COP21 – Carbon farming may figure in climate mitigation

Reporting by Judith Schwartz

PARIS – Due to an initiative launched by France, there is now an international framework that for the first time brings agricultural soils into climate negotiations. Called “4 per 1000,” this new proposal aims to protect and increase carbon stocks in soil.

The initiative, signed this week by 25 countries including France, Germany, the UK, Mexico and Australia, as well as 75 research and NGO partners, is aimed at combatting climate change by recognizing the ability of soil to act as a sink for greenhouse-gas emissions. The US was not a signatory to the agreement, which occurred parallel to the main climate negotiations.

The “4 per 1000,” which refers to a voluntary pledge of a 0.4 percent annual growth rate in soil carbon content, “is a game-changer”, said Andre Leu, who signed on behalf of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). “I’ve been engaged with climate negotiations since Copenhagen, and until now we couldn’t even get the word agriculture in the agreements.”

Carbon is an important component of soil, representing 58 percent of organic matter. Through photosynthesis, a plant draws down atmospheric carbon to form carbon compounds, or sugars. Some of this is exuded through the roots to feed soil microorganisms. But when soil is exposed to the air, through tillage or the absence of plant cover, the carbon oxidizes to form CO2. The world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stores, according to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center.

The French-led plan promotes practices, adapted to local conditions, that shift agricultural soil from a carbon source to a carbon sink. Since soil carbon is central to soil fertility and water-holding capacity, CO2 emissions may be curbed while enhancing food security as the world population rises toward an expected 9.5 billion in 2050. At the signing, French Agricultural Minister Stéphane le Foll said that returning carbon to the soil 0.4 percent annually would compensate for all man-made C02 emissions.

“This is the first time a country has really shown leadership with regards to soil and climate and mobiliz[ing] resources in order to understand the potential that soil carbon represents and the practices that work,” said Ben Lilliston, Director of Corporate and Climate Strategies at the International Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis-based NGO.

Key to the announcement is the inclusion of farmers, researchers, civil society groups and policy makers, said Lilliston. The goal is for implementation to be in place in time for the COP22 meeting in Marrakesh in November 2016.

Practices to build soil carbon include agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture and landscape management. According to the directive, the 0.4 percent goal is not a “normative target for every country,” as the ability to build soil carbon depends on numerous factors, including temperature, precipitation, soil type and texture, and the quality and quantity of any added organic matter. As Eric Toensmeier, author of the forthcoming The Carbon Farming Solution, said, “There is no one size fits all.”

Despite regional variations, “Having a goal represents a paradigm shift in how we’re thinking about managing soils,” said soil researcher and educator Laura Lengnick, author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. “This is a very significant agreement because we are now putting a focus for the first time on soil carbon and its connection to climate change.” Placing an emphasis on the accumulation of soil carbon, she said, will inevitably call attention to the climate implications of the use of nitrogen fertilizers and other industrial agriculture practices that tend to reduce soil carbon reserves.

Lilliston also said it is significant the program highlights agroecology, or agricultural practices that incorporate ecological principles, so as to promote conservation and soil restoration. “The French government has made it clear that agroecology is part of the strategy,” he said. The U.S. may have been reluctant to sign on to the agreement because of discomfort with the term agroecology, “because it has social movement and political implications,” said Lilliston.

At this point much about 4 per 1000 remains unknown, said Lilliston. “One thing that concerns us is what was not included: such as land rights,” he said. He referred specifically to land grabs, as potential carbon markets could draw investment that disenfranchises rural communities. He also noted that France has been touting biotech tools that he said were incompatible with agroecology. “This makes one think that France has two visions that may exist simultaneously,” Lilliston said.

What happens between Paris and Marrakesh will determine whether 4 per 1000 will have the impact its advocates hope. “Basically we have a year to work out details such as cross-sector governance and measurement mechanisms,” said Andre Leu of IFOAM. As for farming methods that build carbon, however, “This is shovel-ready. All we need to do is scale it up.”