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There’s a 32 gigatonne gap in emissions reductions. Research shows the answer could lie in soil

a tractor speeds through a field with an illustration of a face in a  tree
Image Credit: Red Zeppelin // Unsplash. Illustration by Nate Merritt

It’s an understatement to say the numbers behind climate change and planet-warming emissions are often difficult to wrap one’s head around.

Try this one on for size: According to the United Nations’ 2022 Emissions Gap Report, there is a 32 gigatonnes gap between current planned emissions reduction globally per year and the amount of carbon that must be cut by 2030 to stay within 1.5°C.

Now, research conducted by Jacqueline McGlade, the former chief scientist at the U.N. environment program and former executive director of the European Environment Agency, shows that soil improvements in farming around the world could slash emissions… by a lot.

How much exactly? If these farming techniques were used on just half of the world’s agricultural soils, the soils would absorb about 31 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is just 1% more than they already do.

The idea that scaling the carbon storage capacity of the world’s farming soil by just 1% could nearly close our emissions gap is, for most people, unfathomable to think about — according to McGlade via The Guardian, “Outside the farming sector, people do not understand how important soils are to the climate. Changing farming could make soils carbon negative, making them absorb carbon, and reducing the cost of farming.”

The research was conducted by Downforce Technologies, a commercial organization McGlade now leads that sells soil data to farmers.

As gleaned by data collected and analyzed by Downforce, better farming techniques such as crop rotation, planting cover crops, growing more native grasses, maintaining and restoring hedgerows, or using a minimal cultivation technique called direct drilling, “could result in a staggering storage of 31 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually, bringing us closer to bridging the 32 gigatonnes gap required to meet the crucial 1.5°C target.”

Downforce helps supply chains reach their net zero goals by working to improve soil health and carbon sequestration at scale. The company’s data could also allow farmers to sell carbon credits based on how much additional carbon dioxide their fields are absorbing.

According to McGlade, implementing these techniques is not only better for the planet but better for farmers’ crops and their budgets. While McGlade says there is an upfront cost associated with moving away from the overuse of artificial fertilizer, for example, a transition period of two to three years would yield healthier soils, and thus, better crops.

Soil is a huge carbon sink, right up there with oceans and forests, and it’s been long known that soil is essential for carbon storage. However, until modern times, it has not been possible to examine in detail how much carbon soils in particular areas are stored and how much they are emitting.

Now, as the U.N. estimates, about 40% of the world’s farmland is degraded and it would cost a pretty penny to restore it and not only leverage its carbon sequestration and storage ability but ensure food security for the globe’s growing population.

In Kenya, for example, as McGlade told The Guardian, it would cost about $1 million to restore 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of what is currently badly degraded farmland in Kenya, an area that is home to about 300,000 people.

The reason McGlade founded Downforce, as she details in an interview on the company’s site, is because over the last 40 years, she “saw that nature-based solutions could solve many of the problems created by climate change.”

“During the time I spent at the U.N., the interconnections between nature and human survival became embedded in international commitments,” she said.

“But there was still a misplaced assumption that nature would fix the problems of climate so that we could carry on with business as usual without any need for accelerated action or investment. My own conclusion was that we needed to act quickly if we were to get the planet back on track — we neither had the time nor the luxury to collect vast amounts of more data.”

So McGlade wanted to couple data with advanced and innovative analytics, building information systems “ that would help us make better choices about those nature-based solutions most likely to succeed,” measuring and monitoring impacts of different interventions on local scales, provide insights for improvement.

“Living with the Maasai in Kenya, I also saw firsthand how such an approach could provide affordable, and ethical solutions for safeguarding livelihoods,” she said. “I could see how to develop ethical and effective nature-based climate projects that would help communities such as mine in Kenya, benefit from the growing market for carbon and biodiversity credits.”

As carbon credits continue to scale despite the continuous allegations of greenwashing projects, companies and governments need measures they can trust, she said in the interview, and by enabling farmers to implement sustainable farming practices, she hopes Downforce can make that possible, especially when many agree that regenerative agriculture practices are the answer to Africa’s growing food crisis, tackling climate change as a cherry on top.

If the results from the research show anything, it’s that with help, achieving the necessary emissions reductions to keep the world from permanently crossing the 1.5°C is more than attainable. As the U.N. seeks to double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers by 2030, the research suggests agriculture emissions reductions can happen in tandem.

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