climate Reality Project explains that “regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. It is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.”

In North Dakota, rancher and farmer Gabe Brown has helped lead this agricultural movement.

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Natural, Biodiverse Forests More Reliable at Fighting Climate Change than Plantations

How reliable are long-lived plantations composed of a few species for carbon capture, when compared with natural tropical forests that comprise many species?

Fighting climate change through reforestation activities, such as large-scale plantations, has gained global traction over recent years. To reduce carbon emissions, international efforts such as the Bonn Challenge and Paris Climate Accord have promoted tapping into the power of trees that suck in and sequester carbon in multiple ways.

Researchers conducted a study in one of India’s biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats. They compared carbon storage and rates of carbon capture of mature mono-dominant plantations, with those of neighboring natural forests harbouring a diverse mix of native species.

Although mono-dominant plantations could match natural biodiverse forests in terms of carbon capture and storage potential, the latter were more stable and hence more reliable in their ability to capture carbon over the years, particularly in the face of droughts.

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Restoring Soils Could Remove up to ‘5.5bn Tonnes’ of Greenhouse Gases Every Year

Replenishing and protecting the world’s soil carbon stores could help to offset up to 5.5bn tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, a study finds.

This is just under the current annual emissions of the US, the world’s second largest polluter after China.

Around 40% of this carbon offsetting potential would come from protecting existing soil carbon stores in the world’s forests, peatlands and wetlands, the authors say.

In many parts of the world, such soil-based “natural climate solutions” could come with co-benefits for wildlife, food production and water retention, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

Ground up

The top metre of the world’s soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it a major carbon sink alongside forests and oceans.

Soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and this is passed to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose.

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Tierras ricas en carbono pueden evitar catástrofes climáticas

ARLINGTON, Estados Unidos, 31 mar 2020 (IPS) – Las tierras ricas en carbono, en bosques, turberas y humedales, pueden ahorrarle al planeta una catástrofe climática, a condición de que no se destruyan ni se degraden, advirtió una investigación de la organización Conservation International divulgada este martes 31.

El carbono irrecuperable se encuentra en seis de los siete continentes en que la organización divide el planeta, incluidas grandes reservas en la Amazonia, en la cuenca del Congo, Indonesia, el noroeste de América del Norte, el sur de Chile, el sudeste de Australia y en Nueva Zelanda.

La investigación, dirigida por los científicos Allie Goldstein y Will Turner, destacó que “el mundo necesita que el carbono irrecuperable que contienen estas tierras, más de 260 000 millones de toneladas, se quede en el suelo”, para alcanzar la meta de emisiones cero requerida en el planeta para el año 2050.

En cambio, si se libera a la atmósfera a través de la destrucción del ecosistema, este carbono generaría 26 veces las emisiones globales de combustible fósil de 2019.

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You’ve Heard of Offsetting, But What in the World Is Carbon Insetting?

These days, paying to plant trees or investing in green projects as a way to balance out your carbon emissions is a pretty standard method of easing your environmental conscience. Known as carbon offsetting, the process has spawned a thriving business making billions of euros every year as companies trade carbon credits to reach climate change goals.

You can now even offset to undo your own personal environmental damage, with airlines and organisations offering to help you take full responsibility for your residual emissions. For a small fee, of course. Increasingly, however, this sustainability solution has come under fire from activists as being little more than greenwashing. Critics have compared it to the practice of selling indulgences in the ancient Catholic church; you can live how you want as long as you have the money to buy off your sins.

What if, instead of making environmental protection a side issue, businesses made these kinds of carbon-absorbing projects a part of the new normal?

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