How Carbon Farming Can Help Solve Climate Change
By David Burton
Under the 2015 Paris agreement, nations pledged to keep the average global temperature rise to below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to take efforts to narrow that increase to 1.5C. To meet those goals we must not only stop the increase in our greenhouse gas emissions, we must also draw large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
The simplest, most cost effective and environmentally beneficial way to do this is right under our feet. We can farm carbon by storing it in our agricultural soils.
Soils are traditionally rich in carbon. They can contain as much as five percent carbon by weight, in the form of soil organic matter—plant and animal matter in various stages of decomposition.
But with the introduction of modern agricultural techniques, including the plow, soil organic matter content has dropped by half in many areas of the world, including parts of Canada. That carbon, once stored in the ground, is now found in the atmosphere and oceans as CO2 and is contributing to global warming.
The organic compounds found in soil are the glue that hold soil particles together and help give the soil structure. Like the walls of a building, this structure creates openings and passageways that allow the soil to conduct and store water, contain air, resist soil erosion and provide a habitat for soil organisms.
Plowing breaks apart soil aggregates and allows microorganisms to eat the soil organic compounds. In the short-term, the increased microbial activity releases nutrients, boosting crop productivity. In the long-term the loss of structure reduces the soil's ability to hold water and resist erosion. Ultimately, crop productivity drops.
How Can We Make Soil Organic Matter?
First and foremost, we need to disturb soil less. The advent of no-till and reduced tillage methods have allowed us to increase the carbon content of soils.
No-till and direct-seeding methods place the seed directly into the soil, minimizing the disturbance associated with seedbed preparation. The lack of disturbance allows the roots and crop residues from the previous crops to form soil organic matter. It reduces the degradation of the soil organic matter already present in the soil.
In Canada, we are already benefiting from reduced tillage. In the Prairies, no-tillage agriculture has increased from less than five percent of the land area in the early 1990s to almost 50 percent in 2006.
The situation is a bit more complex in Eastern Canada. The region's soil type and climate make it less easy to build soil organic matter. At Dalhousie's Atlantic Soil Health Lab, we are exploring the potential of various cropping practices to increase soil organic matter content in the soils of Atlantic Canada. While the potential to store carbon may not be as great as in Western Canada, the benefits of increased soil organic matter content are far greater because of the critically low levels of organic matter.
Secondly, we can use more diverse crop rotations. Forage crops—such as grasses, clovers and alfalfa—penetrate the soil with extensive root systems that lead to the formation of soil organic matter. Short rotations dominated by crops that have poor root systems (corn, soybeans) are not effective in building soil organic matter.
Farmers can also build soil organic matter by adding organic amendments such as animal manure, composts, forestry residues (wood chips) or biosolids to the soil.
Using the right amount of fertilizer is also important. Fertilizers can improve plant growth, lead to larger roots and add more plant matter to the soil in the unharvested portion of the crop. However, too much nitrogen fertilizer can result in the production of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and offset the benefit of increased soil organic matter formation.
Farmers Need Economic Incentives
Project Drawdown, a non-profit organization that researches solutions to global warming, has estimated that global farmland restoration (building soil organic matter) could remove 14 gigatones (billion tonnes) of CO2.
This would reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere below the current 400 parts per million—a level unpassed for several million years—while developing more fertile, resilient soils to feed people for years to come and keep forests intact.
These approaches seem like obvious solutions. Why are they not more widely adopted? The short answer is economics.
The benefits of drawing down CO2 and building soil organic matter play out over decades. But the costs associated with these practices often do not have increased returns in the short-term.
Farmers often make decisions in response to short-term economic pressures and government policies. Improved soil management is a public good. We need economic tools and short-term incentives that encourage producers to adopt these practices for the good of all.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.