Earlier this month in Dancing with Ulysses, I looked at the moments of realization being experienced by Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and many people around the world, and how that had progressed, in only a short time, from shocked climate scientists, to weary diplomats in Paris, to the thin leading edge of a mass awakening of a billion minds to a shared apocalyptic vision.
The question I posed was, “So what comes next?”
More than 30 years ago I first confronted that problem while compiling Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do. Chapter 3 of that book, called “Runaway,” begins with the line, “The speed of the changes now underway holds a risk of greater magnitude than most people imagine possible.” It then described the Venus Effect, wherein humans traverse some unseen threshold and suddenly find themselves in Hothouse Earth, beyond the point of course corrections. In my new book, BURN Using Fire to Cool the Earth, I tried to insert this illustration from Will Steffen and co-authors, but the publisher couldn’t find space and it got cut. It shows how we move from the Holocene equilibrium that allowed simple mammals to evolve into us, and dolphins and wolves, out of that zone and into a new, hotter equilibrium in which higher life-forms like dolphins, wolves, and humans are untenable.
Stability landscape showing the pathway of the Earth System out of the Holocene and thus, out of the glacial–interglacial limit cycle to its present position in the hotter Anthropocene. The fork in the road is shown here as the two divergent pathways of the Earth System in the future (broken arrows). Currently, the Earth System is on a Hothouse Earth pathway driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases and biosphere degradation toward a planetary threshold at ∼2 °C beyond which the system follows an essentially irreversible pathway driven by intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks. The other pathway leads to Stabilized Earth, a pathway of Earth System stewardship guided by human-created feedbacks to a quasistable, human-maintained basin of attraction. “Stability” (vertical axis) is defined here as the inverse of the potential energy of the system. Systems in a highly stable state (deep valley) have low potential energy, and considerable energy is required to move them out of this stable state. Systems in an unstable state (top of a hill) have high potential energy, and they require only a little additional energy to push them off the hill and down toward a valley of lower potential energy.
Having that awakening sits you upright. The threshold is no longer unseen, it is right in front of you and it seems impossible to arrest the momentum that will carry you across. So you begin to scratch around for some heroic gymnastic move to escape that fate, assuming, as one must, that it is not too late already (or even assuming that and rejoicing in a grand futile gesture). Steffen says:
Most of the feedbacks can show both continuous responses and tipping point behavior in which the feedback process becomes self-perpetuating after a critical threshold is crossed.… A few of the changes associated with the feedbacks are reversible on short timeframes of 50–100 years (e.g., change in Arctic sea ice extent with a warming or cooling of the climate; Antarctic sea ice may be less reversible because of heat accumulation in the Southern Ocean), but most changes are largely irreversible on timeframes that matter to contemporary societies (e.g., loss of permafrost carbon). A few of the feedbacks do not have apparent thresholds (e.g., change in the land and ocean physiological carbon sinks, such as increasing carbon uptake due to the CO2 fertilization effect or decreasing uptake due to a decrease in rainfall). For some of the tipping elements, crossing the tipping point could trigger an abrupt, nonlinear response (e.g., conversion of large areas of the Amazon rainforest to a savanna or seasonally dry forest), while for others, crossing the tipping point would lead to a more gradual but self-perpetuating response (large-scale loss of permafrost). There could also be considerable lags after the crossing of a threshold, particularly for those tipping elements that involve the melting of large masses of ice.— Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252-8259.
Between 2006 and 2007, while I was researching The Biochar Solution, I paid a call on Frank Michael and asked if he would mind running some maths for me. Frank was a fellow board member at the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (gvix.org) and held a Master’s degree in physics. Before dropping out to join our Tennessee ecovillage, he had worked on NASA’s space shuttle program. I asked Frank how many trees it would take to reverse climate change.
Most people in aerospace tend to think, after the fashion of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, that we can just tech our way out of any problem. The techocornucopian wizard crowd tends to be fans of geoengineering, imagining we will spread a layer of sunlight-reflective particulates in the stratosphere or across Greenland, or fertilize the oceans to grow massive plankton blooms. Serious studies of these schemes generally place them into two categories: impractical and expensive. To me, and also to Frank, they are absurdly reckless and dangerous. Harebrained would be a parsimonious adjective. The potential for unintended consequences is suicidally high.
Knowing at how terra preta in combination with trees had altered the climate once before, following the Columbian Genocide, I knew there was a simpler path. We can rebuild Net Photosynthetic Productivity with trees and grasses. So I asked Frank, how many trees? And also, how much land?
After much study, Frank and I co-authored a 2017 paper, Optimized Potentials for Soil Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon, showing that a reversal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is feasible using a socially responsible, economically productive and ecologically restorative agroforestry system we called “Climate Ecoforestry.” This system, if carried to the scale of 300 megahectares (about 1.2 million square miles, or tree-planting an area roughly the size of four Frances or five Spains) every year for the next 25 years, we could achieve the cumulative storage of 667 PgC (gigatons of carbon) required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial 250 ppm (parts per million). Were nations to collectively reduce fossil fuel emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the reduction to 250 ppm could be achieved by year 37. In all cases, carbon would be stored in the world’s soils and living biomass and could provide many additional benefits beyond sequestration.
One key point in the calculation was that we had to take into account the oceans’ CO2 outgassing feedback because that is where the majority of the industrial legacy has been absorbed and as the air gets cleaner, the oceans are going to give some of that back. In order to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, and keep it out, you need to remove about 3.7 tons of carbon from the ocean at the same time. Photosynthesis can do all that, as long as you continuously harvest and set that carbon aside. Otherwise, it just goes back into the cycle. Frank developed a plan he called step-harvest that works equally well for forests and grasslands. Each year the land under management is low-grade harvested or manured through rotational grazing (using a virtuous cycle for standing timber and pastureland) and after extraction of foods, fuels, fibers, and other useful commodities, carbonaceous wastes are pyrolyzed, rendering them as omni-useful biochar that takes a timeout from the atmospheric/oceanic carbon cycle for anywhere from one thousand to 100 million years.
Is there enough land for all that conversion to field and forest? Frank and I spent a lot of time researching that point. Four Frances or five Spains. Per year? Well, it turns out, we do have that much, sitting at the margins, wrecked by bad land use practices, being slowly desertified by climate change, or otherwise neglected and abandoned. Human agriculture as it was practiced from the time of Sumer was extractive and exploitative, using irrigation and the plow. Cut down the trees and then mine the soils until nothing fertile remains, move on, rinse, repeat. Add in the Haber Bosch process and chemical herbicides and pesticides and you can grow something resembling food in sterile soil for a few extra years the same way you can in a flask in a laboratory, but it will have about the same flavor and nutrient density. I would not feed that to my kid, would you?
H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
Scientists have estimated that the amount of underused land immediately available for ecological restoration is at least 1.5 Gha (1.5 billion hectares or 30 Spains) worldwide [Smith et al. 2012]. That gives a 5-year start on climate ecoforestry at full scale and gets you to the step-harvest stage, although naturally, the ramp-up would proceed gradually. We are hopeful that once the causes and effects of climate change, and the eco-agroforestry benefits and increased soil productivity, become better known, large numbers of people will mobilize and allow parts of their landholdings to convert, and over a few decades that could reach the required 4.8 Gha needed, by our estimate, to restore pre-industrial equilibrium.
But time marches on and this week my Swiss research colleague, Hans-Peter Schmidt, provided a spectacular webinar for the International Biochar Initiative that reviewed a number of his recent publications and some still in progress. He was able to reduce the land required to be used for climate regeneration by a third to a half. The significance was underscored in a meeting I attended a day later by the advisory and supervisory boards of the Ecosystem Restoration Camp movement. ERC envisions 1 million people engaged in ecosystem regeneration camps within a decade. The first is already running in Spain and another 70 around the world are anticipated to launch. The IBI also has a big number goal — one billion tons of biochar produced per year within 50 years. The two numbers go very well together. And yet, they are not nearly enough. We will all need to raise ambition.
Li, Qi, et al. “Toward the Application of High Frequency Electromagnetic Wave Absorption by Carbon Nanostructures.” Advanced Science (2019): 1801057.
We should challenge some commonly-held ideas about biofuels, bioenergy and energy cropping, particularly that energy crops pose an inherent threat to ecosystems. Certain energy crops (like oil palm for biodiesel or eucalyptus for fuel pellets) are evil and kill Orangutans. But what about using energy crops to strategically enhance ecosystem functions and build regional bioeconomies? What about cascading functions so that the same energy crop makes leaf protein extracts, animal feed, fish feed, furniture, and musical instruments before it is carbonized for electricity and biochar?
Choosing appropriate practices and policies requires an understanding of how soils, climate, farm types, infrastructure, markets, and social organization can stimulate a regenerative, circular economy. In this moment of crisis, we are blessed with emerging technologies, cognitive sciences and holistic management practices that open previously undisturbed system dynamics to our thoughtful, meticulous, deliberate consideration.
There is a lot of banter about climate finance and most of that is just referring to tax schemes and government pay-outs, which is a questionable and inefficient way to go about it. So is the notion of trying to assign a monetary value to ecosystem services. Sian Sullivan, in The Environmentality of ‘Earth Incorporated, argued that the “intrinsic fallacy at the heart” of ecosystem services market initiatives is that they attempt to incentivize environmentally ethical behavior. She maintains that the market does not produce “virtuous behavior” and that it is essentially naïve to take the view that if only we design them correctly we can halt or reverse ecosystem degradation. Another danger of these market initiatives is that they promote the “valuing of nature as money,” and do not acknowledge “nature’s immanence or sentience,” or the reality that humans are merely one of many “companions” in nature’s community, which is a key “instruction” known and honored by sustainable human societies for hundreds of millennia before we somehow mislaid that instruction manual.
H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
John Fullerton of the Capital Institute asks, “Is it an either-or proposition? Are there ways that we can design these markets to enable the “virtuous behavior” we seek to encourage in market participants?
Hans-Peter Schmidt, who doesn’t like to use terms like impact investing, has a way that could work. His idea is to repair the carbon trading system’s corruption by leasing the service of carbon removal on an annual basis, subject to strict verification. Under the UNCDD’s No Net Degradation standard, ratified into international law a few years ago, lands that are steadily degrading would need to purchase more of these sorts of carbon service leases while those that are steadily being regenerated as carbon stores, such as those under care of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, would earn a steady revenue from the leases, one that presumedly appreciates every year. Investors are happy, purchases are verifiable, and more camps can be built.
When Frank and I stepped back from the Net Photosynthetic Productivity question — those physics are settled — and examined the social side of the equation, we came full circle to bioregionalism and the hyperlocal biomaterials economy, Transition Towns, and the Global Ecovillage Network. They sum the 100 drawdown technologies with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Two plus Two equals Five.
This strategy does not absolve us of the need to reduce the ecological footprint of human civilization, something we will be doing anyway because of Peak Everything. Holding to the 2 degree goal requires us to embark immediately upon the IPCC’s 7-percent glide path, halving emissions from all sources every decade. It will involve a vast, worldwide change to fossil fuel-free production that prizes handcrafted wooden buildings and objects, durable and simple design, ease of repair and material conservation. This is not like upgrading your computer to the next version of your present operating system. It is more like switching to a completely new operating system. It will take some time to learn.
In our moment of ultimate defeat as a species, a spark has been kindled. All we need do now is lean in and fan that flame.
Teaser photo credit: Hans-Peter Schmidt and a Cuban regenerative farmer recovering brownfields with agroforestry, fungi, and biochar, Alamar 2018. Photo by Albert Bates