A Call To Regenerate Soils to Mitigate The Climate Crisis
by Daniel Jubelirer
The burgeoning climate movement has successfully mobilized millions of people worldwide to take direct action in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. Disrupting the extractive economy through direct action and civil disobedience is necessary and important work. Global corporations, especially fossil fuel corporations, are perpetuating injustices on local communities and worsening the climate crisis. I was arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline during the Funeral for Our Future action, and I would gladly risk arrest again to stop a fossil fuel project. However, going up against large entrenched economic interests will only get us so far. When I was 20 years old I left college to travel and work on small farms to learn about real-world climate solutions. I believe that food, soil and community hold the keys to a sustainable and regenerative future. The climate movement must embrace regenerative solutions in addition to direct action targeting the fossil fuel industry. Sequestering carbon in soil through small-scale organic farming has huge potential to reduce climate change and build just, sustainable food systems.
We are already over the “safe limit” of 350 ppm (parts per million) atmospheric carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon is dangerously high today, at approximately 407 ppm. This is causing climate disruption which is currently affecting people and ecosystems around the world. Those who are most vulnerable to the immediate impacts climate change are often the communities that have done the least to cause the crisis. In my eyes, this makes climate change one of the greatest social injustices of our time. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels right now, we would still need to lower atmospheric carbon by 57 ppm to return to a safe level. This is where soil sequestration can help!
Last December world leaders signed the historic Paris Agreement, with each country committing to reducing their emissions. World leaders agreed to a goal of a maximum of 2 degrees C warming, with a strong target of 1.5 degrees C. As the world moves forward to implement the goals outlined in the agreement, the question remains: How can we mitigate climate disaster, and build resilience to adapt to the changes that are already happening? Soil holds part of the solution.
Soil is a miracle. In one handful of soil there are more living organisms than human beings on the planet. We owe our whole existence to a few inches of healthy, carbon-rich soil which supports all food grown on the planet. We can harness the power of photosynthesis and soil in local communities across the globe to dramatically reduce atmospheric carbon, while building local community resiliency and local food access. Soil plays a critical part of the carbon cycle, and thus, global climate. According to the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, three times more carbon is stored in soils than in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, when land is cleared and tilled for industrial agriculture, the soil is damaged and it emits CO2 into the atmosphere. Approximately one third of carbon in the atmosphere used to be in the soil! Scientists at the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center estimate that cultivated soil has lost 50 to 70 percent of its carbon, speeding up climate change. Ending fossil fuel use is not enough, we must also regenerate soils to sequester the carbon they’ve lost, plus additional carbon emitted through burning of fossil fuels.
The good news is that soil sequestration can be done at the local and regional levels right now. Everyday people in their communities can get active now enacting this solution.
So how does soil sequestration work? Plants and trees take carbon out of the air and put it into the soil where it serves as a nutrient rather than as a dangerous pollutant. Through photosynthesis and respiration, plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide and inject it through their roots into the soil, where microorganisms and fungi can use it. Atmospheric carbon is stored in soil as soil organic matter, which makes for rich, fertile soils. This creates a positive feedback loop where the healthy soil can support more plant life, which sequesters more carbon. The amazing potential for soil carbon sequestration has been recognized by the French government. France has challenged every nation of the world to join them in increasing soil carbon by 0.4%. If every nation reached this goal we would sequester 75% of all annual greenhouse gas emissions!
Nature is constantly hard at work sequestering carbon. If we learn to create systems that are in harmony with natural patterns, we can help accelerate this process. Here are some promising techniques I’ve seen to “farm” carbon into soil at the local level:
Multispecies food forests is a technique arising from the permaculture movement, which involves mimicking forest ecology with food-producing crops. Planting many trees in a contained space creates symbiotic relationships between species, retains more water, and builds healthy soil which sequesters atmospheric carbon. On average one tree can sequester as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, and one tree can sequester one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. Food forests are being already being designed and built in urban areas across the United States and can provide a high volume of fruits, nuts, fiber material and animal habitat. Planting Justice, a Bay-Area ecological and social justice organization, has a program where formerly incarcerated people are trained and paid to design and build beautiful, sustainable, carbon sequestering food forests and edible landscapes in the Bay Area.
Biochar is a carbon negative, low cost, and exciting way to sequester carbon. Making biochar is done by heating organic mass such as branches and yard waste in a high heat, low oxygen environment. The result is a solid biomass which is a great soil amendment, it also results in sequestering impressive amounts of CO2 over a long time scale. According to one prominent study (Woolf et al, 2010), sustainable biochar implementation on a large scale could offset 12% of anthropogenic GHG emissions on an annual basis. The International Biochar Initiative is helping stakeholders across the globe to integrate biochar into agriculture practices to increase soil fertility and sequester carbon.
Pioneered by Allan Savory, rotational grazing of animals on grasslands can rapidly build soil and sequester carbon. Grasslands are quickly turning to desert, and planned rotational grazing has been proven to restore grasslands. The Marin Carbon Farming Project is successfully implementing regional-scale carbon farming initiatives with support from farmers, landowners and local governments.
At Earth Guardians, we are working on a soil sequestration campaign that will engage schools, businesses, farmers and municipalities to work locally in teams to develop projects in their communities.
There are significant challenges in implementing soil projects, for this represents a major shift in how we use land. As we make this shift, we must act with respect towards land-based peoples, who have been practicing these techniques for thousands of years. Just as we need a just transition to a 100% renewable energy economy, we also need a just transition from industrial agriculture to small scale regenerative agriculture. The transition must take into account the needs of farm workers, indigenous and land-based communities, and those who are food insecure. Building soil on a large enough scale to reverse climate change will take a global effort to challenge the financial interests of the biotech industry, which is trying to convince the world that GMO seeds and more industrialized agriculture will save us.
I believe that a local to global approach can work: working on projects locally, and sharing success stories in order to mobilize international bodies such as the UNFCCC to fund and support larger scale soil building projects. I ask you to consider joining this global movement for soil regeneration! To get involved, check out the Earth Guardians Protect Our Future campaign, where thousands of youth from our Earth Guardian crews all over the world come together for actions to protect the Earth, Air, Water, and Climate.
Daniel Jubelirer is a 23-year old organizer, musician, youth educator, and climate justice advocate who is passionate about linking personal, interpersonal, and systemic change. He currently studies Peace Studies at Naropa University and is developing a campaign on soil carbon sequestration and regenerative community agriculture with Earth Guardians. For questions or comments, you can reach him at daniel (at) earthguardians (dot) org