The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.
Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?
Albert Bates: People tend to lump Paris into either a good or bad category depending on their viewpoint and I'm ambivalent. I'm kind of in both camps, one foot in each camp, because I've been going to these for a number of years going back to the Rio Convention which started the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and then the Rio+10 and Rio+20 Earth Summits, as well as many of the COPs and PrepComs. I was at the COP in Copenhagen for the entire time and blogging it daily and watched in frustration as the whole thing dissolved.
I attended the COPs after that in Cancún and other places so coming into this one I didn't have a lot of expectation because I knew the process and it was moving in very small increments toward something which is really just a band-aid on a much bigger wound. So I didn't expect much more than a band-aid. For a number of years myself and others — people in the organic foods industry, people who are protecting forests, people who are urging agro-forestry, alternate energy, renewables people, and others who are involved — we are called “observers” in UN parlance but who actually have consultative status and can actually input changes to language and treaties and so forth — we in that “civil society” or “multi-stakeholder” side of the UN have been pushing this agenda of carbon sinks — that there's actually, literally, more ground to be gained by looking at forests and soil than there is by emissions reductions.
We do need to do emissions reductions. In fact we should go to zero as quickly as possible. But then we need to go beyond zero and this is the point that we've been raising for a number of years. You can set a target of two degrees or 1.5 degrees above the industrial era and it's great that you have that, but until you actually do the math and figure it out, you don't really have much hope of achieving that, even by reducing emissions, at this point, because you are already on the roller coaster. We've gone over the top of the incline and are on the ride now, for better or worse, and the tipping points which have already been crossed – the release of methane hydrates from the arctic, the melting of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets, the changes in the equatorial regions, the deserts, the desertification of Brazil and Indonesia, the peat fires – all of those kinds of things, all those tipping points which have already been crossed, are now going to be keeping us busy just keeping up with those, right? Never mind emissions.
For every one degree that we increase the temperature of the planet the amount of methane being released from melting permafrost is equal to 1.5 times our current (2015) emissions.
Let me say that again. Fifty percent more than the equivalent of all anthropogenic emissions are released from permafrost for every degree that the planet warms. We're already up one degree now so these ‘natural’ sources have already been increased, which leads us to say that for a two degree change we'll get an annual triple dose of present human emissions.
We can't do anything about that by stopping emissions. We can and we should stop emissions and that's what most of the conversation is about at the UN. It's about who is willing to tighten their belt. It's the carrot and stick approach. How can we get people to tighten their belts? Can we tax them? Can we pay them? Can we change the rules on fossil fuels at the source? Can we put fees on mining? Things like that.
The whole Bill McKibben/350.org/Greenpeace approach tends to be in that direction. Naomi Klein says let's blockade. Let's protest. Let's stop emissions. Let's stop new pipelines. I'm all in favor of all of that except it's not going to stop the three times anthropogenic emissions coming from an already heating planet. It's not going to stop that. The only thing we can do about that is to look at the things that soil scientists and farmers look at.
Look at how carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere — the answer to that is photosynthesis. It's very simple, photosynthesis. What's the greatest photosynthesizer? – a forest. Everybody who's taken a permaculture course knows how many hectares there are in a single tree of leaf surface that's photosynthesizing all the time. What's that doing? It's taking the carbon from the CO2 that's in the atmosphere and converting it into a form of labile biocarbon which travels through the phloem of the tree down into the roots and is deposited at the root zones so even if you cut the tree down and burn it, you've still left a lot of carbon in the soil. I'm not urging anybody to cut down trees and burn them, but a tree is an atmospheric scrub brush so we need lots more of them. Can we get our food that way? Can we get our food through forests? Yes, we can. In fact we can get more and better food through forests. Can we get soil sequestered through grasslands? Yes, through holistic management practices of mob grazing and rotational pastures and things like that. Yes, we can absolutely do that. It's been shown. We can demonstrate sequestration from grasslands. Can we re-green the deserts? We absolutely can. We know how to do this. It's not a secret. There are a variety of different methods and it is being done in small scale.
