The Key To Carbon Sequestration Could Be Right Under Our Feet

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Geo-engineering is a hot topic today. (No pun intended.) People are coming up with all sorts of geo-engineering ideas for ways to cool our planet before it becomes so hot it can no longer support life as we know it. They want to shoot millions of tons of sulphates high into the upper atmosphere to block out some of the sun’s rays. Or they want to build giant sucking machines that will somehow magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so it can be buried underground. Most scientists realize we will need to employ some sort of carbon sequestration techniques if we want to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2º Celsius.

agriculture and carbon sequestrationNew thinking in the scientific community suggests the answer could be right beneath our feet. Soil — which we commonly refer to dismissively as dirt — can sequester four times as much carbon dioxide as all the plants and trees in the world. It is second only to the world’s oceans in its ability to store carbon dioxide. But that ability has been drastically degraded by industrial farming techniques that rely on heavy usage of fertilizers and pesticides (mostly derived from oil), extreme tilling, and an insistence on planting the same crops over and over on the same land.

Today, 40% of the soil in agricultural areas is classified as “degraded” or “seriously degraded” reports The Guardian. In fact, one third of all arable land has been rendered unfit for growing crops in the past 4 decades according to a report from the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield in the UK. “You think of the dust bowl of the 1930s in North America and then you realize we are moving towards that situation if we don’t do something,” says Duncan Cameron, professor of plant and soil biology.

As soil degrades, it loses its ability to absorb and retain carbon dioxide, which means it is released back into the atmosphere, making an already bad situation even worse. But there is hope, earthlings! Scientists and farmers around the world say it is possible to restore degraded soils but it will require an end to business as usual for agribusiness.

Less intensive industrial farming means using organic fertilizer and a vast decrease in pesticide use. It also means going back to the age old practice of rotating crops and (gasp!) allowing some fields to lie fallow during the growing season — ideas that were standard farming practice before Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto taught us how to make life better through chemistry. It should be noted that these practices were well known to indigenous cultures for millennia.

Future predictions are worth exactly what you pay for them, of course. Figures lie and liars figure and all that. But recent research from several sources suggests restoring the soil could play a large role in trapping carbon dioxide. The US National Academy of Sciences claims that regenerative farming can sequester 3% of our global carbon emissions. A study published in Science in 2004 puts that figure at 15%. The Rodale Institute, an organic farming advocacy organization in Pennsylvania says it could be closer to 40%. That estimate has not been peer reviewed, however.

The clash comes down to two competing ideas and there is no way for them co-exist peacefully with one another. Agribusiness is consumed by the idea of genetically engineered seeds which will allow it to own the means of food production in perpetuity. A sustainable approach to farming would turn that model in its head. Industry insists it methods are essential to growing enough food to feed the billions of people already on earth with more coming.

But the truth is that we already grow enough food to feed the world. What we don’t do is distribute it effectively, which leads to famine in the midst of abundance. And an argument can be made that increasing the fertility of the soil will actually lead to greater abundance in the long run while making a major contribution to cooling the earth.

Pope Francis TED TalkPope Francis made the case for living in harmony with the Earth in 2015 in his Papal Encyclical on climate change. “We have come to see ourselves as the lords and masters of the Earth, entitled to plunder her at will. The sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life are symptoms that reflect the violence present in our hearts. We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the Earth; that we breathe her air and receive life from her waters.”

I am not in the habit of quoting news sources, but the conclusion of a Guardian article written by Jason Hickel says it better than I could.

“The problem with geo-engineering is that it proceeds from the very same logic that got us into this mess in the first place: one that treats the land as something to be subdued, dominated and consumed. But the solution to climate change won’t be found in the latest schemes to bend our living planet to the will of man. Perhaps instead it lies in something much more down to earth — an ethic of care and healing, starting with the soils on which our existence depends.

“Of course, regenerative farming doesn’t offer a permanent solution to the climate crisis; soils can only hold a finite amount of carbon. We still need to get off fossil fuels, and — most importantly — we have to kick our obsession with endless exponential growth and downsize our material economy to bring it back in tune with ecological cycles. But it might buy us some time to get our act together.”

The upshot is that we will need to turn conventional notions of capitalism upside down and create a circular economy that respects the earth and all species who inhabit it. It also means combating the bizarre notion some people find in the Bible they say grants humanity total dominance over the world, even to the point of destroying it if we so choose. The more destructive notions of capitalism rely on such nonsense. Changing attitudes may actually be harder work than inventing the technology needed to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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