Can we reverse global warming?

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Yes we can, rapidly.

Most of the people answering that it can’t, or that it would take hundreds or thousands of years are focusing mainly on emissions and not the other side of the carbon cycle. Even the few that acknowledged the other side of the carbon cycle, focused mainly on CCS and afforestation. Neither of which is up to the job. So I understand their concerns and don’t dispute their numbers, except they are missing something.

Recent advancements in the biological sciences have discovered a biochemical pathway that we have been missing for well over 100 years. This is the way the biosphere naturally builds deep fertile soils and cools the planet.

Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling

Even though this is in the fossil record, the actual way the biosphere accomplished this really wasn’t completely known. We did know for over 100 years though that the best agricultural soils in the world were found under grasslands/savannas and/or open woodlands where the sun reached the understory of grasses. Those soils being so saturated with carbon they were black and fertile very deep despite no one ever fertilizing them.

Mollic Epipedon – Springer

For that reason these were the prime agricultural lands. And agriculture basically degrades them in almost every case.

Land Degradation: An overview

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

So the only known solution was simply to add fertilizers while still farming them, and when they degraded too far, let them go fallow. No one really knew how to farm without fertilisers and restore the soil naturally.

Even most the organic farmers were heavily reliant on manure and compost inputs and fallow rotations to keep yields up. And lets face it, any solution to climate change involving soil carbon by necessity must equal or improve yields of food over green revolution industrialised agriculture.

Lowering yields with our current growing population just won’t work. There just isn’t enough land left because most the land suitable for agriculture already is in agriculture.

Farming Claims Almost Half Earth’s Land, New Maps Show

If we started degrading what is left we would basically leave no room at all for any wildlife! The whole biosphere could collapse and everyone dies if that happens!

“The first duty of the agriculturalist must always be to understand that he is part of nature and can not escape from his environment.” – Sir Albert Howard

So it’s been a tough problem to solve. Some have said impossible.

Fortunately, there are some stubborn scientists and farmers who regard “impossible” as a nothing more than a challenge to prove it is possible! It’s still unrecognised by the accepted mainstream, but with recent advancements in biological sciences and agricultural methods, it can no longer be called impossible. 

For the first time in human history we know how to restore degraded land while continuously improving agricultural yields at the same time! And low and behold, it just so happens it involves the other side of the carbon cycle! Coincidence?

Currently the atmosphere and ocean have too much carbon while soils have lost carbon at an alarming rate due to development, conversion of native grasslands and forests to cropland, and agricultural practices that decrease soil organic matter.-Daniel Kane

Turns out there is more carbon missing from our soils worldwide than the additional carbon in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial age.That means almost accidently, those stubborn scientists and farmers that found out how to solve the agricultural dilemma, actually figured out how to solve AGW too.

Solve one, you solve both. There are still a few minor gaps with certain crops. But the principle is sound and the gaps are small enough that they don’t prevent action or end result. We still need to reduce emissions by converting to renewables like solar, wind and hydro etc., because as large as the terrestrial soil sink potential is, still not infinite. We certainly don’t want to make this anymore difficult than it already is! But for now there is still hope if we take worldwide action.

Anyone who has stayed with me this far is probably asking, “What is this new scientific breakthrough that is still not accepted by the mainstream? “

It all started with a USDA soil scientist named Dr. Sara F. Wright and her discovery in 1996 of a glycoprotein produced abundantly on hyphae and spores of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in soil, called Glomalin.

Glomalin eluded detection until 1996 because, “It requires an unusual effort to dislodge glomalin for study: a bath in citrate combined with heating at 250 F (121 C) for at least an hour…. No other soil glue found to date required anything as drastic as this.” – Sara Wright.

This was no small discovery, as it turns out that this glomalin producing, highly evolved, mutualistic, symbiotic relationship found between AMF and plants is the most prevalent plant symbiosis known, being found in 80% of vascular plant families in existence today. Dr. Wright had discovered the link between photosynthesis and fully 1/3 of the stored soil carbon.

Glomalin: Hiding Place for a Third of the World’s Stored Soil Carbon

But it gets even better. Turns out that being a soil glue like substance, it also locks into the soil other organic substances, holding even more carbon.

Glomalin is Key to Locking up Soil Carbon

Glomalin: The Real Soil Builder

Glomalin, the Unsung Hero of Carbon Storage

Liquid carbon pathway unrecognised

Little Known Glomalin, a Key Protein in Soils

In other words it’s not just the glomalin itself, but rather this is just the missing link in a more extensive biochemical pathway that is an anabolic process, unlike the more well known decomposition of organic matter which is a catabolic process releasing CO2.

It has long puzzled soil scientists how the processes of decay could actually at some point stop decaying into smaller and simpler humic substances, then begin to build larger and more complex stable carbon polymers and structures found in building new topsoil.

