Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The 4% Initiative and climate change

In my review of the debate around global warming, I find that those who want to continue as we were, burning coal, oil and gas, also point out that we cannot cut carbon emissions without shrinking the economy. This is a false narrative perpetrated on behalf of those who earn money at the spigot where the carbon fuels flow.

But for the sake of discussion, lets assume that they're right. Let's reframe their claim as a question: Can we cut carbon emissions and grow the economy? I believe that the answer is yes. We've been proving it for years, but that is just with renewable energy, energy efficiency and nuclear power.

One more item that we can add to the mix, that often doesn't even get a mention in political discourse is land use. Humans are causing deforestation and desertification at an alarming rate. Our great forests are an obvious carbon sink, yet when they are cut, it doesn't make the news. When the land is depleted, it becomes a desert. Just ask China. Yet the mainstream media has been relatively silent on this issue since it doesn't fit their narrative. There is a way out of this.

In France, they call it The 4% Initiative, a new program from the French government. The idea is to plow 4% of the carbon from farming back into the ground. According to Food Tank, the 4% Initiative, if implemented globally, could sock away about 1.2 billion tons of CO2 every year:
"Fifteen hundred billion tons of carbon are stocked in soil organic matter, which is twice more carbon than atmospheric CO2 according to IPCC (2013). 1.2 billion tons of carbon could be stocked every year in agricultural soils with an annual rate of four percent increase of the soil organic matter on agricultural land. This would be about 20 percent of the total annually CO2-emission globally."
20% of annual CO2 seems a bit optimistic since human CO2 production from all sources, including land use is estimated to be around 30 billion tons a year. Let's see, 1.2 billion tons divided by 30 billion tons a year works out to about 4%. Yet, the benefits of carbon sequestration go well beyond just putting more CO2 into the ground and I wouldn't be surprised if they compounded with time. I'm almost certain that there would be multiplier effects that have not yet been anticipated.

Plowing more carbon back into the soil increases the stability of the soil for continued plant growth and renewal. It would reduce the need for fertilizers which in turn reduces CO2 production since fertilizer production requires energy, usually in the form of carbon fuels. It would make farming that much more efficient, further reducing the energy requirements of farming.

Here are some of the key figures and benefits listed by the French government concerning the intended benefits of The 4% Initiative:

  • 24 % of global soils are degraded at various levels, including 50 % of agricultural soils [source: Bai et al., 2013]
  • 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon are stocked in soil organic matter, which is twice more carbon than atmospheric CO2 [source : IPCC, 2013]
  • 1,2 billion tonnes of carbon could be stocked every year in agricultural soils which represents an annual rate of 4‰ compared to the surface soil horizon [source : IPCC, 2014]
  • Every years crop production in Africa, Asia and South America could increase by millions, by increasing 24/40 soil organic matter by 1 tonne/ha [Lal , 2006]
  • 1,2 billion USD is the economic loss in crop production due to soil degradation [FAO, 2006]
The 4% Initiative represents a way to cut CO2 emissions by implementing agriculture practices that stock more carbon into the soil without shrinking the economy. More to the point, the benefits of The 4% Initiative will grow the economy by improving the health of the land and the efficiency of farming. 

This is just the estimated impact from changing farming practices from one government. If all world governments turned their attention to the same problem, we might see a concerted effort worldwide to let the plants do most of the work when it comes to putting carbon back into the ground. If world governments gave as much attention to the health of the land as they do to terrorism, we might actually reduce terrorism. 

It is worth noting that even if The 4% Initiative works, there is still much work to do. The 4% Initiative is just one more tool available to all of us to reduce our carbon footprint. It is an addition to renewable energy, nuclear energy and of course improving the efficiency of our civilization. From cars to computers, there is room for improvement by just making our tools more efficient.

Call me an optimist if you want. But if we focus on the gloom and doom, we will resign ourselves to a quick extinction. Saving the earth for the posterity of mankind is a matter of political will, not technology. Happily, the most important tool we need to accomplish that goal is conveniently located between our ears. It is up to us to make the choice to use that tool wisely and to leave the world a better place for our kids and their kids. 
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