Tony Lovell [ Climate Adaptation ] explains the reasoning behind how more green growing plants means more captured carbon dioxide — more water — more production — more biodiversity — more profit. A 1% change in soil organic matter across just one-quarter of the World’s land area could sequester 300 billion tonnes of physical CO2.

People confuse complexity with complication.  Complicated problems need complicated solutions.  Complex problems need simple solutions. It’s an interesting mix.

5 Billion hectares of hope.

There are 5 Billion hectares of degraded and desertifying grazing land on the planet. Before we get into that, we’ll just address a couple of questions. The first one is, “can the human brain actually cope with climate change?”  Genetically, and in our evolutionary time, can we actually cope with what this  is about?

Second thing is the great big question,  “is 1 a big number?” and our desperate desire for Technology, we desperately look for technical – technological solution – to  problems.

And finally, with apologies to Bill Clinton, it’s the ecology stupid”.

Dealing with climate change, “why our brains don’t help”.

Ichsani mentioned earlier,  we have a fear of the unknown and the unusual. As soon as something’s unknown or unusual to us, we’re scared of it. There’s a  pretty good reasons for that evolutionarily, because if we didn’t know what it was, it was likely to try and kill or eat us. So there’s a reason that we’re a little bit concerned about that.

We then have, as was mentioned, simplistic linear thinking.

We are desperate to link the effects that we see with a cause.  As soon as we can link the effect with the cause with one single cause, what we’ve got is, it’s no longer unknown or unusual.

So we try to make the connection really quickly.

We have difficulty coping with really big numbers. millions billions trillions. Look at what the  global Financial Crisis: You’ve got 22-year-old kids playing with really really big numbers, it’s all zeros and it just went missing.

We are absolutely hopeless with compound growth.

Something going up by 1 or 2 % a year, we have this desperate need for the GDP to increase by 3 or 4%.  You’ll get a whole lot of projections and all of a sudden, with the amount of money we’re  spending, house prices going up 10% per annum forever. All of a sudden your house is going to cost you the entire production of the world. It can’t happen.

It’s got to stop somewhere.

This one’s really scary in terms of dealing with climate change, because of the whole big carbon tax, great big tax on everything, and the economic part of it.  Human beings are loss averse. What that means, is that we are far more concerned with hanging on to what we’ve got,  than with getting something far more valuable down the track.

What that means is that we normally act irrationally when making economic  decisions. Our starting point is that we act irrationally and climate change is talking about cost benefits.

Let’s start with some factors: This is Adam Neiman, a guy in the UK, did this incredible little graphic about the world to give us an idea of what we actually dealing with.

When you look outside, it seems big and limitless.  Down on the left hand side is all the water in the earth, on the world,  put into the same sea level pressure and temperature. And on the right is all the air, at sea level pressure and temperature.

Okay now the thing is, if the air was actually at the same concentration as the liquid,  you have to condense it 800 times, it would be down to 1/500th the size of what you’re looking at.

That’s what we’re actually dealing  with.

There’s a description of the earth given as a big ball of iron and some rock surrounded by a really really thin layer  of water, air and dangerous animals.

That’s probably exactly what that is.

Why our brains don’t help.

We have simplistic linear thinking: A, B, C . . . that gets “greenhouse gas is damaging to life on Earth”, so if GHG are damaging to earth, we need to get rid of GHGs.

As soon as we need to get rid of GHG, we have carbon pollution reduction schemes and call it carbon pollution. That means that Sources are bad and Sinks are good.

That’s really simplistic thinking.

What follows from that is that all GHGs are bad,  and methane is a GHG, then if cows emit methane gas, cows are bad.

At that point,  you ask somebody anything past that, you’ll find that that is the full depth their knowledge on the topic.

They’re opposed to cattle, they’re opposed to ruminating animals, they’re opposed to agriculture and that’s about the level of depth they get to.

What’s the reality?

