Climate cooling activities increase water storage to support green plant growth, and draw carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis to form deep, rich soils under forests, marshes, and grasslands. The result is known as Drawdown, carbon banking, or when coupled with agriculture, carbon farming. While healthy biosystems worldwide do this already, human carbon emissions from fossil fuel, destructive agriculture, and deforestation combine to overwhelm the balancing effects of natural systems. Beginning 7,000 years ago with early agriculture, quickening with the Industrial Revolution, and threatening to spin out of control in the 21st century, human activities past and present are heating the planet. We must now consciously enter the climate equation by assisting nature’s cooling processes through land repair.
For the first time in the UN process, Drawdown was recognized as a viable and necessary response to the climate crisis under the Paris agreement of 2015 (COP-21). Pushed aggressively by European and Commonwealth nations, “net zero emissions” became the goal. This approach has gained political traction because, despite a quarter century of international agreements and efforts, emissions reductions through effiency, conservation, fuel shifting, technological innovation, and system redesign have proved exceedingly slow to move the global economy onto a lean carbon basis. Optimists point to recent rapid growth in renewable energy, but time is not on our side. Beyond lowering the increment of industrial emissions, we must rapidly subtract CO2 and advance ecosystem cooling in order to mitigate the catastrophic and mounting effects of climate change.
The threat from climate disruption is more immediate and dire than is widely understood. Extreme weather events—fire, flood, drought, and storm—are proliferating and growing more intense with each year; this endangers life and property on a vast scale, triggering war, conflict, and migration. Over the past 10,000 years, agriculture and human settlement have damaged and degraded two-thirds of Earth’s land cover, and devastated ocean life. Biosystems are under extreme pressure as humans consume 50% more than natural regeneration provides each year, further suppressing photosynthetic capacity.
Overshoot has accelerated since 1987, bringing more and more living systems to the brink of collapse. Because of inertia in the climate system, the most dramatic changes from recent human carbon excesses have not yet manifested, but the trends are ominous.
Positive feedback loops from methane releases under permafrost, burning of tropical and temperate forests, ice-free Arctic seas, and deglaciation threaten to speed up warming exponentially well before mid-century. Scientists across the planet are afraid. Runaway heating presents a terrifying but ever closer prospect. All life we know would die if Earth were to become another Venus. The build-out of renewable energy systems will take more than a generation and would not by itself be enough to reverse carbon loading of the atmosphere, while we may have no more than a decade before passing critical planetary thresholds. More must be done. Geoengineering of the atmosphere and oceans is unproven and its undertaking would be reckless. But extending the longevity of green cover on land is within our grasp and will bring enormous benefits.
The evidence for effectiveness of photosynthesis is encoded in the data from Charles Keeling’s Mauna Loa laboratory. Every May, as the two-thirds of Earth’s land mass in the Northern Hemisphere regreens, carbon levels in the atmosphere drop. Our job is to increase this drawdown. One method is proven across centuries: reforestation. At times of plague and genocide during the past two millenia, the upward march of carbon in the atmosphere has stalled and reversed. Forests have done the work, as they supplanted farm fields abandoned by collapsing societies. We do not wish for mass human death; fortunately recent innovations in agriculture point to the possibility of rebuilding our soils and forests while eating from them too. A 2014 white paper by the Rodale Institute calculated that adopting best current organic farming practices worldwide, even without further reforestation, could sequester more carbon than the global economy and nature emit each year. The required wholesale redesign of landscapes across the earth can provide healthy livelihoods for millions, redefine the meaning of work, and solve pressing social problems.
We must make building deep, rich soils and tending magnificent forests the over-arching purpose of human life, woven deeply into all cultures. Soils, forests, grasslands and silvocroplands can store 20 billion tons of carbon annually, enough to bring the atmospheric load down to climate-safe levels in the range of 280-310 ppm CO2 by the end of the century. With demonstrated carbon capture rates between 4 and 300 tons per hectare per year, the planet’s 13 billion hectares of accessible land can support enough photosynthesis to reverse our current destructive course—but only if we make it our top priority now and for generations to come.
Building deep rich soils requires extensive land repair coupled with intelligent ecosystem management, especially slowing, spreading, and sinking runoff water, and covering land with green plants. For most immediate effect, surfaces must be kept cool to take heat load off the atmosphere. Soils must remain vegetated or mulched at all times and pavements in urban areas should be shaded wherever possible. Forests too must be protected and expanded, especially connecting coastlines with continental interiors to enhance water cycles. With adequate water, crops and biomass can be grown, nurturing humans and other animals with nutrient-dense foods, while providing materials for the circular economy. As agriculture is transformed away from tillage and chemicals and toward a perennial framework, the fungal associates of plants will orchestrate both health and carbon capture, regenerating soil organic matter levels to their prehistoric maxima and beyond. In a virtuous spiral, organically growing soils, animals, and plants would support ample and healthy human populations as they do the work of tending highly productive landscapes. We see a fine-grained pattern of forests, fields, orchards, pastures, and wetlands across all the inhabited continents, dotted with villages and towns, connected by the World Wide Web. Our cities too will regain their once green raiment, becoming mosaics of market gardens, greenhouses, edible parks, and offices, factories, shops, and warehouses under living roofs. There will be water everywhere: springs, streams, rivers, and lakes will reappear where no one expected to see them again.
