Can Forests, Soils, Buy Time for Solutions to Climate Change?

February 23, 2020


$300 billion. That’s the money needed to stop the rise in greenhouse gases and buy up to 20 years of time to fix global warming, according to United Nations climate scientists. It’s the gross domestic product of Chile, or the world’s military spending every 60 days.

The sum is not to fund green technologies or finance a moonshot solution to emissions, but to use simple, age-old practices to lock millions of tons of carbon back into an overlooked and over-exploited resource: the soil.

“We have lost the biological function of soils. We have got to reverse that,” said Barron J. Orr, lead scientist for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. “If we do it, we are turning the land into the big part of the solution for climate change.”

Rene Castro Salazar, an assistant director general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said that of the 2 billion hectares (almost 5 billion acres) of land around the world that has been degraded by misuse, overgrazing, deforestation and other largely human factors, 900 million hectares could be restored.

Returning that land to pasture, food crops or trees would convert enough carbon into biomass to stabilize emissions of CO2, the biggest greenhouse gas, for 15-20 years, giving the world time to adopt carbon-neutral technologies.

“With political will and investment of about $300 billion, it is doable,” Castro Salazar said. We would be “using the least-cost options we have, while waiting for the technologies in energy and transportation to mature and be fully available in the market. It will stabilize the atmospheric changes, the fight against climate change, for 15-20 years. We very much need that.”

The heart of the idea is to tackle the growing problem of desertification — the degradation of dry land to the point where it can support little life. At least a third of the world’s land has been degraded to some extent, directly affecting the lives of 2 billion people, said Eduardo Mansur, director of the land and water division at the FAO.

Marginal lands are being stressed around the globe by the twin phenomena of accelerated climate change and a rate of population growth that could lift the global tally to almost 10 billion people by 2050, he said. Much of that growth is in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where land is already highly stressed.

“The idea is to put more carbon into the soil,” said Orr. “That’s not going to be a simple thing because of the natural conditions. But keeping the carbon in the soil and getting that natural vegetation, grazing land etc. thriving again — that’s the key.”

Last month, at a UN conference on desertification in New Delhi, 196 countries plus the European Union agreed to a declaration that each country would adopt measures needed to restore unproductive land by 2030. The UN team has used satellite imaging and other data to identify the 900 million hectares of degraded land that could be realistically restored. In many cases, the revitalized areas could benefit the local community and host country through increased food supply, tourism and other commercial uses.

Key to returning dry lands to vegetation is the use of fertilizer, said Mansur. “Fertilizers are essential for increasing productivity. Good fertilizer in the right quantity is very good for the soil.”

But decades of poor agricultural practices in both rich and poor nations have resulted in misuse, either from using the wrong products, using too much fertilizer, or in some areas using too little so that the soil loses its nutrients.

“The problem unfortunately is big and it is growing,” said Mansur. “The main cause of emissions from agriculture is poor land management. But the solutions are known: Sustainable land management, sustainable water management, sustainable soil management.”

Mansur stresses that the problem isn’t about reclaiming desert, but restoring wasteland that was productive before human intervention.

“Don’t mix desertification with desert,” he said. “A desert is an ecosystem. There are deserts on the planet that have to be preserved.”

Nor is it merely a matter of planting trees, since each area has to be considered in terms of the people who live there and how they can live on the land sustainably.

Kenya, for example plans to plant 2 billion trees on 500,000 hectares to restore 10% of its forest cover, but it is also working on ways to adapt to the changes in climate.

We have to improve our livestock and crops to be drought resistant or drought tolerant,” said Kennedy Ondimu, director of environmental planning and research at the country’s Environment Ministry. “We have to look at developing our indigenous vegetables and indigenous livestock gene bank apart from embracing hybrid crop varieties and livestock varieties. We need to prioritize animal breeding.”

In Costa Rica, farmers are using deforested land to produce CO2 neutral coffee, which commands premium prices among consumers. The nation is also replanting rainforest to encourage eco-tourism, which has become the country’s second-biggest earner.

Still, the tide of desertification won’t be easy to turn. In India, more than 20% of the country is considered wasteland and scant water resources are making the situation worse. In Chile, home to the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, the government is spending $138 million improving irrigation as the region’s driest decade on record forces fruit farmers to migrate south to escape the advancing desert. Further north in Brazil, the worst fires in years ravaged the world’s largest rainforest.

