Decarbon Daily - Soil Organic Carbon & CCUS Clusters
Inside this issue
After reading Part 1, check out the follow-up article Part 2: The New Carbon Economy.
Sequestering Carbon through Regenerative Farming, Part 1
How will soil organic carbon play a role in rapid decarbonization?
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt
There’s too much carbon in the air and not enough in the ground. Regenerative agriculture encompasses farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by boosting soil organic carbon and regenerating lost soil biodiversity, resulting in net carbon drawdown, better soil health, and improved water cycles.
And unlike many wishlist climate solutions, we have all of the tools and cultural knowledge we need to start regenerating soil health in a climate-positive way now.
What is soil?
All plants, and indeed most life on earth, are dependent on a sliver of living material called topsoil. Many building blocks make topsoil work its magic, but one in particular holds the key to not only improving the health and productivity of soils, but drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, aiding humanity's effort to cut net carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
About 5% of soil is organic matter (think “carbon”) and includes all of the living things munching on dead things, converting it to usable nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Soil organic carbon ("SOC") refers only to the carbon component of oganic compounds. It's this organic matter that's so important; without microbes and their decomposing magic, soil would cease to exist (and civilization, for that matter).
Plants develop beneficial relationships with bacteria, fungi, and other microbes to help recycle and create necessary nutrients. Many of these nutrients stay in the plant, its roots, or the soil. When a plant dies, its carbon-rich material is returned to the soil and broken down by microbes into useful materials, boosting soil health and closing the nutrient cycle and keeping carbon where it belongs - in the ground.
Pre-agriculture, soil was a closed nutrient system. Whatever grew or lived on the soil surface eventually integrated back into the soil, creating a positive feedback loop of regeneration. Ancient prairies and forests fell to the scythe and axe, and the system was broken. The monocultures that took their place are dependent on imported nutrients, usually from hundreds or thousands of miles away. To exacerbate the problem, herbivores - an essential process in many historic soil systems - have been removed from the soil.
Emulating nature to build up SOC is the only way to undo the damage caused by extractive agriculture. Regenerative agriculture will play a pivotal role in healing the soil, while simultaneously drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.
What’s at stake?
According to Columbia Climate School, The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon, over three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. Soils remove about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel emissions annually, but the carbon sequestering capabilities of soil only persist if soil systems are healthy and intact.
Soils can be both sources and sinks of carbon, depending on their management. Soil needs carbon to stay soil. Turn off the carbon, and soil becomes dirt. Unfortunately, the latter is happening at an alarming rate.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates half of the world's topsoil has been removed in the last 150 years. According to a Cornell University study, 1 percent of the world's topsoil disappears every year, primarily due to agriculture.
Furthermore, the United States is losing topsoil 10 times faster than it regenerates it, and the nation’s most fertile regions have lost 40% of their topsoil in just 100 years. Globally, about half of the world’s arable land has been converted to cropland. Massive amounts of carbon are released in the transition to cropland and maintaining it for yield, resulting in about a quarter of all anthropogenic carbon emissions.
According to Scientific American, generating just 3cm of topsoil can take a millenia, and at our current rate of degradation, all of the world’s topsoil could be depleted before 2070. The unintended war on soil crafts a destructive cycle of less carbon stored, a warmer planet, and additional land degradation. That means arable land per person will decrease to a quarter of what it was in 1960, all contemporaneous with a growing population and rapidly increasing climatic risk.
More people. Less food. Warming planet. What to do?
Start farming carbon.
If soils can stop hemorrhaging carbon and return to a natural state of sequestering it, humanity has the chance to remove a quarter of current soil loss-related emissions while drawing down carbon and creating healthy soils.
Science tells us we’re running out of time to prevent a climate catastrophe. While some solutions are beyond our reach right now, regenerative agriculture holds promise to be one of the most effective, and cheapest, solutions we can scale right now. Farmland is already being actively managed, and so is very amenable to tweaked efforts making them conducive to carbon sequestration. No natural spaces have to be degraded, expensive new infrastructure isn’t required, and there needn’t be sweeping policy changes.
Farming for carbon can happen right here, right now.
Increasing the SOC on all available cropland to .54% would sequester an average of 1.85 billion metric tonnes of carbon annually, the equivalent emissions of the entire global transportation sector. What’s more, this annual sequestration could continue for at least 20 years as starved soil absorbs carbon from the atmosphere’s surplus. Soils have the potential to store much greater carbon concentrations beyond .54%, with some studies finding cropland capable of holding 3-6% SOC.
Tomorrow, we will release Part 2: The New Carbon Economy.
Inside this Issue
🛣 UK Government Launches ‘Phase 2’ of CCUS Cluster Plan
☁️ The Truth About Carbon Capture Technology
♻️ BE - Bloom Energy - Earnings Call Transcript Q3 2021
🚜 CAT - Caterpillar - Earnings Call Transcript Q3 2021
Articles in this issue