Can Soil Solve the Climate Crisis?
When Rattan Lal was awarded the Japan Prize for Biological Production, Ecology in April—the Asian equivalent of a Nobel—the audience at Tokyo's National Theatre included the emperor and empress. Lal's acceptance speech, however, was down-to-earth in the most literal sense.
Carbon, in its proper place, holds landscapes and ecosystems together.
"I'd like to begin, rather unconventionally, with the conclusion of my presentation," he told the assembled dignitaries. "And the conclusion is four words: In soil we trust."
That statement could serve as the motto for a climate crisis-fighting strategy that has gained remarkable momentum over the past five years or so—and whose rise to international prominence was reflected in that glittering award ceremony. Lal, a septuagenarian professor of soil science at Ohio State University, is one of the foremost exponents of carbon farming, an approach that centers on correcting a man-made, planetary chemical imbalance.
A Solution to Several Problems at Once?
The chemical in question is carbon. Too much of it in the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas) is the main driver of global heating. Too little of it in the soil is the bane of farmers in many parts of the world, and a threat to our ability to feed a ballooning global population. Advocates say agriculture can mitigate both problems—by adopting techniques that keep more soil carbon from escaping skyward, and draw more atmospheric carbon down into fields and pastures.
The potential impacts go beyond slowing climate change and boosting food production. "There are so many benefits," says Lal. "Water quality, drought, flooding, biodiversity—this is a natural solution for all these problems." That's because carbon, in its proper place, holds landscapes and ecosystems together. Plants extract it from the air and convert it into sugars for energy; they also transfer it to the soil through their roots and in the process of decomposition. In the ground, carbon feeds microbes and fungi that form the basis of complex food webs. It helps soil absorb and retain water, resist erosion, and hold onto nitrogen and phosphorous—keeping those nutrients from running off into waterways and creating toxic algal blooms.
Government and private support for research into carbon-conscious agriculture is on the rise, and growing numbers of farmers are exploring such methods. How much difference these methods can make, however, remains a matter of debate. Lal sees carbon farming as a way to buy time until CO2 emissions can be brought under control. Skeptics insist that such projections are overly optimistic. Some allies, meanwhile, think Lal's vision is too timid. "Farming can actually fix the climate," says Tim LaSalle, co-founder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University, Chico. "That should be our only focus."
Yet Can soil solve the climate crisis? may be not be the key question in assessing the promise of carbon farming, since it implies that action is worthwhile only if a solution is ensured. A more urgent line of inquiry might be: Can the climate crisis be solved without addressing soil?
A Chance Meeting Leads to the Mission of a Lifetime
Lal was among the earliest scientists to grapple with that question. Born in Pakistan, he grew up on a tiny subsistence farm in India, where his family had fled as refugees. The only one of his siblings who learned to read and write, he attended a local agricultural university, then headed to Ohio State on scholarship for his PhD. In 1982, he was working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, trying to develop sustainable alternatives to Africa's traditional slash-and-burn farming, when a distinguished visitor dropped by: oceanographer Roger Revelle, who 25 years earlier had published the first paper warning that fossil fuel combustion could throw the climate dangerously off-kilter.
Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State, received the Japan Prize at a ceremony in April.
(Photo: Ken Chamberlain. CFAES.)
Lal showed Revelle the soil in his test plots—hard and reddish, like much of Africa's agricultural land. Then (as described in Kristin Ohlson's book The Soil Will Save Us), he led the visitor to the nearby forest, where the soil was dark, soft, and wriggling with earthworms. In the forest, the soil's carbon content was 2 to 3 percent; in Lal's plots, it had dwindled to 0.5 percent. When Revelle asked him where all that carbon had gone, Lal confessed he didn't know. Revelle suggested that much of it might have floated into the atmosphere, adding to the burden of greenhouse gases. "Since then," Lal told me, "I've been looking for ways to put it back."
Back at Ohio State, Lal found that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were also interested in the connection between soil carbon and climate change. With a small group of other scientists, he began investigating the dimensions of the problem, and how it might be solved.
Comparing carbon in forested and cultivated soils around the globe, the researchers calculated that about 100 billion tons had vanished into the air since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. The culprits were common practices—including plowing, overgrazing, and keeping fallow fields bare—that exposed soil carbon to oxygen, transforming it into carbon dioxide. Yet the process could also be reversed, Lal and his colleagues argued. Although there was a limit to the amount of carbon that soil could hold, they theorized that it would be possible to sequester several billion tons of global CO2 emissions each year for decades before reaching maximum capacity.
Lal set up projects on five continents to explore practices that could help accomplish that goal, such as minimizing tillage, planting cover crops, and leaving residue on fields after harvest. He organized conferences, pumped out papers and books. As other researchers launched similar efforts, policymakers worldwide took notice.
