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Climate Change Corner: Can We Reverse Climate Change?

by Ron Thilly

When we talk about fighting climate change, the focus has been on greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from burning coal, gas and oil to produce electricity, power transportation, heat buildings and run industrial processes. It’s essential that we cut these heat-trapping emissions dramatically through conservation and the use of renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal energy. But reducing fossil-fuel emissions can only slow warming, not reverse it. 

To succeed, we also need to take GHGs out of the atmosphere. The key questions are: Can we do this? And if so, how? 

The answer to the first question is yes, according to the extensive work that’s been done by the many scientists involved with Project Drawdown (drawdown.org).

To answer the how, we need to know where GHG emissions come from and where they end up. According to Project Drawdown, GHG emissions from burning fossil fuels make up 62 percent of total GHGs globally. About 25 percent come from electric generation; the remaining 37 percent come from transportation, industry, buildings and other energy uses. 

Importantly, heat-trapping carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from land use make up about 24 percent of total GHG emissions. That means that land-use practices are responsible for about the same amount of harmful emissions as producing electricity. 

How can this be? First, deforestation – particularly burning tropical rainforests to clear land – releases huge amounts of carbon stored in these forests.

Second is methane produced by cattle, rice farming and other agricultural practices. Methane is about 30 times more potent in terms of trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

Third is nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere through fertilizer overuse.

Developing an effective attack strategy requires understanding where GHG emissions end up. According to Project Drawdown, 45 percent of GHGs go into the atmosphere, and 23 percent are absorbed by oceans. These emissions are raising average temperatures and changing our climate. However, a whopping 31 percent are naturally absorbed by plants and soils. This means that nature – without our help – is offsetting about a third of GHG emissions! 

Doubling the amount of GHG emissions captured by nature is crucial to successfully addressing the climate crisis we face. The beauty is that the same steps that will substantially reduce the 24 percent of total GHG emissions that come from farming and deforestation will simultaneously enable us to increase natural carbon sequestration by plants, building on the 31 percent of GHG capture already occurring. This can be achieved through:

• improving soil conditions that have been depleted by industrial, single-crop farming

• decreasing the use of harmful fertilizers

• protecting tropical rainforests and engaging in massive reforestation

• implementing a variety of smart agricultural practices, including pasturing and livestock feeding strategies

• lowering consumption of red meat by switching to a more plant-based diet

Project Drawdown’s scientists have identified all of these steps. By stabilizing population growth and a dramatically reducing food waste, we can increase the land available for natural sequestration.

The result of coupling smart land-use strategies to increase natural carbon capture with aggressive actions to reduce GHG emissions from all sources would be to begin turning back global warming. At the same time, we would improve health around the globe and save money. It’s a no-brainer to try all of these measures.

Roy Thilly of Baileys Harbor is the former CEO of WPPI Energy and was co-chair of former Gov. Jim Doyle’s Global Task Force. The book Drawdown and the videos of Project Drawdown scientists Jonathan Foley and Katharine Wilkinson inspired this article.