What we actually need is complex cyclical thinking. as Ichsani said,  we’re dealing with a cycle. If we are dealing with complex cyclical thinking, GHGs are essential to  life on Earth.

Absent greenhouse gases we would be a cold and lifeless rock

GHGs are the only thing keeping the average temperature at positive  15 degrees. Without them, we’d be at minus 19.

There’s not too much that happens at minus 19 degrees.

What we’ve done is  overload the carbon system and the cycle needs to be rebalanced.

If we start thinking in cycles, cows are a ruminant animal.  All of those are ruminant animals. Ruminant animals evolved in the Miocene period, which is between 10 and 26 million years ago. They’ve been on the planet for  millions of years. There have been billions of them.

All the methane’s going somewhere, what’s happening to it?

Just think about that a little bit further, hold that thought, that these things are actually cycling carbon.

What have we got?

We have 280 parts per million co2  in the atmosphere at the moment. We had 280, sorry, before the Industrial  Revolution — we’re at 393 at today’s date, and people are saying we’re heading to 550.

Those are the numbers are  dealing with.

One ppm of what?

Let’s have a look at what the one ppm is.

It’s 1 ppm of atmospheric volume of carbon dioxide. That’s the main thing the concern’s about.  Carbon dioxide is one part carbon and two parts oxygen.

Pretty straightforward.

I’m a fan of both of them, as Ichsani said, she’s got about 13 kilos of carbon in her, I’ve made a substantially bigger contribution of carbon stores than that.  And oxygen — I’m also pretty happy with oxygen.

Carbon dioxide, the molecule, then weighs 44, the molecular weight. There’s a few facts and numbers here that I think are important to get a base – because the  carbon molecule weighs 12 and the oxygen molecule weighs 16.  So carbon’s 12/44ths. So when you see carbon, or carbon dioxide equivalents,  you’ll see that the carbon is, carbon dioxide equivalent to 3.67 times the number of  the carbon.

Because of that ratio.

If we got 550 ppm, if we’re heading towards 550ppm,  and we were at 280, we’ve got to start getting some of this out.

If we simply stop. If we go we stop burning fossil fuels today,  we go to wind power, solar power and it’s all peace, love and mung beans,  etc – what we end up with is, we still go over the cliff, we just go over the cliff slower.

We actually need to get something into reverse.

They’re talking about moving  carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere now.  With geological carbon capture and storage, it stores the whole carbon dioxide molecule.

Biological carbon capture and storage, which is green growing plants, splits  off the oxygen and just stores the carbon.

There are some reasons that that’s important.

Let’s have a look at some interesting  numbers.

At room temperature and 1 atmosphere of pressure, which is where we are today,  carbon dioxide’s a gas, ok and one kilogram of it has a volume of 505  litres — a couple 44 gallon drums or a couple wheelie bins.  One kilogram of carbon dioxide takes up that much space.

At room temperature and 1 atmospheric pressure, carbon however,  think about the graphite in your pencil, is a solid and one kilogram of  it as only .44 of a litre.

That means that to store at room temperature and pressure 1 atmosphere  of carbon,  or carbon dioxide, is going to take 1,100 times as much  space  as 1 kilogram of carbon.

Where does it start to come into some  some things that matter in terms of the way structure things?

With geological carbon capture and storage, to store it at room temperature, it requires massive energy.  20 to 30 percent all the energy from the power station that produces  it, gets chewed up actually squishing the stuff down and pushing it underground.

That’s why Chinese aren’t particularly interested in it, because they’re saying, “we’re going to try and have efficient coal-fired power stations.  If we put one of these things in, we’ve basically got to build 4 power stations to get 3 power station’s worth of energy.

To store carbon as a sold at room temperature, however, requires sunlight and green leaves.  So it’s a far more efficient process.

Is 1 a big number?

1 ppm by volume of atmosphere is 7.8 billion tons of carbon  dioxide.  7.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, remember that little calculation — that  conversion we do — is 2.1 billion tons of carbon. What that means is for each time that co2 concentration goes up by one  ppm, there’s another 2.1 billion tons of carbon have gone up in  the air.

