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Restoring Natural Forests is the Best Way to Remove Atmospheric Carbon

Keeping global warming below 1.5 °C to avoid dangerous climate change1requires the removal of vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as drastic cuts in emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that around 730 billion tonnes of CO2 (730 petagrams of CO2, or 199 petagrams of carbon, Pg C) must be taken out of the atmosphere by the end of this century2. That is equivalent to all the CO2 emitted by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and China since the Industrial Revolution. No one knows how to capture so much CO2.

Forests must play a part. Locking up carbon in ecosystems is proven, safe and often affordable3. Increasing tree cover has other benefits, from protecting biodiversity to managing water and creating jobs.

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Can Soil Microbes Slow Climate Change?

With global carbon emissions hitting an all-time high in 2018, the world is on a trajectory that climate experts believe will lead to catastrophic warming by 2100 or before. Some of those experts say that to combat the threat, it is now imperative for society to use carbon farming techniques that extract carbon dioxide from the air and store it in soils. Because so much exposed soil across the planet is used for farming, the critical question is whether scientists can find ways to store more carbon while also increasing agricultural yields.

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David Johnson of New Mexico State University thinks they can. The recipe, he says, is to tip the soil’s fungal-to-bacterial ratio strongly toward the fungi. He has shown how that can be done. Yet it is not clear if techniques can be scaled up economically on large commercial farms everywhere.

 

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There’s a Better Way to Help the Climate than Abstaining from Beef

Jan. 4 Community Voices commentary posed this question: “Why aren’t we all addressing climate change at each meal by skipping the meat?”

The campaign to fight climate change by avoiding eating meat is well-intentioned but not well-informed. In 2017, agriculture contributed 8.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and meat production was responsible for some part of that. But peer-reviewed studies show that even eliminating all of our cattle would have a relatively minor effect on climate change. In contrast, incorporating cattle into a regenerative agriculture system could sequester enough carbon to turn agriculture into a carbon sink, while also eliminating much other environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture.

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The problem

About 97 percent of the beef produced in the United States comes from cattle that spend half their lives in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as feedlots, each of which might hold tens of thousands of animals.

 

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Regenerative Agriculture Could save Soil, Water, and the Climate. Here’s How the U.S. Government Actively Discourages It.

Last year, a few days before Christmas, Gail Fuller drove me out to the middle of a wind-whipped field just north of Emporia, Kansas. “This is really where it started for me,” he said as he climbed out of the truck, spade in hand. With a thunk, he drove the spade into the ground and pulled out a hunk of earth, holding it up so I could see the texture, which he described as like “chocolate cake” and “black cottage cheese.”

Pointing to a wriggling earthworm, a sign of good soil health, Fuller explained that conventional, tilled fields would be too cold for earthworms to be that close to the surface. Tilling rips up and compacts soil, compressing the air pockets that would otherwise insulate earthworms from temperature extremes. But because Fuller never tills and maintains a continuous living root system, which provides additional insulation, his field has earthworms year-round.

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The Climate Solution Right Under Our Feet

here are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. —Rumi

The way to stop climate change might be buried in 300 square feet of earth in the Venice neighborhood of Los ­Angeles, amid kale and potatoes. A half-dozen city youth are digging through the raised bed on a quiet side street, planting tomato seedlings between peach and lime trees. Nineteen-year-old ­Calvin sweats as he works the rake. There’s a lot at stake here. The formerly homeless youngsters are tentatively exploring farming through a community outreach program started by a California nonprofit called Kiss the Ground. More importantly, they are tending to the future of our planet.

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“Soil just might save us,” filmmaker Josh Tickell says, “but we are going to have to save it first.”

 

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A Climate Change Solution No One’s Talking About: Better Land Use

It was a nightmarish Iowa blizzard in 1998 that made Seth Watkins rethink the way he farmed.

Before then, he’d operated his family business—he raises livestock alongside hay and corn crops for feed—pretty much as his parents had, utilizing practices like monocropping and unseasonal calving cycles, methods designed to cheat nature. The blizzard, which imperiled the lives of many newly born calves that year, made him realize there must be a better way to steward the land and the animals on it — methods more attuned to the natural scheme of things.

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In the 20 years since, Watkins has shepherded in a number of major changes—such as prairie strips, cover crops and rotational grazing—that prevent soil erosion, curb toxic nitrate and phosphorus runoff into nearby waterways, stimulate the biodiversity of the local ecosystems, and improve soil moisture and nutrient content, all the while increasing profits, he said.

These regenerative farming practices also achieve one other key outcome — they improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. This is something that brings practical impacts at the local economic level. But soil carbon sequestration also has the potential to tackle one of the single greatest threats to humanity: anthropogenic climate change.

