It’s 2020. Britain has left the EU. Trump is preparing for his second term. Bolsonaro keeps the deforestation of the Amazon soaring. Australia is still on fire. The people from Hong Kong to Paris, from Teheran, Beirut and Bagdad to Santiago de Chile keep rising against what they see as corrupt and illegitimate governments.
The good news in 2020 may be that most people are now aware of climate change. Places like the World Economic Forum in Davos demonstrate that the topic has finally reached the executive mainstream. Everyone realizes that global warming presents a serious threat to our future. The bad news is that most people harbor a deep-seated doubt, or even find themselves collectively depressed concerning our capacity to turn this situation around. In this three-part column, I will outline how a profound shift to reverse global warming and transform our economic, democratic, and learning infrastructures is not only necessary, but also quite possible within the next decade or two. Such a shift will be possible if society focuses on three collective blind spots; focal points and dimensions of change work that have largely been ignored. This three-part column will focus on each of these blind spots — soil, democracy, and consciousness — and conclude with a discussion on the relationship between them.
Blind Spot I: Soil and the Forgotten Sector
It has often been said that there is no silver bullet — no single solution — for dealing with global warming in this century. While this of course is true, the statement is also in part a bit misleading. If you look at the numbers, you will see that there is in fact one sector that, if transformed, would have a very significant impact on reversing global warming, that often is ignored.
Which sector am I talking about? It’s not air travel, which accounts for roughly 2% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s not the transportation sector either — cars, trucks, ships, and planes — which produces roughly 15% of global GHG emissions. Nor is it (alone) the energy sector, which is often seen as the primary source of global warming, responsible for 30% of the global GHG emissions. Obviously, we need to keep the fossil fuel in the ground, which makes the transition to regenerative sources of energy key to any transition strategy. But there is one additional sector that, if focused on, could have a similar profound impact on reversing global warming.
I am talking about the soil under your feet. Soil — the foundation of our farms, where our food is grown — is the most important variable for reversing global warming and strengthening the biodiversity of our planetary ecosystems. The sector I’m referring to is of course agriculture — which each of us co-shapes through the food choices we make every day.
Soil: From Industrial to Regenerative Agriculture
Let me give you the numbers. On the pollution side of the argument, food and agricultural production accounts for roughly 30% of current GHG emissions (possibly even more, as one study from 2013 suggested that “considering the full value chain of food, including deforestation to clear land, processing, packaging, transportation and waste, our food systems account for an estimated 43–57% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions”; UN Conference on Trade and Development; most other studies however tend to come up with numbers more around 30%).
But here’s the solution side of the argument. When we switch from, say, coal to a renewable energy source, we reduce the amount of additional GHGs we emit into the atmosphere. That’s good. However, just switching from coal to solar doesn’t remove any of the existing CO2 from the atmosphere; it doesn’t put it back into the soil. But when we switch from industrial to regenerative organic agriculture, we vastly improve the soil’s ability to capture and store carbon.
According to a 2019 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conventional methods of industrial agriculture contribute to degrading the earth’s soil more than 100 times faster than it can regenerate. Degrading the soil means three things: Additional CO2 is released into the atmosphere. The land becomes less resilient to drought and extreme weather conditions. And our capacity to grow food for 8 billion people is undermined. If current rates of soil degradation continue, according to experts at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we may only have 60 annual harvests left.
If you switch to regenerative farming practices, you start regenerating topsoil rather than degrading it, which means you remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. You also increase the soil’s resilience to extreme weather conditions, and you attain continued food security. According to long-term comparative experiments in five different countries by the Rodale Institute, organic agricultural methods, on average, can sequester 2.3 tons of carbon per hectare, per year. Accordingly, if all cropland globally were farmed using these regenerative organic methods, we could sequester approximately 40% of current global annual CO2 emissions.
If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed according to a regenerative model, an additional 70% of current CO2 emissions might be sequestered. In other words, regenerative organic methods of farming have the potential to sequester up to 100% of current annual CO2 emissions globally.
That’s a shocking number. And yes, it’s based on a relatively small number of experiments and measurements, so more research needs to be done to validate the results. But even if studies ultimately determine that the regenerative farming methods are only say half as effective as estimated according to current results, that would mean we could still sequester 50% (!) of current global annual CO2 emissions just by switching from industrial to regenerative agriculture.
Awakening Global Action
Back to the blind spot: Why are we not talking about this? Why do we continue to spend between $700 billion — $1 trillion per year subsidizing a self-harming form of industrial agriculture? Why do we continue to spend $4.9 trillion per year subsidizing equally self-harming forms of fossil fuel-based energy generation? Why are we saying one thing in the Paris Agreement about how we intend to solve the problem, while doing another: pouring almost $6 trillion annually into the very infrastructure that by and large reproduces and aggravates this problem?
Why are we not having the conversation that really matters, focusing on how to address the crises of climate, biodiversity, and social inequality at their root? That is:
(1) How to make the agriculture sector 100% regenerative by 2040;
(2) How to make the energy sector 100% regenerative by 2040; and
(3) How to transform the financial sector from extractive (and impact-blind) to 100% regenerative (and impact-aware) by 2030.
Add to that a fourth aspect, which is, how to build the deep learning and leadership infrastructures that give everyone access to the transformation literacy required to co-shape the transition journey ahead (which will be explored in part III of this series). These are the kinds of conversations that should have our collective attention right now.
Sparked by Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and other activist groups, we live in a moment of global awakening and movement building. We are waking up to a system through which we collectively produce results that nobody wants. Nobody gets up in the morning with a plan to destroy more of the planet, to inflict more harm on others and on themselves. Yet that is precisely what we are doing at a massive and increasing rate.
The solutions to our climate crisis are known and clear. Extensive research by Project Drawdown found that 12 of the top 20 effective ways to reverse global warming today are related to the transformation of food production, agricultural practices, and land use. But are we implementing those solutions? No. Collectively, we are still stuck in the gap between knowing and doing.
Do we have the capacity to bridge that gap? Absolutely. The next two parts of this column will explore how. It’s already happening in various places today…
I want to thank my colleagues Zoë Ackerman for her research on agriculture and for, together with Sarina Bouwhuis and Rachel Hentsch, commenting on the draft, as well as Kelvy Bird for creating the figure 1 in this column and Susanne Trapp for the picture in figure 2! And thanks to Pedro Diniz for pointing me to the Alan Savory clip.