So the soil is our biggest hope and when I went to Paris I carried with me the declaration which had been drafted at the International Permaculture Convergence in London which essentially outlines what permaculture brings to the subject of climate change and it has all of the tools that the world needs, available right now in practice. It just needs the scale. The real victory at COP21, I think, was the recognition that we had this previously hidden weapon to fight climate change – the role that soils can play in reversing global warming.
Managing carbon content in soils is really the best way to take control of the carbon cycle. Not only can soils be a sink but most soils need carbon in order to regain vitality worldwide. Fifty to seventy percent of the carbon in soils has been lost. That's a lot of what's up in the atmosphere. The culprits were irrigation and the plow and those go back ten thousand years. If we can increase photosynthesis with trees and plants and we can get our food that way, then carbon farming is a win-win solution because it's building carbon in the soil.
This is not new. I think my friend Thomas Goreau, who was also in Paris, wrote an article in Nature back in 1987 that said that the way to escape the greenhouse problem was by renewable resource-based land management and it's the cheapest option in the long run. It has lots of advantages in addition like water sequestration, preventing floods, mitigating droughts, controlling polluting inorganic fertilizers, stopping erosion, and so on. All these things come with that approach. Then in 2015 Tom co-authored and edited Geotherapy which is an absolutely fantastic book. It's a free download. Its innovative methods of soil fertility restoration, carbon sequestration, and reversing carbon dioxide increase through soil.
The idea here is to control the carbon cycle with soil and we were like voices in the wilderness at many of these COPs. We said this in Lima, in Warsaw, in Cancun and yet we weren't being heard particularly. But suddenly in Paris this whole idea got traction. I think that one of the major catalysts was the people in the French government in particular who created a program which was launched in Paris on the first of December but which had really been created at the COP in Lima a year earlier called 4 Per 1000 Initiative. You can look this up at 4p1000.org. Four grams per one thousand grams of carbon in the soil is the idea behind 4p1000. I think that this is the new 350.
You can talk about 1.5 degrees, you can talk about 2 degrees, but the only thing you can really talk about which really makes sense to me is 4 per 1000. You can gain four tenths of one percent carbon content for your soils every year. Everyone can. So, if you are keylining a field, planting trees, or changing your method of mulching to where you're getting an addition of four tenths of a percent of carbon to your humus annually your top soil is building. That's not a difficult lift. Most farmers understand that. Although, I have to say, if you go to an ag course like a master gardener course or something in the conventional agriculture schools, they consider a loss of four percent a year to be tolerable and only losing four tenths of a percent as wonderful. That's best practice, to them.
We're not talking about loss. We're talking about gain, about gaining four tenths of a percent and maybe even gaining four percent. You could build a meter of top soil in ten years if you try.
That was signed in Paris by twenty-five countries and fifty civil society organizations in a big rollout. I think that there are probably more countries that have signed on since. France's minister of agriculture was definitely one of the leaders that put that in place. I applaud that because it brought soil to the front of the discussion and it actually means that we can have massive reduction of emissions from energy as we go into biomass energy systems which are stacking functions and cascading from energy into food, carbon soil building, transportation, industries, and broad scale ecological restoration.
All of these are ways out of runaway climate change. We can actually go beyond zero. We can put net carbon into the ground every year. That means that we're creating an atmosphere which has less greenhouse imbalance year after year. Despite the increase of methane and all these other tipping points, we can still get to net zero. We can get to beyond net zero and into net sequestration. That's a game changer and the biggest thing coming out of Paris – that recognition and the number of countries and organizations that bought into that.
It was not reported outside the blogosphere. USA Today doesn't get it. The New York Times doesn't get it. None of these people understands any of that. They look at the politics – will the Senate ratify this and so on. That's all a big side show which is what the press does. But if you go and see what actually came out of Paris, there's a paradigm shift. It's giving rise to a geotherapy which puts biology first. It's challenging big agriculture at the global industrial level. It places the soil-food-life web near the center of discussions in every COP to come. We are now entering a new age of soil and food. Non-profit organizations like Carbon Underground, Regeneration International, Regrarians and so on are all at the forefront. They're going to find themselves swamped with requests for information and projects to do.
Levi: That is so good to hear. That is so reassuring. Smells like hope. Thank you. That's awesome. How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?
Continued next week.