“Carbon is life,” said Watkins. “Carbon really does belong in the soil where it sustains us.”

The science is in: From increased wildfire damage and the threats from rising sea levels, to ocean acidification and the impacts on human migration patterns, the effects of global warming are already being keenly felt. To prevent these developments from turning potentially catastrophic, we must stop the planet from warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial figures, say the world’s climate experts. To do this, global carbon emissions must decrease by about 49 percent from 2017 levels by 2030. Carbon output must be squashed to zero by around 2050. As an indication of how difficult this is going to be, greenhouse gas emissions rose last year in the United States.

Much of the conversation surrounding what to do has our heads turned skyward—reduced emissions from power plants, for example. Many companies are also vying to produce the first to-scale, commercially viable negative emissions technology—one that sucks and stores away more CO2 than it uses.

But a growing number of experts say we need to look downward, arguing that the carbon sequestering capacity of the soil under our feet has the potential to help tackle and reverse, perhaps significantly, human-caused global warming. That’s because soil holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere. But the way humans have cultivated and managed the planet over millennia—think industrial farming practices and drainage of wetlands—has led to the loss of huge quantities of carbon from the soil. Different estimates pin this number at anywhere from 130 gigatons—one gigaton is a billion metric tons—to 320 gigatons of carbon lost.

So, with a fundamental shift in the way we cultivate the world’s soils to revitalize their carbon content, it is “possible that we could make a major dent” in atmospheric CO2 levels, said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. DeLonge is far from alone in her thinking.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report discusses how “uptake and storage” of carbon by agricultural soils could be ready for “large-scale deployment.” But the report also warns of the limited rates of carbon uptake by “existing agricultural practices.” And while much research still needs to be done to understand the degree to which soil can sequester more carbon, the myriad “co-benefits” from better land use practices—like improved farm productivity and reduced environmental impacts—means it’s time to give “serious attention” to the issue, DeLonge said.

“Soil can hold a lot of carbon. It can hold a lot more [than it is]. Just how much more is a matter of more research,” she added. “But we can’t be dilly-dallying anymore. We need to be assessing the landscape for opportunities, and then start to take some action.”

Carbon belongs in the soil

Carbon is an essential ingredient of healthy soil, helping it maintain its structure, and water and nutrient content. So, how does it get there? Conventional wisdom has been that carbon is transferred to the soil through decomposing plant and animal debris. But cutting-edge research in soil science is revealing a much more complex set of circumstances at play. One example of this is an evolving understanding of the “liquid carbon” pathway, which describes the way in which liquid carbon—in the form of dissolved sugars formed during photosynthesis—is passed through roots into the soil to support the complex microbial life there.

“We know that organic matter in the soil is super important in terms of promoting crop growth via several mechanisms,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Indeed, carbon levels are an important function of soil’s water-absorbing potential, for example. According to the NRDC, a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter enables each acre to hold onto an additional 20,000 gallons of rainfall (though that finding is dependent on a number of variables, like soil texture).

“You have the fostering of a whole food-web of life in the soil that can help make nutrients available to the crop,” Schulte Moore added. “[While] a third way by which soil organic matter helps promote crop growth is by promoting structure that facilitates root growth.”

Given the symbiotic relationship between soils and the vegetation they sustain, soil carbon loss happens all sorts of ways, deforestation being a prime example. We’re already losing about 18.7 million acres of forests per year. One international studyfinds that, under Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, the deforestation rate of the Amazon could triple. At least 33 percent of global wetlands had been lost as of 2009, a recent paper suggests. A certain portion of the world’s grasslands has also been lost to desertification, which is when lands are stripped of their productivity due to things like drought and inappropriate farming methods (though there remain divided opinions as to the exact amount of grassland lost through human practices).

In the U.S., industrial farming practices like monocropping and routine tillage have led to the massive erosion of topsoil, where most of the carbon is stored. “Those practices are things that can be easily avoided,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist of the energy program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “When we’re dealing with sensitive soils, like in these wetlands and peat soils, you shouldn’t plow them or dig them up. When you’re dealing with soils that could blow away, you should keep a cover crop.”

That said, there is movement away from industrial agriculture toward regenerative farming methods, as evinced by the “4 per 1000” initiative launched by the French in the wake of the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. The overarching thrust of this initiative? That an increase by 0.4 percent a year in soil carbon content would “halt the increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities.” Same here in the U.S., where a farm in Northern California, for example, eschews plowing and weeding and all chemical or organic sprays in favor of a compost-intensive model. It apparently produces 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms.

