"To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing." - Raymond Williams

Interactive Carbon IQ Test, and real climate change solutions

by Shaun Chamberlin on December 7th, 2009

The above ‘Carbon IQ test’ is an excellent way of exploring how much you know about the carbon cycle, and what that means for viable solutions to our climate challenge. Have a go at it before checking out the information below.

The below diagram, by Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition, shows the amount of carbon stored in each stage of the terrestrial carbon cycle, in which carbon moves from the atmosphere, to vegetation via photosynthesis in the form of complex carbon compounds (plain ‘C’ in the animation), to litter and soil when the plants or leaves die, and back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide via decay, oxidation, or burning.

The facts that soil is by far the biggest carbon reservoir over which we have any direct control, and that it has proved possible to double the carbon content of soils in a decade, are why I believe that agriculture and land use may be the key frontier if we are to maintain a hospitable climate.


(Figures from Sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in global carbon pools, Energy and Environmental Science, 1:86-100 (2008). Also note that there is about 15 times more CO2 in the oceans than in the land biosphere and atmosphere combined)

In earlier posts I have looked into the climate science and shown that it is now not only necessary to reduce emissions of CO2, but to actually draw down CO2 from our atmosphere and reduce the amount that is already up there. Soil carbon can truly claim, without a hint of greenwash, to be one of nature’s own solutions.

The Woods Hole Research Centre has found that around 25% of carbon build-up in the atmosphere over the past 150 years has come from land use change, mainly deforestation and farming. Ohio University and others put the figure at around 50%. Organic farming techniques like avoiding nitrogen fertiliser and building up the soil’s carbon content can slow this trend.

Organic and non-organic soil carbon

But where it gets really exciting is when we realise that design systems like permaculture and keyline mean that this trend can be reversed, sucking carbon out of our atmosphere while also improving the quality of our soils to enhance food and water security, flood resilience and local community self-sufficiency. I have always been a little sceptical of ‘win-win’ solutions, but when they simply emerge from ending our present ‘lose-lose’ processes, I’m a big fan.

At a European Commission conference in June last year Prof. Rattan Lal of Ohio University presented findings that, with changes to agriculture and land use, terrestrial ecosystems could naturally reabsorb sufficient CO2 to reduce atmospheric concentrations by at least 50ppm from current levels (thus taking us back under the campaigners’ favourite, 350ppm).

There is not yet an abundance of research in this area, but it is a tantalising possibility, and if there is one resource I recommend casting your eyes over, it’s this slideshow, produced by the Soil Carbon Coalition.

Edit (08/01/10) – I was sent a link to the below video by the LifeWorks Foundation. More similar videos can be seen here.

  1.  Roger says:
    10 December, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    One can grow soils, but it takes water to do so as well as CO2 … and one has to have a balanced production by leguminous plants alongside all yield from the land, in other words a complete reversal of modern trends in agricuture… what one cannot do is remove the pollution of the soil with poisons of industial agricylture and waste which have long-term devastating effects on soil through damage to the ecosystem that maintains good soil… the permitted level of these poisons in agriculture is about to be increased by law worldwide despite such problems as the worldwide loss of bees [which is pardoxically not seen in cities because there is far less agricultural poisoning of the food of bees in cities]
    Soil is alive, it is part of the ecosystem ,and can grow, but not in our world without a complete reversal of ‘progress’ in rape of the earth by capitalism … human survival comes down to whether or not we can overcome human short-term thinking that our political processes have institutionalised in mankind , that means educating those with real power that their ways do not work long-term and engendering in them care for those who live after them … frnkly it is not good news for the soil or our world , they are not people who can see far beyond a balance sheet expressed in the empty and short-term values of our very sick money system…
    It is not that mankid could not thrive if we applied what we know to maintaining life, it is that the evolved system of values already demonstrated that it has no inherent care about devastating human populations or ecosystems , nor any vision except enslaving the world in debt to a few men , ultimately to one man to whom everyone else on earth will ow more than they have …
    Without monetary reform which is resisted in the very stongest possible ways by the powers that be , there can be no recovery of the soil … examine the plans in place and funded that will actually fill the seven-year window of opportunity IPCC says we have in order to limit global warming to the already horrific consequenes of 2C temp rise in the nearer future and soi becomes impossible as a solution not because it wouldn’twork, but because mankind is committed to our disastrous way of politics , the real autocracy behind the mask of notional democracy that menas what actually happens is determined by tehway of thinking of a few men who believe in exploitation of mankind and nature at ever-increasing rate for sake of their own ambition to control mankind as unknowing slaves to the system that makes them rich and powerful… Can one solve mankind’s scaled inequality and save our world when te system of politics has evolved over millenia to as priority defend itself by every trick it can harness against the interests of the masses? My safe bet is no… for even in a crisis created by the system, te system is never seen as the enemy, never made responsible, neer changed because we no longer know how to live without it, have setour values relative to its horrendously poor performance …
    The soil is dying ,as are the seas … the web of life that behaved like a single organism has had many organs removed from it, species gone at levels like a massextermination … change all the evolution of mankind’s disastrous and frankly corrupt system in just seven years? Not in fifty years could one do so …
    It is not that one could not do so if people knew what we collectively know , it is not thatwe don’t have the intenet to convey such informnation to the world, it is siply that most don’t care toivest time is such an enterprise and there would be vast ammounts of counter-propaganda to drown out the truth anyway… we shall thus devastate our planet and kill our children simply because we believed the lies our system has evolved to live by and could not revert to truth fast enough when the crunch bites hard enough … in the end we do not even measure the threats to all mankind as a whole that this earth crries, so we will not even know why we destroyed ourselves, only the way we brought mankind to near-extinction by menas of living lies about our world … one example in point, how many know the proof that capitalism exponentially overtaking our world is based upon lies ? Who would yet believe that, how many will ever believe that could destroy our soil ,let alone that it did ?
    Can anyone stop it? Not even the sad men who run it ,who believe sincerely that other men and nature are just resources to be exploited to the limit of profit … they just never worked out what real profit would be …the sytem lied to them t, but they will believe it until it fails us all …

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL