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Report from the May, 2017 Paris Conference on Sequestering Carbon in Soil

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 June Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge

Jack, Ronnie and Rattan Lal

In late February a number of us received invitations to a May 3 – 5 conference outside Paris titled, “Sequestering Carbon in Soil – Addressing the Climate Threat”. The invitations came from a small consulting firm called Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions that had been tracking individuals and groups active on the carbon sequestration issue. They had put together funding from several non-profit sources for a gathering to:

  • Identify and convene influential experts, scientists, practitioners, public officials, and philanthropists to accelerate progress and build the field of soil-based carbon sequestration.
  • Showcase research, pilot projects, policies, financial structures, and incentives for hastening adoption of carbon sequestration best and emerging practices.
  • Explore tangible action plans and initiatives with the potential to help ensure a global carbon budget that keeps global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C.
  • Prioritize systems thinking and a conference agenda that explores the many co-benefits of returning carbon to soil.
  • Identify needed next steps for research, policy initiatives, action campaigns and Investment opportunities.

The 180 or so attendees represented a broad group of people. Scientists and academics were well represented, including of course Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, one of the earliest soil scientists to grasp the potential of soil to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. Others included Keith Paustian of Colorado State who has been active with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body set up to monitor the problem, P. K. Nair of the University of Florida, a spokesperson for the role of forestry in carbon sequestration, Miguel Altieri of Berkeley who is a champion for the role of agroecology and small peasant farms, and Christine Jones the soil scientist and agricultural consultant who has been so helpful to this writer in clarifying key issues. Perhaps 20 to 25% of the attendees were primarily scientists.

The largest block of people, probably around 50%, represented non-profits and funders. The Nature Conservancy, Center for Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, Land Stewardship Project, Land Trust Alliance, California Climate and Agriculture Network, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate and Land Use Alliance, Marin Carbon Project, Climate Interactive, Project Drawdown, Food Climate Research Network, Global Alliance for the Future of Food, Navdanya, NOFA and many others non-profits were represented. The funders included many small and family foundations I hadn’t heard of, including the primary funders for this event, Denmark’s V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation. (I had breakfast with Hans Kann Rasmussen, the vice-chair, and learned that much of that country is actually below sea level, like the Netherlands, and dependent on a system of dikes that is becoming increasingly unstable as weather becomes more extreme.)

Farmers who are taking action to sequester carbon on their own land were also represented, including a number from Third World countries. There was a smattering of investors and entrepreneurs, along with a few authors and journalists. Lastly some public officials also attended, the most prominent were Dennis Kucinich and his wife Elizabeth. He had introduced a number of bills dealing with climate change while an Ohio Congressman, and she is now on the board of Rodale helping with their soil carbon research. Someone from the California Department of Food and Agriculture as well as a delegate to the Maryland Assembly (whose healthy soils bill the state governor had just signed) brought a local flavor to policy work.

Although the dominant feel of the conference was certainly western European and American (with a vocal smattering of Australians), perhaps 15% or so of attendees were indigenous representatives from Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Guatemala, Brazil, Columbia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Ethiopia, Chile, Malawi, Costa Rica and Haiti. A statement was read the final day by a number of them expressing the concerns of “the Global South” about soil carbon becoming a narrow commodity and fueling further corporate bidding for agricultural land.  There was general agreement among the attendees that this is an important concern and needs to guide our work into the future.

The setting of the gathering could not have been more lovely: a nineteenth century Rothschild chateau just outside Paris. It has been retrofitted as a conference center with separate modern accommodations while retaining the grandeur and elegance of the chateau for meals and the grounds and lake for thoughtful strolls and meetings. Although the agenda was rigorous, each session ended with a refreshment break and networking opportunity. Clearly the organizers knew how to get people to come. – and to use their time well once there!

The agenda was well thought out. The primary focus was to look at the “mitigation gap”, the fact that even should emissions be eliminated, current carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would continue to heat the globe up past the 1.5 to 2 ˚C level considered allowable under the Paris agreement of 2015 (COP 21). Soil carbon storage appeared to organizers to be the only feasible method of reducing atmospheric carbon by the needed amount.

Before the conference started, conferees were encouraged to view a webinar of presentations about the latest science on soil carbon restoration. The presenters, Keith Paustian, Eric Toensmeier and Jean-François Soussana, had hopeful information to show about how soil carbon storage can accommodate large volumes of CO2 and thus mitigate significant amounts of climate stress.

At the gathering itself, on the first day the urgency of the problem was expressed with a video message from the Marshall Islands, which are rapidly disappearing, and from the IPCC and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) whose executive secretary reiterated that carbon, while of great concern as the heat trapping gas CO2 in the atmosphere, morphs into a vital component of healthy soil and crops once sequestered by photosynthesis.

On the second day we had breakfast sessions on grazing and funding, then a morning spent learning about the science of various approaches to sequestration and the realities of implementing them according to farmers. Whereas grazing and agroforestry both do well when it comes to amounts of carbon they can sequester, annual crop farming tends to disturb soil more and can inhibit carbon buildups as presently practiced. In the afternoon we broke out into individual groups focusing on the problems and opportunities presented regarding this set of challenges by existing science, policy, practice, social realities, and financial issues. These break-out groups then reported back to the larger body. In the evening a local band and French country dancing captivated everyone’s interest!

The final day started with breakfast breakouts on agroforestry and Project Drawdown, an effort to utilize a mix of alternative energy, social change efforts, and changes to food and agricultural production to meet climate goals. Following that we saw an inspirational presentation by Chinese journalist John Dennis Liu on how degraded landscapes can be restored with large-scale, human-powered efforts. An ecologist from Berkeley followed up with another science-based analysis of what can be done. 

The remainder of the sessions focused on attendee-based groupings, drawing large or small attendance depending on the attractiveness of the topic. I attended one on state-based initiatives to encourage healthy soils and food production that was small but especially useful, I thought.

General conclusions from the conference:

  • It was an amazing networking opportunity. I met many people with whom I now can follow up because I have a sense of what they are doing and care about. I have already used several of these connections to good effect for NOFA.
  • The limits of current science in understanding and measuring sequestered soil carbon are clearer to me. I especially focused on learning more about exactly how carbon is stabilized and what techniques might be used to measure it over the long term. It is clear to me that we do not yet know what we need to on these topics, and lead scientists are arguing among themselves about them.
  • It is important, however, to take whatever actions we can now to encourage soil carbon restoration. There is no perfect approach and we should let many flowers bloom. Every piece of land is somewhat different and the managers are necessary, along with the experts, to figure out the best approaches.
  • Our strengths in NOFA are twofold:
    • First, we are dealing with the most difficult aspect of applying these principles – doing so while raising annual vegetable crops on a small scale for fresh market sales.  Thus our work is crucial and breakthrough solutions need to be made (crops, methods, materials, tools and implements) regarding this worldwide effort since most food crops are raised this way.
    • Second, our members are thoughtful, inventive, and committed, and have a high degree of interest in this problem and willingness to try approaches that might work to solve it.
    • We should continue to focus on carbon sequestration in our education, research, and policy work. It can only become more important as time goes on and people become more aware of the need for such efforts on a massive scale. 
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