Holistic grazing—a method of farming that ties livestock production to the cycles of nature, all the while minimizing bare ground and maximizing plant mass—is an “extremely valuable tool” in the fight against climate change, said Karl Thidemann, co-founder and co-director of Soil4Climate, a non-profit advocating for different land use practices. “I’ve been to many grazers who have begun using this practice,” said Thidemann. “All of them have told me how important it has been to their financial situation, and to the environment and to the ecology of these areas.”

Charles Eisenstein is a teacher and writer focusing on themes of civilization and the human cultural evolution. In his most recent book, “Climate: A New Story,” he discusses syntropic agriculture, which has revitalized devastated areas of land in Brazil, turning them into thriving agroforests, all within the space of 30 years. “Part of my work involves challenging the basic direction of human civilization,” he said. “And I think the change that the current ecological crisis is leading us into goes that deep.” The problem, added Eisenstein, will be in enacting these sorts of changes in time to make a difference.

Indeed, Seth Watkins discussed how, in Iowa, there’s a prominent vein of thinking, grounded in the Bible, which encourages farmers there to manage intensively every inch of their land. “Something I’ve asked myself is, ‘how do we start having these conversations in church basements?’” said Watkins. “I don’t know what happens when we die for sure, but what I’ve studied about it is that we’re supposed to try to do the best we can with what we have. We’ve got to be good stewards of the land.”

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams

Wetland Mud Is ‘Secret Weapon’ Against Climate Change

Muddy, coastal marshes are “sleeping giants” that could fight climate change, scientists say.

A global study has shown that these regions could be awoken by sea level rise.

Sea level is directly linked to the amount of carbon these wetlands store in their soil, the team reports in the journal Nature.

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Researchers studied the carbon locked away in cores of wetland mud from around the world.

They say that the preservation of coastal wetlands is critical for mitigating global warming.

The team was led by scientists at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

How do marshes lock away carbon?

Many habitats that are rich in plant life are important stores of carbon. But coastal wetlands are particularly efficient at locking it away. When the marshland plants die, rather than decomposing and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere, they become buried in the mud.

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Pastizales: Evitan el Calentamiento

Por primera vez en miles de años, la concentración de CO2 atmosférico pasó los 400 ppm durante todo un año. Hasta ahora las eras geológicas eran consecuencia de fenómenos naturales, lentos e inmanejables para las criaturas vivientes. Hoy los científicos dan por inaugurado el Antropoceno, la era donde los humanos somos la principal fuerza interviniente. Desde que descubrió el uso del fuego, el hombre fue alterando el paisaje y la vida del planeta, aumentando las emisiones de carbono y destruyendo sus sumideros, como costo asociado al progreso.

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El aumento de los gases en la atmósfera produce efecto invernadero y la temperatura media del planeta aumenta. Las consecuencias son: sequías largas seguidas de tormentas de gran intensidad, lo que aumenta las inundaciones.

Las emisiones son como canillas abiertas echando agua en una bañadera. Es necesario cerrarlas, pero también hay que revisar lo que pasa con el desagüe. El problema no son sólo las emisiones, sino el estado de los sumideros. Se cree que la canilla abierta es el consumo de combustibles para uso domiciliario, transporte e industria.

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New Market Planned to Pay Farmers for Soil Carbon, Water Quality

General Mills, ADM, Cargill, McDonald’s, and The Nature Conservancy are among 10 companies and nonprofit organizations that are forming a national market by 2022 to incentivize the adoption of farming practices that build soil carbon and improve water conservation.

Talks for the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium were convened two years ago by the Nobel Research Institute, which has committed over $2 million to the endeavor with additional support from the General Mills Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and McKnight Foundations. The aim of the venture is to develop protocols and a market framework to issue greenhouse gas reduction credits to farmers who adopt conservation practices.

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The market will work in two ways. First, farmers will receive credits for the amount of carbon they sequester in the soil or water quality they improve, giving farmers a new and potentially significant income stream; companies can then buy those credits to meet their climate or water goals.

 

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Forget the Past, Carbon-rich Soil May Be the Ticket to Sustainable Agriculture

TOMALES — Loren Poncia scooped up a handful of dark, damp soil that could change the future of farming.

The nutrient-rich muck was filled with slithery earthworms and thin, white roots sprouting in every direction like lightning bolts.

“This is the carbon farmer’s dream,” he exclaims. “We want to see like 10 worms in a shovel-full.”

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Poncia’s Stemple Creek Ranch might be a model for future farmers with its sustainable agricultural practices to keep carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. Along with less greenhouse gas emissions, carbon-rich soil means healthier and more productive plants, according to rangeland ecologist Jeff Creque.

Now, farmers like Poncia have the wherewithal to become better stewards of the land with the support of a collaboration of researchers known as the Marin Carbon Project. Ultimately, these researchers want to help slow climate change by introducing new, sustainable standards to American agriculture.

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