According to a new study published in Nature Sustainability, we can remove five billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually by adopting soil restoration practices. And regenerative agriculture is one way that farmers can help remove CO2 emissions.
The Data Says Regenerative Agriculture can Remove CO2 Emissions
The authors examined a 2018 analysis on natural climate solutions as the basis for their study. They found that soil restoration and conservation is responsible for one quarter of the greenhouse gas removal ability of natural climate solutions. In other words, restoring the soil and conserving land is one quarter of the battle to remove CO2 from the atmosphere!
Following are soil restoration/conservation techniques and their respective contributions to CO2 reduction:
- Reforestation and Elimination of Forest Conversion: ~1.2 billion tons CO2 annually
- Biochar: ~1.1 billion tons CO2 annually
- Peatland Restoration: ~0.6 billion tons CO2 anually
- Avoided Peatland Impacts: ~0.5 billion tons CO2 annually
- Coastal Wetland Restoration: ~0.5 billion tons CO2 annually
- Cover Cropping: ~0.4 billion tons CO2 annually
- Trees in Cropland: ~0.3 billion tons CO2 annually
- Avoided Coastal Wetland Impacts: ~0.25 billion tons CO2 annually
- Avoided Grassland Conversion: ~0.23 billion tons CO2 annually
- Grazing: ~0.15 billion tons CO2 annually
Obviously, conserving our forests and planting more trees will be the biggest step to removing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is due to the fact that forests are carbon sinks, natural environments that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. But as you can see, two regenerative agriculture practices–cover cropping and grazing–can also help remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
How does Regenerative Agriculture Remove CO2 Emissions?
So what is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that reverse climate change, support soil fertility and health, limit water waste and pollution, and increase biodiversity. By rebuilding soil organic matter, farmers practicing regenerative agriculture can lower carbon emissions and improve the water cycle. These farmers participate in one or more of the following four practices:
- Minimum or no Tillage
- Building Biological Ecosystem Diversity
- Well-managed Grazing Practices
- Increasing Soil Fertility
Cover cropping falls under the minimum-or-no-tillage and increasing soil fertility categories of regenerative agriculture. Cover crops are planted in order to protect and enrich the soil. When farmers harvest their crops and leave the soil bare, the soil is susceptible to erosion. In addition, without crops to cover the soil, CO2 escapes from the ground and enters the atmosphere.
So farmers who plant cover crops support soil structure by reducing erosion and help the ground retain stored CO2. In addition, many cover crops are nitrogen-rich, so planting them helps enrich the soil with nitrogen, making it more nutrient-dense for crops. As an added bonus, planting cover crops reduces the need to till the soil.
When soil is tilled, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. The top meter of the world’s soil contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. So no-till practices are extremely important for reducing CO2 emissions.
Grazing, when done correctly, can benefit agricultural land as well as improve soil. By adding livestock to their land, farmers can:
- Improve ecological health
- Stimulate plant growth
- Increase soil carbon deposits
- Increase soil fertility
- Support and increase insect and plant biodiversity and
- Increase soil carbon sequestration.
Feedlots and confined animal feeding systems contribute negatively to the environment by supporting unhealthy monoculture production systems and low nutrient density fodder, increasing water pollution, contributing to antibiotic usage and resistance, and increasing carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
Positive grazing practices include:
- Letting animals graze for five to seven days
- Providing a two-three week recovery period for the field
- For late summer and early fall, providing a six-eight week recovery period.
By implementing soil restoration, carbon sequestration, and better grazing practices, farmers can not only help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but also remove them.
According to new data, scientists believe that it is entirely possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as ten percent a week. With the outbreak of COVID-19, many countries have seen a reduction in overall air and water pollution. Less traffic and industrial activities in Italy, for instance, has caused a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution, as seen on these maps. And in China, surface particulate matter has dropped by 20-30% since the outbreak.
This data proves that we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in little time if enough effort is given to the cause. By implementing regenerative agriculture practices, planting more trees and conserving more forests and wetlands, and reducing our industrial pollution emissions, we can tackle climate change. We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and if regenerative agriculture can help remove even a small percentage of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, then that’s a start.