The government proposal to ban fossil fuel cars by 2040, has been criticised by many as woefully inadequate, and much too slow. Kevin Anderson, one of Britain’s leading climate scientists, has warned that we’ve already blown our chances of keeping global warming below the “safe” threshold of 1.5 degrees. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 8 -10% per year to reach our target of ‘net zero’ by 2050, but cleaner cars and cleaner energy will only win reductions in emissions of 4% per year at most.
There are several proposals out there to make up the difference. For instance, capturing the CO2 pouring out of power stations, liquefying it and storing it in underground chambers. Other proposals are to seed the oceans with iron to trigger huge, CO2-absorbing algal blooms, giant mirrors in space to deflect sunlight, or pumping aerosols into the stratosphere to create man-made clouds. Unfortunately, these ideas are either too dangerous or we don’t currently have the technology.
While engineers are falling over themselves to devise massive geo-engineering schemes, a far a simpler, less glamorous solution already exists. Soil.
After oceans, soil is the biggest reservoir of carbon on the planet. It holds four times more carbon than all the plants and trees in the world, and here I was, thinking all we had to do was plant more trees!
Human activity such as deforestation and industrial farming – with its intensive ploughing, monoculture and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – is ruining our soils. These practices kill the organic materials our soil contains. Presently 40% of agricultural soil is classed as “degraded” or “seriously degraded”. In fact, the world’s soil has become so damaged by industrial farming that a third of the world’s arable farmland has been destroyed in the past four decades.
As our soils degrade, they are losing their ability to hold carbon, releasing enormous plumes of CO2 [pdf] into the atmosphere.
Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods – not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation. Not only does this repair the damaged soil, as it recovers, it regains its capacity to hold onto CO2 and starts actively pulling additional CO2 from the atmosphere.
A study published recently by the US National Academy of Sciences claims that regenerative farming can sequester 3%of our global carbon emissions. An article in Science suggests it could be up to 15%. And new research from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania says sequestration rates could be as high as 40%. The same report argues that if we apply regenerative techniques to the world’s pastureland as well, we could capture more than 100% of global emissions. In other words, regenerative farming may be our best chance of actually cooling the planet.
Despite the evidence, however, proponents of regenerative farming are fighting an uphill battle. The multinational corporations running the industrial food system are dead set against it because it threatens their monopoly power – power that relies on seeds linked to patented chemical fertilisers and pesticides. They know their methods are causing climate change, but call it a necessary evil: if we want to feed the world’s growing population, we don’t have a choice – it’s the only way to secure high yields.
Science proves otherwise. Feeding the world isn’t about higher yields; it’s about fairer distribution. We already grow enough food for 10 billion people. Besides, it can be argued that regenerative farming actually increases crop yields over the long term by enhancing soil fertility and improving resilience against drought and flooding. So as climate change makes farming more difficult, this may be our best bet for food security.
In the UK, small-scale farmers are already doing what the scientists are advocating. They use organic systems and crop rotations and support biodiversity as a business and environmental ethic. We already know that eating organic and traditionally-grown food is better for our health. Supporting local, small-scale farmers not only helps them sustain their ethic and farming methods, it sends a message to other, larger producers – we want better food, better soil, and a better future for the planet.
You can do your bit by visiting Taunton Farmers’ Market on the High Street each Thursday. There you can purchase locally-produced, organic and pesticide-free vegetables, free-range eggs and healthy, well-cared-for meat.
Original article published by the Guardian in September 2016