Without healthy soils, our changing climate matters less.

Today, Monday December 5th 2016, is World Soil Day.

Who knew? Who cares?

There are more than two reasons to care. First is that nearly all of our food production requires soil to grow in. Second is that we have only 60 years of food harvests left at current rates of soil degradation.

The 60-year estimate comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in their first Status of the World’s Soil Resources report published last year.

The FAO argue that “Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost it cannot be renewed on a human timeline. The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.”

a hand full of wormsLet’s be clear what soil is. Soil is one of our three major natural resources, alongside air and water. It is so much more than the dirt that covers much of the earth’s land. Soil is made up of three main components: the minerals that come from rocks; organic matter from the residues of plants and animals; and the living micro-organisms that live in soil.

It takes nature 200 – 400 years to make a layer of soil one centimetre deep. To make it fertile, may take 3,000 years.

The FAO estimate that between 25 and 40 billion tonnes of topsoil are eroded by wind or rain every year.

Not only does this loss lower farm profitability, it is also a major driver of climate change.

Soil organic matter is exposed when forests are clear-felled and when agricultural lands are tilled. The exposure of soil organic matter to oxygen means that previously sequestered carbon joins the carbon cycle and is added to the atmosphere as a new source of carbon dioxide.

To avoid catastrophic climate change, the world needs us to stop putting new carbon in to the atmosphere. The longer it takes us to act on that need, the harder it is to avoid catastrophe.

As well as driving climate change, the loss of soil organic carbon reduces the availability of nutrients and minerals to plants and so affects the quality and safety of our food. It also leads to increased pests and diseases which, in a downward spiral, further reduces food availability.

For the sake of our climate and our food supply, the health of our soils needs to be assured. This can best be done through regenerative farming and gardening practices.

One regenerative action that anyone can take, is to add carbon, in the form of compost and biochar, to our gardens and farms.

By looking after our soil, so the soil will look after us.

Biochar, a climate action that anyone can take

When buried in the soil, biochar is an easy means to sequester carbon and so mitigate some of our green house gas emissions.


That our climate is rapidly changing ought to be clear to everyone now. Scientific analysis provides clear and sufficient evidence that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, is caused largely by our burning of fossil fuels and removal of carbon sinks including forests.

The issue is not why is it is occurring or how we got to this stage of chaos.

No, the issue is: what can we do about it?

‘We’ means you and I, not just our national or local governments.

The need to take action is now urgent.

An analysis of data from the Global Carbon Project, has concluded that the world has only five years left before the IPCC(1) carbon budget(2) for 1.5°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, is blown.

To express that another way: if the current rate of carbon emissions continues, there is a 2 in 3 chance that sometime in 2021, the mean global average temperature will reach 1.5°C of warming above the internationally agreed baseline of pre-industrial levels.

The forms of action that we need to take are clear.

The first is to reduce our carbon emissions immediately. That is, reducing individual emissions from travel (especially vehicles fuelled by fossil fuels), waste disposal, electricity, gas and coal use, and food production and distribution.

Another worthy action is to lobby government to either introduce a carbon tax, or strengthen the emissions trading scheme so that the country’s gross green house gas emissions(3) are reduced.

Doing these things will slow the rate of global warming but will not stop it dead.

So the second necessary action is to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Planting trees is one way to achieve that outcome, and is the preferred net emissions reduction strategy of this government.

Another way is to sequester carbon where it can be locked away for a very long time.

Biochar_1694
Biochar

That can be achieved by manufacturing biochar from waste organic materials like at municipal landfills (domestic waste), and forestry (tree waste), horticultural (crop waste) and animal (e.g. chicken) waste.

These are waste streams which, if they are not pyrolysed and buried, would decay quickly and add to our green house gas emissions.

Pyrolysis (derived from the Greek ‘pyro’ meaning fire and ‘lysis’ meaning separating) is a process of heating organic materials in the absence of oxygen. The process changes the chemical and physical structure of waste organic materials to produce charcoal.

Turning charcoal into biochar is a process of inoculating the char with beneficial bacteria and fungi.

A very efficient way of achieving that is to use it first as animal bedding in the dairy, equine or poultry industries.  Or it can be used as a water filter in waste treatment systems, added to compost or soaked in a tea made from compost or worm farm castings.

Biochar is a soil amendment that realises significant benefits to the soil and thus the crops we grow.  Biochar achieves this by replacing the need for fertilisers that require fossil fuels in their manufacture and distribution.  When buried in the soil, it is an easy means to sequester carbon and so mitigate some of our green house gas emissions.


Footnotes:

(1) IPCC: The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an internationally accepted authority on climate change, and was established to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.

(2) In it’s 2014 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the IPCC argued, with high confidence, that “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today … warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.”  The IPCC’s goal is to limit global warming to less than 2.0 °C but preferably to less than 1.5 °C by 2100. This lower limit equates to an atmospheric concentration level of 430 ppm CO2-equivalent.
How this relates to New Zealand is covered in a separate report by the NZ Climate Change Centre.

(3) Gross greenhouse gas emissions are defined as the total emissions from the four defined sectors of Agriculture, Energy, IPPU (Industrial Processes and Product Use) and Waste. Net emissions are the gross emissions plus or minus the emissions or removals from the LULUCF (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry) sector.  When forests are being planted, carbon is being sequestered which subtracts from the gross emissions to yield the net figure.