Humanity's great task in the 21st century is to restore the Earth. The Web of Life is badly damaged, poorly functioning, under threat. Climate change is the loudest and largest threat to the Earth's living communities. To have hope of a future, humanity's next generations must unite to repair our planet's life support systems, restore soil fertility and regenerate Earth's ecological communities—especially microbial communities under our feet.
Reviving our planet's damaged, declining ecological communities requires an unprecedented human commitment to Stewardship. Regenerating the planet's forest, prairie and soil ecosystem must be a very high priority for current and future generations. Steady, sustained, earnest effort is needed to restore our planet's life support systems and build sustainable human societies.
In 2008, NOAA climate scientist James Hansen led scientists worldwide to review data on climate and greenhouse gases (GHG) to determine the critical threshold to set as our goal for a future. Their consensus is that geological records and computer models show that polar and glacial ice melt accelerates above 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide (CO2).
Once polar and glacial ice melts, global warming will accelerate with little thermal restraint.
Therefore, climate scientists recommend
that humanity should aim for
as our target
for maximum CO2 in Earth's atmosphere.
This recommended data-based maximum is quickly being adopted as a global goal, and was highlighted worldwide in over 7000 citizen actions on October 10, 2010.
Current CO2 is 392 ppm and still rising. So CO2 is already 42 ppm over the safe 350 level, and must be lowered.
Emission reduction alone will not remove the already excess GHG. The current Carbon Neutral goal to balance emission and removal (net zero emission) can't get our planet's atmosphere back down to 350 ppm.
To lower GHG, we must go beyond Carbon Neutral to be Carbon Negative. This means more carbon is removed from the air than released into the air (net carbon reduction). Carbon in air is lowered, not increased. We must initiate and support actions, technologies, farming methods, and businesses that reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
To turn the corner on global warming and begin
to cool Earth's over-heating climate engine, we must extract GHGs from the air, and convert them to stable physical forms. We must sequester carbon in chemical forms that keep it out of Earth's atmosphere for centuries—preferably for millennia.
We must be
Several processes can shift us from carbon positive to carbon negative. Some are
well-known traditions, such as regenerating forests and conservation grasslands, where carbon is stored in the dense diversity of life forms, from trees to soil organisms. Others are new, emerging technologies, such as producing renewable fuels and biochar from biomass. All these methods convert CO2 into complex forms of organic carbon.
Photosynthesis is one of Nature's three main ways to fix carbon. Chlorophyll—the green pigment in plants—captures sunlight to pry hydrogens off water molecules, releasing oxygen and electric charge. Green plants harness this solar-powered hydrogen fuel cycle to combine water with CO2 to create carbohydrates.
The primary products of photosynthesis are oxygen and sugar. On all the Earth, only green plants create sweetness from sunshine, water andCO2.
Plants crosslink, spin and weave sugar into fibers, sheets and nets. Plants build their bodies from this condensed solar sweetness. Plant roots penetrate throughout mineral soils to secrete this organic carbon as a sweet treat for micro-organisms in the Soil Food Web. Even microbes deep in dark soil need sweetness from sunshine.
Thus, CO2 becomes safely stored as organic carbon in biomass and soil.
For geological eons, soil was a primary carbon storage reservoir on the planet. Ancient prairie and forest soils held a few centuries of organic carbon. In fact, coal—our favorite fossil fuel—is ancient carbon fixed by trees.
20th Century forestry and farming quickly exhausted this critical element out of the soil and released it into the air. Now, for future generations, we need to put all that carbon—maybe more—back in soils.
Fortunately, an ancient civilization left us a strategy to store carbon in soil, produce carbon-negative fuels, foster sustainable soil fertility, and grow nutrient dense foods. Terra Preta—the most fertile, productive and carbon-rich soils in the Amazon Basin—were made by ancient tribes beginning 6000 years ago. Their most unusual ingredient is charcoal. Making charcoal for fuel was done worldwide for millennia. But everyone is surprised to hear about putting charcoal in soil.
Agriculture has a huge carbon-positive footprint. Six to 20 calories of energy are needed to deliver one calorie of food to an American kitchen. All over Earth, soils—disturbed by deforestation and plowing, sterile from chemical fertilizers, pesticides and acid rain—are losing carbon and life, leaking fertility into air and water. We focus on obvious emission from tailpipes and smokestacks, and fail to see invisible vapors rising from fleshly plowed and fertilized farmland.
Yet, agriculture can be a huge net carbon sink to absorb vast volmes of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as stable carbon in soil.
Regenerating the living communities in the soil and the sea is a fundamental task facing future generations. Primary allies in this effort are the least of all life forms—the micro-organisms. They are also Earth's most ancient community.
So, what we do to soil has exponential effects on Earth's other life support systems, including air and water quality, ecosystem diversity and capacity, food production and nutritional quality, carbon fixation and sequestration.