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Carbon Emissions

Story at-a-glance -

  • By adopting a circular economy, carbon emissions could be cut by nearly 70 percent by 2030
  • In a circular economy, products are designed for ease of recycling, reuse, disassembly, and remanufacturing instead of the “take, make, and dispose” model that’s widely used now
  • One-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor farming processes that contribute to the loss of carbon from farmlands
 

Solving Carbon Displacement by 2030

April 28, 2015 | 24,817 views

By Dr. Mercola

Carbon erosion from the land and into the water and air are creating a very unstable environment. Removing the renewable grasslands and forests that can not only sustain but also regenerate our soils and solidify this fragile carbon balance is a major part of the problem.

This carbon erosion from our land is only increasing, and our economy will mean nothing if we have nothing left – that is the direction we are heading and doing so quickly. Estimates of 50-60 years remaining have been made regarding our topsoil and aquifers. While it is hard to believe in two generations we could be in this position, it is the reality we face if changes are not made quickly.

A new study from The Club of Rome suggests that turning our economy into a circular one – that is, one that values re-using rather than using up – could also cut energy waste drastically.

A Circular Economy Could Cut Waste by 70 Percent

By doing away with wasteful lifestyles and business practices and greatly enhancing resource efficiency, The Club of Rome argues that we could ward off further ecosystem decline and avoid environmental disaster. According to their report, The Circular Economy and Benefits for Society:1

"The proposition is that a circular economy, where products are designed for ease of recycling, reuse, disassembly, and remanufacturing should replace the traditional, linear 'take, make, and dispose' model that has dominated the economy so far.

This, no doubt, is a major prerequisite to stay within the Planetary Boundaries. It now takes the Earth almost one and a half year to regenerate what we use in a year (Ecological Footprint)."

A circular economy requires three main strategies: renewable energy, energy efficiency, and material efficiency.2

In addition, since a circular economy requires regular repair, maintenance, and remanufacturing, which is far more labor intensive than mining or manufacturing using automated facilities, it would also create an additional 100,000+ jobs, cutting unemployment by more than one-third.3 The Guardian detailed several of the suggested policy options:4

  • Strengthening existing policies in renewable energy
  • Strengthening recycling and reuse targets to help reduce and process waste and residues, and putting limits on waste incineration
  • Using public procurement as an incentive for new business models, moving from selling products to selling performance
  • Establishing specific resource efficiency targets for materials where scarcity looms or the environmental impact of extraction is serious (such as rare earth metals)

Why 'Carbon Farming' is the Key to Save the Earth

It's estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.5

Carbon farming is a simple solution that involves returning more topsoil to the land. The process is great for the environment, wildlife, nutrition and will:

Regenerate the soil Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
Increase crop yields Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time
Reduce carbon displacement Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers

As reported by the Press Democrat:6

"Research conducted in Marin County and in the Sierra foothills revealed that a single dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil's carbon storage for at least 30 years.

'But there are significant hurdles to expanding the practice, including the cost of purchasing and transporting compost to farms. About 30 million tons of organic material ends up in California's landfills,' said Torri Estrada, director of policy at the Carbon Cycle Institute.

He envisions a network of regional facilities producing compost or farmers and ranchers doing so themselves on-site."

California Compost Experiment Turns into Weapon Against Carbon Erosion

Compost happens with or without the help of humankind—it's happening right now on forest floors, in farmers' fields, and in your yard. But oftentimes it's a slow process and you can speed it up using the right combination of water, oxygen, heat, and organic material.

It's estimated that compost made from California's green waste, which includes household food scraps, dairy manure, and more, could absorb 75 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions for one year if applied to just 25 percent of the state's rangeland. As reported by SF Gate:7

"Unlike high-tech geo-engineering schemes to pull excess carbon dioxide from the air and stick it in old coal mines or under the ocean, applying compost is a simple way of creating what scientists call a positive feedback loop.

Plants pull carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and transfer a portion of the carbon to the soil through their roots. Soil microorganisms then turn the carbon into a stable form commonly known as humus.

This not only sequesters the carbon but improves the soil's fertility, boosting plant growth and capturing more carbon while also improving the soil's ability to absorb and retain water."

County-Wide Compost Program Diverts Nearly 1.5 Million Tons of Waste from Landfills

The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency operates a regional compost program in which they accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents. They also accept yard trimmings from landscapers and tree trimmers, as well as certain agricultural byproducts from local farms, wineries, and food processors.

The organic material is then converted into premium quality organic compost and mulches, along with recycled lumber, firewood, and bio-fuel used to generate electricity. Since 1993, 1.6 million tons of yard and wood debris have been converted into these beneficial products.

