April 6, 2016
The earth’s soil stores a lot of carbon from the atmosphere, and managing it with the climate in mind may be an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“Climate-smart” soil management, primarily on land used for agriculture, can be part of an overall greenhouse gas reduction strategy that includes other efforts like carbon sequestration and reducing fossil fuel emissions, the paper’s authors said. Many scientists believe new efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are needed to keep global warming to an internationally agreed-upon limit of 2°C (3.6°F).
“One way to do that is by locking up carbon in soils,” said study co-author Pete Smith, professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “If we can do this, we can complement efforts in other sectors to stabilize the climate and deliver on the Paris agreement.”
About three times the carbon currently in the atmosphere is stored in the Earth’s soil — up to 2.4 trillion metric tons, or roughly 240 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels annually.
Much of that is locked up in land used for agriculture. Cropland soil stores atmospheric carbon in organic matter such as manure, roots, fallen leaves and and other pieces of decomposing plants. It doesn’t remain there permanently. It takes decades for the organic matter in the soil to decompose, and the carbon stored within is eventually emitted back into the atmosphere as gas. Soil is responsible for 37 percent of global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, according to the paper.
Estimates vary for how much carbon dioxide could be stored if soil were managed with the climate in mind. Methods of controlling the amount of carbon stored depend on climate and soil type. In addition to slowing the decomposition rate of organic matter in the soil, some methods include adding compost or biochar to fields, vegetating fallow fields and more effective use of irrigation, erosion control and fertilizer.
The study says that if all the Earth’s farmers were to manage their fields so the soil stored more carbon, the impacts of the greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels annually could be cut by between half and 80 percent.
More realistically, the emissions reductions would likely be much lower, possibly between 10 and 20 percent of total annual human emissions.
“The question of what the most ‘realistic’ potential is, is not really possible to answer directly, at least from a science perspective, because it really depends on enactment of policies that would encourage adoption of the climate-smart soil management practices,” study lead author Keith Paustian, a soil ecologist at Colorado State University, said.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions so drastically using better soil management involves using technology — some of it complex and very expensive — that isn’t available to most farmers, many of whom haven’t had much incentive to manage their soil to store more carbon. Instead, they’ve focused on crop production, Paustian said.
“Certain land management practices can add more plant material to soils as well as hold more of that organic matter in the soil for a longer time and thus build up the storage of that carbon in the soil,” he said. “There are ways to both maintain high production as well as build soil carbon and reduce other greenhouse gases, but in many cases that means some additional work and/or costs to the farmers, so a key issue is to incentivize them to do so.”
The researchers suggest four ways policymakers could encourage farmers to manage their soil in a “climate-smart” way: a cap-and-trade system for soil management, government regulation, subsidies for better management practices and supply-chain initiatives, such as better marketing for foods grown on sustainable soils.
“If it turns out that many consumers will indeed favor low-GHG-footprint products, that could be a big difference-maker, and it could likely cause more rapid movement than incentives that are more dependent on governmental action,” Paustian said.
While scientists unaffiliated with the study said a comprehensive strategy to reduce emissions and sequester carbon may be necessary, they disagreed on whether soils management is the best way to go.
Francesco Tubiello, a Rome-based senior statistician and environmental team leader at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said he is skeptical of the overall climate benefits of focusing on soils management.
“I’m not so convinced that there’s a lot of great potential there,” he said, adding that curbing deforestation should be a greater priority than agricultural soils management because forests store the most carbon naturally and provide numerous other ecological benefits to help the earth withstand climate change.
“I personally think people should go for the biggest bang for their buck,” he said.
Margaret Torn, co-head of the climate and carbon sciences program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that some approaches to more climate-friendly soils management are things farmers already know how to do, but others, such as growing crops with deeper roots, aren’t available to many farmers globally.
The study has high estimates for how many emissions could be mitigated through soils management each year, but if those practices could help sequester even 10 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions annually, it would have a “huge” effect on the climate, she said.
Encouraging farmers to manage their soil with the climate in mind will be a different challenge in every country, however, because local politics and market forces operate differently from place to place, she said.
The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, in partnership with other actors, has established the Marin Carbon Project, as a way to “farm carbon,” on rangeland, increasing carbon stocks in soil, mitigating climate change, and providing an additional income stream for farmers. American Farmland Trust is also piloting the monetization of ecosystem services as a way for farmers to get compensated for the environmental benefits their land provides which offset the effects of climate change. California FarmLink works to avoid conversion of farms and supports implementation of efficient and low-impact management practices. Additionally, the Vermont Land Trust encourages establishment of pollinator habitat on its holdings to support native pollinators that are sensitive to climatic changes.
Read more about working lands on Conservation in a Changing Climate here.
Have a case study to share? Contact us here.
By Ayurella Horn-Muller, Climate Central This story was produced through a partnership between Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group, and WVLT, a CBS-affiliated television station in Knoxville. WVLT meteorologist Ben Cathey contributed local reporting. Click here for the Climate Central report, “POLLEN PROBLEMS: Climate Change, the Growing Season, ...
In the face of rapid climate change, it is important that plants can adapt quickly to new conditions to ensure their survival. Using field experiments and plant genome studies, an international research team has pinpointed areas of the genome that are affected during local adaptation to contrasting climates. This new ...
Extreme heat kills more people in the United States than any other type of hazardous weather and will likely become even deadlier due to climate change. However, extreme heat does not affect all people equally.
PennEast has been dealt a serious setback in its attempt to build an unsafe and unneeded pipeline through Mercer and Hunterdon Counties. Today, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower federal court decision that had allowed PennEast to seize state lands. The Third Circuit ruled that PennEast, as ...
A statement from Tom Gilbert, campaign director for New Jersey Conservation Foundation and ReThink Energy NJ March 25, 2019 — “Today, the Senate cast a welcome bipartisan vote for a healthier, safer, cleaner New Jersey. “These amendments will ensure that the state takes the steps necessary to reduce emissions as ...
Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are among the most common organisms on Earth. A research team has now shown for the first time that Cyanobacteria produce relevant amounts of methane in oceans, inland waters and on land. Due to climate change, ''Cyanobacteria blooms'' increase in frequency and extent, amplifying ...
Sugar maples won't be heading north anytime soon, despite climate change, according to a new study.
In response to future fossil fuel burning, climate computer models simulate a pronounced warming in the tropical oceans. This warming can influence the El Niño phenomenon and shift weather and rainfall patterns across the globe. Despite being robustly simulated in computer models of the climate system, the origin of this ...
There is a huge seasonal variability in methane seeps in the Arctic Ocean, according to a new article.
A new study demonstrates that there are no simple or universal solutions to the problem of engineering plants to enable them to cope with the challenges posed by climate change.
Fish sticks may be a tasty option for dinner, but are they good for the planet? A new study of the climate impacts of seafood products reveals that the processing of Alaskan pollock into fish sticks, imitation crab, and fish fillets generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists have shed new light on the Earth's climate behavior during the last known period of global warming over 14 million years ago.
Characterized by alligators, airboats and catfish, the Everglades is a region of swampy wetlands in southern Florida. In addition to the area's role in Florida's tourism industry, the Everglades play a significant part in protecting our environment - through carbon sequestration.
Click for Larger View of Animation Climate Central examined flood risks facing NASA's active space launch complexes at the John F. Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Using our proprietary Portfolio Analysis Tool (PAT). We found that the launch pads most vulnerable to ...
A statement from Tom Gilbert, campaign director for New Jersey Conservation Foundation and ReThink Energy NJ On Thursday, May 23, New Jersey legislature passed a bipartisan bill that requires the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to set benchmarks for reducing emissions and adopt measures to ensure we meet them. May ...