2.1 billion tonnes of carbon is a solid block of graphite a kilometer long, a kilometer high and a kilometer thick.

How big is that?

It turns out to be about . . .  that big.

Ayer's Rock, Australia

That thing is about one cubic kilometer.

What that means is, every time the co2 concentration went up by 1 ppm,  instead of it going up as a colorless odorless gas, if one of those popped up over a city,  we would be paying a little bit more attention to it.

If there were 270 more those of floating around over New York and London and Sydney,  just hovering there, I think people would be taking this a little more seriously.

How do we go to materials and handling issues? Are we looking at this in terms of  physically moving stuff around?

If the pre-industrial levels of co2 was 280 ppm, and we’re at 393 and  heading towards 550,  we’ve got to get back down again, which means that we’ve got to take some out.

270 ppm have to come back out of the atmosphere.

Remember, 1 ppm by volume is 7.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide.  270 of those is 2.1 trillion tons.  This is where our billions millions trillions is.

We’ve got 2.1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide that have to come back out. 2.1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide is 575 billion tons of carbon.  That’s the solar we’ve got to remove.

How much is 575 billion tonnes?

Australia’s coal exports in 2010 were 298 million tonnes. All those ships lined up, and all those trains and all those miners getting  paid all that money,  push 298 million tonnes out.

Total World Coal Trade, all the coal that gets shipped around the world, is 938 million tonnes,  and the total world coal consumption was 6.2 billion tonnes.

That means that the amount of carbon that we have to pull back out of the atmosphere, if things keep going, is about 1,929 years of Australia’s coal exports. 613 is the total world coal trade, 193 years in total world coal consumption.

The interesting thing about that is: how many years are people saying we’ve got  to address this thing before we get to irreversible climate change?

The amount of stuff we have to pull back out is 93 years of total world coal consumption.  Pretty serious number.

This is where the hope comes in.

This is atmospheric carbon dioxide, this is the Keeling Curve, this is the measurements that first highlighted the problems we’ve got.

As you can see, it goes from bottom left to top right, and it goes up pretty steadily  — and co2 concentrations are increasing. It’s steadily heading up and it’s not a  particularly happy story.

Let’s have a look at the little red line. What’s the little red line? The red line is  the inter-annual cycle. It goes up, then it comes down, every year. Unfortunately, it goes up a little bit more  and then it comes down. So it’s not coming back to the same base.

If you have a look at it, each year, it’s cycling by about 7 ppm.  If you look in the bottom corner, you’ll see there’s a cycle there.  what that cycle is, is the annual growth and dropping of the deciduous leaves on the boreal forest up in the top in northern  hemisphere.

All those plants that actually grow in Spring and the leaves drop off in Summer.  Grow in Spring, drop off in Summer.

7 ppm,  those plants are shifting each year. 7 ppm is 15 billion tonnes of carbon.  50 years of Australia’s coal exports, 16 years of total coal trade and 2.4 years of total coal consumption.

All those little plants growing it leaves each year, and dropping their leaves,  are pulling back — and moving — 15 billion tonnes of carbon.

That’s a natural process that we’re not involved with, other than negatively, that is moving that volume of material.  And this is where Ichsani said earlier that, if the cycle didn’t happen and if  there weren’t processes to release carbon . . . the plant system — community pulls out 8 % of carbon dioxide every year.

Land-based plants.

Which means that if we didn’t have  ruminant animals, or break down all oxidation or whatever’s happening to cycle material back up,  in 12 years there would be no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The area that’s actually doing that is the boreal forest part,  which is across the top.  If you look at — if you think about the globe, you’ve got the white bit at the top and the white bit at the bottom, you’ve got the big green stripe in the middle, you’ve then got the brown stripes of the grasslands  and the temperate forest which is the deciduous forest where the  trees are growing and dropping their leaves is that little strip across the top.

There’s not much of the earth actually involved in moving  15 billion tonnes of carbon a year.