But before long, recalls Colorado State University soil scientist Keith Paustian (a fellow carbon-farming pioneer, who served with Lal on the UN's International Panel on Climate Change), official attention "kind of faded away. The bigger imperative was to cut emissions." And because agriculture accounted for only about 13 percent of greenhouse gas pollution, Paustian says, the sectors that emitted the most—energy and transportation—got the bulk of funding.
A Movement on the Rise
In recent years, however, carbon farming has begun to look like an idea whose time has come. One factor is that efforts to reduce emissions haven't worked; in 2018 alone, global CO2 output rose by an estimated 2.7 percent, according to the Global Carbon Project. Last month, researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported that atmospheric CO2—under 350 ppm when Lal began his quest—had reached 415 ppm, the highest in 3 million years. And with the world's population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, the need for sustainable technologies to augment food production has grown increasingly pressing.
Today, carbon-conscious methods are central to the burgeoning movement known as "regenerative agriculture," which also embraces other practices aimed at improving soil health and farming in an ecologically sound (though not always strictly organic) manner. In the United States, the latest Farm Bill includes $25 million to incentivize soil-based carbon sequestration. State and local governments across the country are supporting such efforts, as are at least a dozen nonprofits. The Department of Energy's Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA-e) is working to develop crops and technologies aimed at increasing soil carbon accumulation by 50 percent. General Mills recently announced plans to advance regenerative farming on 1 million acres by 2030, and many smaller companies have made their own commitments.
The toughest challenge, Lal suggests, may be persuading farmers to change their ways.
Internationally, the biggest initiative is the French-led "4 per 1,000" initiative, which aims to increase the amount of carbon in the soil of farms and rangelands worldwide by 0.4 percent per year—a rate that the project's website contends would "halt the increase of CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities."
Given the current pace of research, Lal believes that goal—which equates to sequestering 3.6 billion tons of CO2 annually, or 10 percent of global emissions—is doable. The toughest challenge, he suggests, may be persuading farmers to change their ways. Although carbon farming can reduce costs for chemical inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers, while building rich topsoil, agriculturalists tend to be a conservative lot.
And getting low-income farmers to leave crop residue on fields, instead of using it for fuel or animal feed, will require more than speeches about melting glaciers. Lal proposes a $16 per acre subsidy, totaling $64 billion for the world's 4 billion acres of cropland. "That's not a very large amount," he says, "if you're investing in the health of the planet."
Experimental Methods Attract Supporters and Skeptics
Some experts question whether enough CO2 can be stashed in the soil to prevent the rise in average global temperature from surpassing the 2º C mark—set by the 2016 Paris Agreement as the limit beyond which climate change would become catastrophic. But others insist that carbon farming's goal should be to reverse climate change, not just to put it on pause.
"That's the only way out of this predicament," says Tim LaSalle, whose Center for Regenerative Agriculture supports the use of experimental methods ranging from multi-species cover cropping to fungal-dominant compost solutions. Using such techniques, a few researchers and farmers claim to be able to transfer carbon to the soil at rates many times higher than with established practices. Although several of these methods have yet to be documented in peer-reviewed studies, LaSalle believes they point the way forward. "We can't fix the climate, or even come close to it, using Rattan's numbers," he says, referring to Lal. "If we can replicate these experiments, we can fix it."
Even scientists sympathetic to regenerative ag warn that relying on unproven techniques is risky. "Some of these claims are beyond anything we've seen in agricultural science," says Andrew McGuire, an agronomist at Washington State University. "They could be right, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Still, the assorted methods currently being tested—which also include amending soil with biochar (made by heating agricultural wastes with minimal oxygen), planting long-rooted perennial crops instead of short-rooted annuals, and deploying grazing animals in ways that enrich soil rather than depleting it—offer a catalogue of hope at a time when environmental despair is all too tempting.
Last October, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report acknowledging that it was too late to stave off apocalyptic overheating just by reducing CO2 emissions; removing carbon from the atmosphere would be necessary as well. The document laid out several options for doing so—most of which, it cautioned, had serious limitations.
"Soil is a bridge to the future. We can't do without it."
One possibility was planting more forests. To absorb enough carbon dioxide, however, trees might have to replace areas of farmland, reducing the food supply. Another option was creating biomass plantations to fuel power plants, whose emissions would be stored underground. But land use would be a problem: "You'd need to cover an area the size of India," explains Paustian, who was a co-author of the report. Yet another alternative was direct-air capture, in which chemical processes would be used to extract CO2 from the air. The technology was still in its infancy, though—and the costs and power requirements would likely be astronomical.
The report took up agriculture-based methods on page 95. Those needed further research as well, the authors wrote, to determine which approaches would be most effective. But of all the alternatives, this one seemed the least problematic. "Soil carbon is probably what you can do first, cheapest, and with the most additional co-benefits," says Paustian. "If we can make progress in that area, it's a huge advantage."
In any case, he and other researchers agree, we have little choice but to try. "Soil is a bridge to the future," Lal says. "We can't do without it."
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”