Building up deep rich soils and healthy ecosystems begs a global effort in promotion and finance, but will be achieved by millions of small-scale projects carried out at neighborhood and watershed levels, where design standards can be determined democratically and best practices tested empirically. This is work for hundreds of millions of people presently unemployed, underemployed, or pursuing dangerous and destructive jobs. Ongoing, globally coordinated research and development efforts should focus on documenting and sharing effective strategies arising from grassroots innovation.
Land repair leads directly to higher yields in agriculture and forestry, as well as cleaner water, reduced damage from flooding and drought, and so can become self-supporting in food, water, and economic yields. Estimates from Slovakia suggest that savings from mitigation of flood damage alone provided a one-year payback on investments of 4 euros (USD$5) per cubic meter of water storage created. Most materials will be available locally (wood, stone, brush, plants, clay), and the energy, tools, and machinery required will be modest. As hundreds of millions devote their lives to this cause, the resulting rich landscapes, clean waters, healthy populations, and stable climate will be deeply respected as a global commons, deserving of permanent protection.
Climate change is an emergency demanding that we reorganize our societies on a wartime footing to fight for our lives. By terra-forming the planet, by pulling carbon gas out of the air and storing it safely and securely as humus in soil and wood in trees, we can rebalance the earth’s carbon chemistry. While this calls for lifetimes of labor and virtual mountains of treasure, we have hundreds of millions needing employment while trillions of dollars slosh around the global economy hiding from taxation, feeding speculative bubbles, extracting wealth from the natural world, and creating pernicious social and political problems. Migrant problem? Not anymore; rather, an opportunity. Instead of vast refugee camps spreading across deserts in Africa and the Middle East, let us create networks of villages for a new Civilian Conservation Corps, housing millions of well-paid and well-trained workers building infrastructures designed to catch water and repair landscapes. Starting where investments in natural capital can bring the most immediate return of employment and agricultural productivity, this urgent, moon-shot-scale effort must be kickstarted now because time is of the essence. It can evolve into self-organized human cultures across the planet.
We know how to do this. President Franklin Roosevelt put millions to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) across the US during the New Deal era of the 1930s. Many of the earthen structures: swales, terraces, infiltration pits and ponds, as well as the bridges, culverts, forest trails, and more that these agencies built are still in place, working quietly to regulate stream flow and improve ecosystems. More recently, the Slovak Republic undertook a pilot program of waterworks with EU support to similar purposes in 2010-11. The result was a dizzying array of creative, low-cost solutions to flooding and erosion in agricultural, forested, and urban landscapes. These are national-scale examples from recent history to the present.
Smaller efforts are ongoing in a multitude of regions, unremarked but no less effective. Bill Mollison and others have described many of the same techniques and methods used in these programs, and have gone beyond the Euro-American context to address dryland and tropical regions. Permaculture designers have gathered traditional knowledge and combined it with the scientific method to demonstrate what works to repair damaged lands, restore water supplies, improve agriculture, and sequester carbon.
An agroforestry project in Niger
The demonstrated systems are effective, cheap, can be made in large measure with local materials, and do not require machinery—although it can be helpful on larger projects.
Wood, stone, and bamboo structures, gabions and check dams, earthen dams, dikes, polders, balks, terraces, and contour ditches can be created quickly and without specialized tools or materials. They can endure for generations and so represent excellent investments. Water slows down and infiltrates into soils, making more groundwater available to sustain more plant growth for a longer time each season promoting better transpiration, cooling, cloud formation, and rainfall. This supports healthy springs, streams, lakes and estuaries.
Microengineering works are not the only approach, though they restore damaged lands directly, and once installed can work passively for decades, supporting food systems where no agriculture is presently sustainable. Where farming is active, cover crops, zerotillage implements, elimination of fallow, intensive rotational grazing, polycultures, and a
suite of agroforestry techniques are available to improve yields, eliminate erosion, support ecosystem services such as pollination and microclimate, and build soil carbon.
Through the international Permaculture movement and its proven curriculum, extensive grassroots networks are now familiar with land repair tools and could rapidly extend these practices by training teams of local workers.
The urgent need for a massive effort to ensure human survival means it’s now time to take back finance. Faced with a falling house of cards, global elites have been innovating like mad, using quantitative easing and negative interest rates to prop up failing industrial growth economies, perhaps to no avail. But now we know more about using finance as a tool. We know money is not scarce. It’s not a commodity, but a social construct.
Whatever we can do, we can finance. Whatever is truly productive magnetizes and proliferates money. It would be an epic understatement to say that Drawdown activities are truly productive. We must use Keynesian public financing to put the global underemployed and the badly employed—which is most people—to meaningful and collaborative work at sufficient wages making their immediate vicinities ecologically productive, building rich soils, sequestering carbon, and cooling the climate. Finance for this purpose, issued debt-free by national central banks, can be administered by local governments.
Much as the 1911 Weeks Act in the US acquired failed farms for the public trust, and planted forests on them, derelict and degraded lands can be purchased from private ownership through public finance to create new common pool resources, vested in local land trusts, community councils, or state stewardship, as appropriate. Conservation agreements with private landowners accompanied by 4C land repair can upgrade private property while pulling it out of the polluting industrial economy and into organic production. Good design of our watersheds, forests, rangelands, and estuaries holds the promise of a regenerative economy for the future. These will be the long-term rewards of seizing the moment of our destiny: We must devote ourselves to cooling the climate if we are to have any future at all. On our way there we can solve a plethora of persistent problems that have plagued the growth economy from its inception, ushering in a new era of human prosperity and planetary health.