What does carbon look like in nature?

I’m partly carbon,  what else is carbon? Most people think of this:  It’s the biggest tree you’ve ever seen. It’s a great big lump.  It’s a couple hundred feet tall, it’s the size of the room at the base, you can hit it with a bulldozer and it’s full of stuff.

It started off as a tiny little seed that big.

Where did all the stuff in the tree come from? A lot of people, not that long ago, would say, “oh, it came out of the ground”.

As Ichsani’s mentioned, most of it is atmospheric carbon dioxide. That tree  is basically solidified carbon dioxide.

The interesting thing is, so is this: grassplants.

With the tree, what you see above ground is pretty mirrored by what  you see below ground.  The mass of the whole plant is about half above and half below.

Interesting with grass plants is the balance is actually  1:4. There’s about four times as much organic material below ground as there is above ground.

That’s why a hectare of healthily functioning perennial pasture can contain more carbon than a hectare of rainforest.  The reason is that the gaps between the  trees  versus the soil.

That plant also is producing, as Ichsani mentioned,  something like 200 different organic compounds that are being  released out of the root system into the soil.

All those contain carbon.

That’s why we’ve got 5 Billion hectares of hope, because we’ve got 5 billion hectares of seasonally dry grassland on the planet.

If we change the management of those seasonally dry grasslands,  what could happen?  Unfortunately, at the moment, a lot of it looks like that.

Any of the farmers in the room, or anybody who’s travelled, where is that? Where could that be?

Here. Not too far from here.

There’s another spot which again could be anywhere on the planet.  There’s another spot. Why do they look like that?

People will say, “oh, it’s a drought”. It’s overgrazing, it’s poor management, it’s a  whole range of reasons.

The interesting thing is that that’s next door on the same day.

And that’s further down the creek on the same day,  and that’s the river on the adjoining property, on the same day.

The top one’s in Sonore Desert, Mexico. The middle one’s in Day Creek, Arizona, the bottom is a river bed in Zimbabwe.

They’re the same areas, they’re the same rainfalls, they’re the same soils. They’re the same plant  species, they’re  the same season.

The pictures were taken on the same day.

There’s no irrigation, there’s no  chemicals, there’s no fertilizer, there’s no artificial anything.   The area on the right has more livestock roaming on a perfect day, in total in the area on the left it also has far more wildlife.

The only difference is the way the places are managed.

Livestock in these areas get managed to increase the land’s ability  to absorb and hold water, to build new soil, help new plants start, increase forage production, biodiversity, store carbon . . .

These ones they don’t.

In these one’s, when the management is the other way, what happens is that the water doesn’t stay in there,  the whole process starts to go in reverse, and you actually release carbon.

A grass plant’s roots are in proportion to its top.

A proportion that scares my kids because Dad gets excited talking about how grass grows. A grass plant is in proportion. So a little tiny root system can’t get great big leaves growing, a little tiny leave system can’t get great big roots going.

This is an experiment that was done where the leaves were kept trimmed at the same size. The ones on the left were kept trimmed constantly, as if there were sheep or cattle in the paddy constantly grazing, you can see what happens to the grass plant.

The one on the right was allowed to express itself. All that extra material is organic carbon.

In nature, what nature wants in these ecosystems, think about the Serengeti is probably one of the last remaining healthy functioning ecosystems. What you’ll see in the Serengeti is one small number of large herds. There’s a lot of animals in one herd. That herd’s constantly moving. That’s the migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti. They move through two countries. That means hundreds of kilometers each year. Yet they’re kept bunched up.

Wild life like to take their time and spread out, they’re kept bunched up. The reason is the edge of the herd is dangerous. So the animals are all kept bunched up. What that means, is you get that sort of an effect.

Now a situation like that, you look at that, that number of animals could not be sustained on that landscape if they were stuck there. They’re got to move on.

They’re in an area for a short period of time, hours or days at the most, they’ll come in they’ll dung, they’ll trample and they’ll heavily impact and they’ll move on and they won’t come back for months or years at a time.