Yet, Castro Salazar says dozens of countries are fighting back with programs designed to reverse the loss of farmland and at least 20 nations have major efforts underway to replant lost forests.

“All these countries were able to keep producing the food they needed and growing the forest cover,” he said. “The myth was that in order to increase your productivity and your food sovereignty and security you needed to slash or burn the forest. We documented that it’s not true.”

14 Responses to “Can Forests, Soils, Buy Time for Solutions to Climate Change?”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Looking for a link. What’s their estimate of how much they can sequester how fast in terms of GtCO2? Remember we current emit 40 GtCO2 per annum globally. About 40% of that remains in atmosphere, and 30% each goes into oceans and (already) into soil via principally northern temperate forest trees.

  2. Betty Harris Says:

    I’m teaching local gardeners to sequester carbon in CO’s desert by keeping all organic matter possible on their own property. The word is spreading… in 2019 there was a noticable difference from 2018 in how many people stopped bagging leaves and leaving them for the trash man!!

    I’ve turned dirt and clay into rich black soil in 10 yrs but it was noticable within 3 years. So now I’m teaching others how to make soil from this stuff that masquaredes as soil. We’re also building community one yard at a time.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      And it is fun and satisfying too.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      My Austin city property has three large pecan trees shedding over it. I leave the leaves in the beds but put out the huge amount of tree-debris on the curb (with city-collected compost) most weeks. I like living in a town that collects compostables for use in a larger market.

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Reforestation and soil sequestration have so many positives. Can even include profit. Worthwhile in themselves even if it fails to save the world. As always, beats the crap out of present mechanical CO2 extraction systems.

    • ecoquant Says:

      @Brent Jensen-Schmidt,

      You have quoted no numbers and cited no references, so all the readership has is your personal unsubstantiated opinions. Evidence to the contrary is substantial.

      (1) Anderson, Peters (2016), Science, “Negative-emission
      technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble.” These include afforestation.

      (2) Tokarska, Zickfeld (2015), Environmental Research Letters, quoting from their paper “The effectiveness of net negative carbon dioxide
      emissions in reversing anthropogenic climate change”:
      (2a) ” Results suggest that while it is possible to revert to a desired level of warming (e.g. 2 °C above pre-industrial)after different levels of overshoot, thermosteric sea level rise is not reversible for at least several centuries, even under assumption of large amounts of negative CO2 emissions. During the net-negative emission phase, artificial CO2 removal is opposed by CO2 outgassing from natural carbon sinks, with the efficiency of CO2 removal—here defined as the drop in atmospheric CO2 per unit negative emission—decreasing with the total amount of negative emissions.”
      (2b) “Several artificial CO2 removal technologies have been proposed [18–22]. A first group includes land-based methods such as reforestation, afforestation and bio-energy production with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) [20]. Other options include technologies that capture CO2 directly from ambient air [19], methods to enhance carbon uptake by natural sinks (e.g. ocean fertilization) and biochar [18]. None of the technologies have yet been applied at a large scale. Land-based methods are constrained by the availability of land for afforestation and biomass production. In particular, large-scale biomass production for BECCS raises food security concerns, as it may compete with biomass needed for food production and feedstock supply chains [18]. For CO2 removal technologies involving carbon capture and storage (e.g. BECCS, direct air capture), concerns related to safe storage of captured CO2 (usually in geological structures) also need to be considered.”
      (2c) “The carbon uptake in these regions occurs due to vegetation shifts, which lag the atmospheric CO2 and temperature change due to the long (decadal to centennial) timescales involved. Boreal forest continues to expand in the northern high latitudes at the expense of shrubs, thereby increasing the carbon uptake in that region (supplementary figure S6). Globally, however, the carbon uptake in northern high latitudes during the negative emission phase is overcompensated by the total decline in land carbon in the Tropics.”
      (2d) “In summary, our study suggests that it is possible, in principle, to revert global mean temperature to 2 °C on centennial timescales after different levels of overshoot with the implementation of net negative emissions. However, sea level continues to rise for at least several centuries despite large amounts of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. Only if atmospheric CO2 is returned to pre-industrial levels, and the net radiative flux at the top to the atmosphere is zero or negative, will sea level start to fall and stabilize in the long term. During periods of net negative emissions, artificial CO2 removal is opposed by CO2 outgassing from marine and terrestrial carbon sinks, with the amount of outgassing increasing with the total amount of negative emissions. The efficiency of CO2 removal — here defined as the change in atmospheric CO2 per
      unit negative emission—decreases with increasing total amount of negative emissions.

