Carbon farming: another low-tech climate solution

Protecting forests is a low-tech way to store carbon that has earned a lot of attention in the efforts to fight global warming. Now, another, less discussed way of sequestering carbon is starting to capture the attention of policy makers: carbon farming.

As negotiators in Paris continue to work towards an international agreement to fight disastrous levels of climate change, many side events and agreements are also occurring. One of those agreements is the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, which was signed by a number of countries, NGOs and companies, and is aiming to provide practical guidelines for climate solutions. The solutions touch on a number of sectors, from finance to building to forests.

One of the climate solutions the agenda is pushing is carbon farming, a type of agricultural production that actually increases soil carbon. Supporters of organic agriculture have long called for this type of farming, sometimes called No Till farming, but this is the first time soil carbon has been formally included in an international plan to fight climate change.

Most modern conventional farming uses tilling to suppress weeds and make it easier to plant, but this process also releases carbon stored in the soil into the air as carbon dioxide (CO2). The benefits of carbon farming are two-fold. First, it reverses the process of releasing carbon, and instead pulls carbon out of the air. Second, it can help improve the soil without synthetic fertilizers and leads to better crop production.

Rattan Lal, a soil science professor and founder of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, says that soil carbon is key to soil biodiversity and nutrient storage, and soil with more carbon is also better at retaining water.

Lima-Paris Action Agenda is asking NGOs and governments to help promote soil farming as part of sustainable agriculture programs. It’s called the “4/1000 Initiative,” because according to the agreement’s authors, a 0.004 percent increase in the world’s total carbon stock “would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2.” The authors acknowledge that this isn’t a realistic goal, but say they want to highlight how much of a difference even a small increase in soil carbon could make to climate change.

And while soil carbon may seem like a pretty abstract concept, it’s something that even home gardeners can help increase.