Fires started by people have steadily increased in recent decades, sparking a major shift in U.S. wildfire norms, according to a new study. The research found human-caused wildfires are more frequent, smaller, less hot and occur over longer seasons than fires started by lightning.
Scientists warn that global climate change is likely to unlock dangerous new microbes, as well as threaten humans' ability to regulate body temperature.
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Statement of Tom Gilbert, Campaign Director for New Jersey Conservation Foundation & ReThink Energy NJ The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) yesterday told PennEast that it hadn’t met the minimum legal requirements for the agency to be able to begin application review. “It is not surprising that NJDEP ...
Explore our new wind and solar forecasting tool. How much electricity did solar and wind installations generate in your area in the past 24 hours? How much power will they produce today and tomorrow? The vast majority of Americans support expanding the production of solar and wind energy. But the average person ...
With less than two weeks before PennEast’s requested in-service date, the pipeline company requested a two-year extension. New Jersey Conservation Foundation, The Watershed Institute, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network submitted a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to oppose PennEast’s baseless request for an extension of time. On ...
New research finds that global South countries have pledged the largest areas of land to forest restoration, and are also farthest behind in meeting their targets due to challenging factors such as population growth, corruption, and deforestation.
Carrying signs and raising their voices in opposition, New Jersey landowners and citizens made the case that NJR should end its involvement in two pipeline projects that aren’t needed and that take the state in the wrong direction for meeting energy needs.
In a study on small mammal biodiversity in the Atlantic Forest, researchers found that climate may affect biodiversity in rainforests even more than deforestation does.
Several passages on the Rök stone -- the world's most famous Viking Age runic monument -- suggest that the inscription is about battles and for over a hundred years, researchers have been trying to connect the inscription with heroic deeds in war. Now, thanks to an interdisciplinary research project, a ...
By reviewing the psychology behind climate change rejection, a researcher suggests four approaches that can sway climate deniers and help overcome obstacles to implementing solutions.
New technologies are needed to combat climate change. Now bioinformatics specialists might have found a way of enabling plants to store more carbon dioxide.
Corals depend on their symbiotic relationships with the algae that they host. But how do they keep algal population growth in check? The answer to this fundamental question could help reefs survive in a changing climate. New work indicates how sea anemones, which are closely related to coral, control the ...
New research finds that solar geoengineering -- the intentional reflection of sunlight away from the Earth's surface -- may reduce income inequality between countries.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied PennEast pipeline’s request for a rehearing on its ruling that PennEast lacks legal authority to seize or condemn state-owned lands for its proposed pipeline. The Third Circuit decision means PennEast no longer has authority to condemn more than 40 properties preserved by the ...
The western United States has experienced such intense droughts over the past decade that technical descriptions are becoming inadequate. In many places, conditions are rocketing past "severe," through "extreme," all the way to "exceptional drought."
Human-induced climate change promotes the conditions on which wildfires depend, increasing their likelihood -- according to a review of research on global climate change and wildfire risk.
Arctic sea ice cannot 'quickly bounce back' if climate change causes it to melt, new research suggests.
Increased uptake of plant-based diets in New Zealand could substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions while greatly improving population health and saving the healthcare system billions of dollars in the coming decades, according to a new study.
River flow is reduced in areas where forests have been planted and does not recover over time, a new study has shown. Rivers in some regions can completely disappear within a decade. This highlights the need to consider the impact on regional water availability, as well as the wider climate ...
Crop production in Britain will fall dramatically if climate change causes the collapse of a vital pattern of ocean currents, new research suggests.
Scientists think that current models are incomplete and that we may be underestimating crop losses. A new study shows that infested tomato plants, in their efforts to fight off caterpillars, don't adapt well to rising temperatures. This double-edged sword worsens their productivity.
Land trusts are engaging in strategic conservation planning to build resilience and minimize vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change in different ways. Learn more.