Sonoma Compost, which operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, estimates that nearly 1.5 million tons of yard and wood trimmings have been diverted from landfills since 1993 as a result of the program.8

Factory Farms and GMOs Are Major Polluters & Poison Producers

Today, food animals are typically reared in cages and tightly cramped quarters, and their feed consists of grains, primarily genetically modified (GM) corn and soy, instead of grasses. These animals are literally imprisoned and often tortured by unhealthy, unsanitary, and unconscionably cruel conditions.

To prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, animals are fed antibiotics and other veterinary drugs. Those antibiotics pose a direct threat to the environment when they run off into our lakes, rivers, aquifers, and drinking water, and drive the rise in antibiotic-resistant disease in humans and animals. However, CAFOs and GM crops also play a significant role in greenhouse gas emissions. As reported by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association:

"CAFOs contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - more than the entire global transportation industry. The air at some factory farm test sites in the US is dirtier than in America's most polluted cities, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth's atmosphere than CO2.

Indirectly, factory farms contribute to climate disruption by their impact on deforestation and draining of wetlands, and because of the nitrous oxide emissions from huge amounts of pesticides used to grow the genetically engineered corn and soy fed to animals raised in CAFOs.

Nitrous oxide pollution is even worse than methane – 200 times more damaging per ton than CO2. And just as animal waste leaches antibiotics and hormones into ground and water, pesticides and fertilizers also eventually find their way into our waterways, further damaging the environment."

Even the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report titled "Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States."9 According to the report, our current agricultural system, which is dominated by GM corn and soy, is unsustainable in the long term. Should temperatures rise as predicted, the US could expect to see significant declines in yields by the middle of this century.

Converting Corn Fields to Grasslands Can Also Help

In addition to carbon farming, increasing numbers of experts are advocating for croplands to be converted back into the grasslands they once were. According to a report by South Dakota State University researchers, grasslands in the Western corn belt, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, is being lost at a rate "comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia."10

Between 2006 and 2011, nearly 2 million acres of friendly native grasses have been lost to corn and soy—two of the staples in processed foods that are driving chronic disease rates in an ever steepening upward incline. The same thing is happening in South America, where native forests are leveled in order to plant soy.

The researchers claim the land being converted into corn and soy fields is actually much better suited for grazing than crop agriculture, as it is "characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought." As discussed in a Mother Jones article, this conversion of grasslands to croplands is the exact opposite of what might be in our best interest.11

"...we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows… The idea came from a paper by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil—enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent.12 In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality, grass-fed beef... Turns out the Midwest are doing just the opposite."

Biological Farming Is Key for Reducing Carbon Emissions

Download Interview Transcript

One of the most pernicious contributing factors to the rising carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere is not necessarily the burning of fossil fuels, but rather it's our modern agricultural practices. I'm really excited about the alternatives, such as the application of biochar (charcoal created by slowly heating biomass such as wood and plant materials in a low-oxygen environment).

Once added to soil, biochar helps sequester carbon for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, and radically improve soil fertility by serving as a substrate for beneficial soil microbes.

Adding biochar to just 10 percent of the world's croplands would store 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This roughly equals the world's annual greenhouse emissions. The addition of biochar also improves soil fertility, allowing for healthier crops, so it's a win-win situation. That said, biological farming expert Dr. Arden Andersen claims that by simply following appropriate, sustainable farm-management practices you don't even need to go through the process of creating and adding biochar.

"'If we follow those, by default we solve the carbon sequestration issues. We solve the environmental issues. Because what happens is that we increase the carbon in the soil, and that's sequestration of air carbon,' he says. 'A couple of different studies that I am familiar with showed that just by sequestering carbon in 15-20 percent of the arable land in the world, we would more than reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air that is causing a problem. As I said, by default, we solve all the environmental problems if we just do appropriate farming.'"

In addition to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, by increasing carbon levels in our soils, we can:

  • Decrease weed proliferation. The USDA Soil Tilth Laboratory showed that increasing the carbon level in soil can decrease weeds by as much as 75 percent.
  • Increase the soil's water-holding capacity. The Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance (OHBA), an organization in Houston, Texas that does organic turf management, has shown that they can decrease water use for lawns by 50 percent by biological means alone.

So, by default, following biological farming practices will solve many environmental issues, including rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. As it stands, industrial agriculture is the primary culprit, and regenerative agriculture is the only solution. While more efficient means of energy are improving, there is no end in sight to our dependence on fossil fuels.

We are seeing signs of change, as major investors are also recognizing the significant problems associated with further reliance on fossil fuels,13 but we have decades before serious changes to our energy infrastructure are made.

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