There is still a lot to be researched, but we have found that pathway! The anabolic processes start with AMF which uses those root exudates to provide the energy to combine glomalin with products of decay as building blocks for the stable carbon soil creation process. Now that we found the pathway, we also understand why agriculture as it is practised most commonly now degrades that pathway, and how to fix it.

Some of you who have been paying attention are probably wondering when grasses enter the picture. Well there are two reasons this process is larger in grasslands. The first is that trees and shrubs store their extra products of photosynthesis and carbon compounds in woody structures above ground.

That’s the branches and tree trunks we all see. When trees eventually die and decay, most of that carbon gets released back into the atmosphere as CO2 and CH4. Grasses send their extra products of photosynthesis along this liquid carbon pathway to build soil instead of wood. A large % of that carbon is sequestered for hundreds or even thousands of years. The second reason is C4 photosynthesis.

C4 carbon fixation – Wikipedia

C4 metabolism originated when grasses migrated from the shady forest undercanopy to more open environments,[2] where the high sunlight gave it an advantage over the C3 pathway.[3]

… Today, C4 plants represent about 5% of Earth’s plant biomass and 3% of its known plant species.[4][5] Despite this scarcity, they account for about 23% of terrestrial carbon fixation.[6][7] Increasing the proportion of C4 plants on earth could assist biosequestration of CO2 and represent an important climate change avoidance strategy.

So because grasslands typically have a blend of species including warm season perennial C4 grasses, more products of photosynthesis to start with. Then due to symbiosis with AMF and the liquid carbon pathway, a higher % of those increased products of photosynthesis reach a stable state in the soil.

We have now come full circle back to the grasslands and mollisols. We now have a better understanding how nature built those deep rich soils and cooled the planet at the same time. The next question is how can a farmer/rancher do it?

 

Where the farmer and the scientist meet

SOS: Save our Soils Dr. Christine Jones Explains the Life-Giving Link Between Carbon and Healthy Topsoil

“Activating the liquid carbon pathway requires that photosynthetic capacity be optimized. There are many and varied ways to achieve this. I have enormous respect for the farmers and ranchers who have done what the experts say can’t be done. If we have a future, it will be largely due to the courage and determination of these individuals.”-Jones

So lets take a look at the many and varied ways these farmers are doing it.

1) Rice:India’s rice revolution, and The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)… … is climate-smart rice production

2) Small grains wheat and barley etc: Why pasture cropping is such a Big Deal

3) Commodity crops: 

4) Vegetables:

5) Orchards combined with animals:

6) Commodity crops combined with animals:

7) Rangeland grazing:

8) Dairy

9) Integrated multi species animal husbandry and silvopasture:

10) Wildlife habitat restoration: Grassland Birds: Fostering Habitats Using Rotational Grazing

11) Biofuels: We also don’t NEED to make biofuels from corn and soy. Besides the fact that solar and wind are much better, there are alternatives that are actually more efficient and help cool the planet.

Grass Makes Better Ethanol than Corn Does

Soil Carbon Storage by Switchgrass Grown for Bioenergy

12) BiocharCarbon Drawdown Solutions — putting carbon back in the soil where it belongs!

13) Fully integrated large corporate farms:

There are of course many more examples. But I tried to show examples of all the major crops covering the vast majority of land surface of the planet in agriculture. In other words enough to prove that if this was done worldwide, we could mitigate AGW, restore our soils, and produce more food in abundance at a greater profit margin and with less inputs. A win win win for everyone.

 

Politics and economics

I have actually taken the time to discuss an outline for at least the USA to institute these changes with public policy changes. The real question is can this mitigation strategy work within conservative ideals so that a political coalition between both liberals and conservatives can be made to devise a plan acceptable to both? It is pretty obvious that a carbon tax has and will continue to meet with opposition.

I believe it is possible, yes. But certain areas will take dramatic change for that to happen. Most importantly energy and agriculture. Right now both those sectors have already overgrown what can be sustained. Quite predictable since they were never really sustainable since the industrial revolution anyway. Just took a while for people to realize it.

For it to happen though, agriculture production models will need to be changed to regenerative systems, energy will need technological fixes like solar and nuclear etc. and overall since population has already exceeded environmental capacity, a large amount of ecosystem recovery projects will be needed as well. So yes, reforesting can be a part where appropriate. All of these are possible.

My focus is on agriculture. Having studied it quite intensely for years, I believe we currently have the ability to fix that one. Only a few minor gaps remain. I can only hope others committed to the other two big ones meet with similar success. But then comes the hard part, actually doing what we know how to do before these unsustainable systems currently in effect start failing world wide, collapsing even our ability to do what we know how to do! That’s the actual tricky part.

For example, if agriculture fails before we fully institute regenerative models and the infrastructure changes needed, civilization collapses. Not much going to be done about it then. AGW will see to it that all three will fail if changes are not done soon enough. This has the potential to collapse civilization, or at least many nations including ours. Again making it near impossible to implement what we already know how to do.