      “Results of this study indicate that the long-term climate and carbon cycle response is the same for emissions pathways with an early and low CO2 emission peak, followed by implementation of small amounts of negative emissions and pathways with a later and higher peak and large amounts of negative emissions. This implies that in view of stabilizing global mean temperature below 2 °C in the long-term, delays in reducing CO2 emissions today could, in principle, be offset by negative emissions in the future ….”

      (3) Pugh, et al (2019), “Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Regrowth of forests following past disturbances is expected to be an important driver behind the large uptake of anthropogenic CO2 emissions by the terrestrial biosphere. Yet estimates of the size of this uptake vary widely. We combined independent observation-based and model-based sources of disturbance history information to calculate the carbon sink in regrowth forests. On-going carbon uptake due to forest demography is large, but much smaller than previous influential estimates have suggested. Contrary to previous findings, these latest data sources indicate that the sink is predominantly in mid-high latitude, rather than tropical, forests. The remaining uptake potential in forest biomass under current disturbance rates is equivalent to 7 years of emissions from fossil fuel burning at 2016 levels.”

      (4) Sperry, et al (2019) offer great uncertainties regarding the potential of afforestation using U.S. forests, in “The impact of rising CO2 and acclimation on the response of US forests to global warming”: “The benefit of climate change for forests is that higher atmospheric CO2 allows trees to use less water and photosynthesize more. The problem of climate change is that warmer temperatures make trees use more water and photosynthesize less. We predicted the outcome of these opposing influences using a physiologically realistic model which accounted for the potential adjustment in forest leaf area and related traits to future conditions. If forests fail to adjust, only 55% of climate projections predict a CO2 increase large enough to prevent warming from causing significant drought and mortality. If forests can adjust, the percentage of favorable outcomes rises to 71%. However, uncertainty remains in whether trees can adjust rapidly and in the scatter among climate projections.”

      (5) And to counterbalance the slam against industrial direct air capture, which I feel unwarranted, and even though I believe depending upon any negative emissions technology is a mistake, I offer Wohland, Witthaut, Schleussner, “Negative emission potential of direct air capture powered by renewable excess electricity in Europe”, (2018) Earth’s Future.

      In short, grand expensive claims demand grand evidence, not merely ideology. These “expenses” are not merely monies but opportunity costs for directing social and governmental energies towards solutions which may have better outcomes.

      I don’t see any evidence here, let alone grand evidence.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Yep, they are my opinions. Try actually reading my comment before cutting and pasting other peoples opinions.

        • ecoquant Says:

          Those aren’t opinions, dear. They are summaries of compiled evidence, analysis, and logic.

          Unlike yours.

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Yes they are opinions darling, read the post and those differing scientific opinions. Am really curious which original sentence you disagree with?

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Don’t pick on Ecowacky, BJS. Don’t you realize what a great service he has done by “cutting and pasting other people’s opinions” (which MUST be meaningful and significant simply because Ecoquack says they are (as he sits on his high horse and sniffs his perfumed sleeve hanky).

            Summaries of compiled evidence, analysis, and logic”? Lord love a (dear) duck, but that’s a rather pretentious thing to state. (sniffing sleeve hanky all the while).

            (And that citation on “Negative emission potential of direct air capture powered by renewable excess electricity in Europe”, (2018) Earth’s Future” is not impressive)

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I get inspired by efforts in African countries to counter desertification (whether tree planting, mixed-crop agriculture, or more efficient wood stoves), then I get knocked back by the excessive rains leading to the explosion of locusts that strip everything. Gah!

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Life sure is a bitch when one, in all modesty and arrogance, worries about saving the world. Also there s the deep black pit of despair lurking. Damn annoying all round.

  5. J4Zonian Says:

    There’s no such thing as reforestation without reversing deforestation, and that will cost a whole lot more than $300 billion.

    I think it will be the hardest of all the things we need to do to avoid catastrophic changes. it will either take 10,000 laws rationing or outright banning consumption of meat, lumber, and other products, prohibiting cutting (and defending the forest against determined and likely starving people) and many similar actions–all of which will be fanatically opposed by powerful groups…or there will have to be a global revolution against capitalism so profound it reaches effectively into the back woods of Brazil, Madagascar, the Congo, India and the US equally.

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