What that does, with the grass plant being in balance, is they’ll come in and they’ll chomp the plant on the right, what it does to get back to the balance is it sloughs off material.

And that material is carbon going back into the soil.

They then move off, and allow the plants the time to recover. When the plants get time to recover, they regrow, and they don’t regrow pulling the material out of the ground, they pull the carbon out of the atmosphere.

So what you’ve got is a carbon pump, pumping the carbon into the soil.

Soils scientists say, “I don’t see why people don’t get this.” I said, “what do you mean?”, he said, “the whole plant’s pumping carbon into the soil,” he said, “carbon is black, the element carbon is black,  and dirt gets darker.” So there’s a soil profile.

In the Serengeti, wildebeest do that. Absent wildebeest, and we can’t control wildebeest, get some [ ? ].

So if you look at the behavior of the animal, it’s almost exactly the same.

Some simple maths behind soil carbon, you follow through that, a hectare of soil, increased soil organic matter, and you come back with a 100 tonnes of carbon per – atmospheric C02 sequestered for each 1% increase in organic matter.

That’s the area in Australia, the numbers that Australia can sequester: 900 million tonnes, our total emissions are 600 million tonnes.

The IPCC has identified that this wonderful billion tonnes per anum can be sequestered. The UNFCCC has said something like 80, 70 or 80% of all capacity for sequestration rests with soil carbon from grazing areas.

So. It’s the ecology stupid.

What actually happens is that human beings reduce biodiversity and this reduces biomass.

How do we reduce biodiversity? In a grazing situation, in a tribal situation, what we do is we get rid of predators, because we don’t want them killing us or killing our animals.

Ichsani mentioned the number of molecules of bacteria that are in a handful of healthy soil. You tell people in The City that and they’ll try and spray the soil. Think about the number of ads you see where spray this, spray that, clean this, wipe that. We take out biodiversity.

You look at all the crops around here. We plant a 1,000 hectares of one crop, this crop or that crop. So there’s no biodiversity.

Reducing biodiversity reduces biomass, and that alters several crucial processes in a logical progression.

There’s actually a hierarchy of ecosystem functionality which goes a little bit like this. I’ll rip through this:

On the way down, we reduce biodiversity. Reducing biodiversity reduces biomass – plant cover, reducing plant cover reduces photosynthesis, reducing photosynthesis reduces carbon uptake and manufacture of oxygen. Which reduces the accumulation of organic matter.

Less organic matter means a disruption of the nutrient cycling.

Nutrient cycling disruption means a reduction in fertility, reduces the infiltration and retention of rainfall, which changes the soil moisture, which changes the relative humidity, which changes weather, which results in changes in climate.

Weather’s what we’re getting today. Climate’s what we have over the next 50 to 100 years.

The interesting thing is that, on the way back, all that stuff bolts on, all that stuff’s locked in together. On the way back, it would look like this: what would we need to do to reverse that.

What if we increased biodiversity? What if we just increased biodiversity? Well that would increase biomass, which is plant cover. If we increase plant cover, we increase photosynthesis.

If we increase photosynthesis, we increase the carbon uptake and the oxygen release, which increases the accumulation of Organic Matter.

Which restores nutrient cycling, which increases fertility, increases the infiltration and retention of rainfall, results in positive changes in soil moisture, positive changes in relative humidity, which result in positive changes in weather and positive changes in climate.

So what happens on the way down can happen on the way back, and we influence both of those.

If we change the management, we change the land.

Globally we’ve got 5 Billion Hectares of grassland that we can do something with.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Hege Karsti Ragnhildstveit

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4 thoughts on “Soil Carbon

  • 30/10/2016 at 20:04
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    Where in the world those 5 Billion Hectares are. Mismanaged or otherwise.

    The World's Grasslands

    Reply
  • 01/11/2016 at 07:49
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    Gabe Brown: Keys to Building a Healthy Soil

    Reply

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