So how do we institute the changes needed in a free market economic base beneficial to mitigating AGW?

The answer may be more simple than you think. The rise of “king corn” can be seen as a direct result of a series of changes in agricultural policy instituted by Earl Lauer Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Most important to this policy change was the Buffer stock scheme (ever full granary) changes combined with urgings to farmers to “get big or get out”. (Which happened by the way. Now there is actually a crisis from too few family farmers, average age nearing 60.)

That led to huge surpluses which we then were able to successfully use for many purposes, including major grain sales to Russia and China and many humanitarian aid projects.

Something has changed though. Now China has opened up beef sales. This is a value added commodity over grain. There is no need to overproduce grains as commodity exports when cows thrive on grass and grass can rebuild soils degraded by overproduction of grains.

It makes more sense to drop the buffer stock scheme on grain to a level we actually need to feed humans, and instead I propose a buffer stock scheme on soil carbon via grassland restoration and the other regenerative models of production listed above. This idea can be seen as a variation on Environmental full-cost accounting with carbon and the carbon cycle as a proxy for biological function, since all life on the planet is carbon based.

You can do this on the same amount of subsidies that we currently use for grain, and instead put them on restoring the great prairies/steppes/savannas of the world….raising beef and other integrated crops. This would positively affect carbon sequestration, pesticide use, erosion, seasonal dead zones in our productive coastal waters, biodiversity, energy budget, economic growth, international trade balance, rural economic development, etc…

AND if done properly, as many case studies at the USDA-SARE & USDA-NRCS clearly show, even increase total yields of food for humans.

So to fully answer, instead of adding a carbon tax, one way to solve this is simply change what we subsidize. No need for new taxes. In agriculture instead of a buffer stock scheme on king corn, a buffer stock scheme on carbon being sequestered in soils. Just redirect the same amount of funds away from one to the other.

We may also need to redefine GAP (Good Agricultural Practises) to include some of these new methods and exclude things like feedlots and CAFOs. This wouldn’t outlaw CAFOs but it would prevent them from receiving subsidized loans and other benefits accorded GAP approved methods.

So they could be gradually phased out as new better methods take over. Same goes for energy. Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $493 billion in 2014, with subsidies to oil products representing over half of the total. Those subsidies were over four-times the value of subsidies to renewable energy. Simply redirect the subsidies for fossil fuels over to renewables.

Doesn’t necessarily need to cost one penny more. (For those ultra conservatives out there you could theoretically even eliminate all subsidies. It’s better than subsidizing the wrong thing.)

The idea that we are still subsidizing AGW, while trying to find solutions to AGW is quite frankly ridiculous. Goes to the wise old saying, “A house divided against itself can not stand.”

Now for some interesting general numbers. “Under appropriate conditions, 30-40% of the carbon fixed in green leaves can be transferred to soil and rapidly humified, resulting in rates of soil carbon sequestration in the order of 5-20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.”

Liquid carbon pathway unrecognised

Fast facts: The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources

5-20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year x 1.5 billion hectares = 7.5 – 30.0 billion tonnes of CO2 per year AND that’s just arable cropland, that doesn’t even include the ecosystem recovery projects that could be done on degraded desertified rangeland mentioned by Allan Savory in his famous TedTalk.

That’s actually a larger area of land, but much more complicated to calculate. Because some rangeland is healthy and currently sequestering carbon in the LCP. A larger % is degraded by overgrazing and/or undergrazing, both causes of desertification and either nearly net zero flux, or actually a CO2 emissions source.

Depending on the brittleness factor, they also each respond differently when properly managed. So it is difficult to quantify exactly how much more CO2 could be sequestered per year restoring these areas, but likely even more total (but less per hectare). China’s restoration project of the desertified Loess Plateau early results shows just how significant this can be.

“Grain for Green” driven land use change and carbon sequestration on the Loess Plateau, China

“When farmers view soil health not as an abstract virtue, but as a real asset, it revolutionizes the way they farm and radically reduces their dependence on inputs to produce food and fiber.” -USDA

Executive summary:

Yes we can reverse Global Warming.

It does not require huge tax increases or expensive untested risky technologies.

It will require a three pronged approach worldwide.

  1. Reduce fossil fuel use by replacing energy needs with as many feasible renewables as current technology allows.
  2. Change Agricultural methods to high yielding regenerative models of production made possible by recent biological & agricultural science advancements.
  3. Large scale ecosystem recovery projects similar to the Loess Plateau project, National Parks like Yellowstone etc. where appropriate and applicable.

If you have spent effort required to really look into all this information. Thanks very much for your time.

 

About the author: Scott Strough

Scott is a retired marine engineer and a researcher in carbon farming as a climate change mitigation strategy. Since retiring from marine engineering, he has run a small research and development market garden in Oklahoma. You can follow Scott on Quora.

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