This is part three of the Climate Education 101 Series, designed to jump start your understanding of the climate crisis. Browse the full catalog here.

By now, you know that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. (Confused? Start here.) With all those greenhouse gases floating freely in the atmosphere, how do we stop them from warming the planet?

Let’s start with defining carbon and its purpose on Earth.

What is carbon?

Carbon is a foundational element to all life forms on Earth. The carbon cycle is how that element moves through the air, water, and land, even life and death. For example, a plant photosynthesizes to make sugars for food by “breathing in” CO2 and absorbing sunlight. In turn, the plants are eaten by animals, and when an animal dies, microorganisms decompose its body to provide nutrients back to the soil to be used again.

A simple diagram of the carbon cycle. Image from NERC.

The climate is changing because this cycle has been thrown out of balance—industries are releasing more carbon than the Earth can put away. For a good overview of the carbon cycle and how it affects the climate, check out this video from Climate Reality Project, narrated by Bill Nye.

This image of the carbon cycle shows how fossil fuels and land use have released more carbon than nature can sequester. Via EIA

So, with all this excess carbon in the air, how do we get rid of it and restore balance? In two words: carbon sequestration.

What is carbon sequestration?

Carbon sequestration is a fancy phrase to describe the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it away. Plants do this naturally when they pull carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it into the soil by shedding their roots. Oceans can sequester carbon, too, when phytoplankton convert carbon dioxide to sugars, much like plants. Even some animals, like whales, can sequester carbon through the fat in their bodies.

Natural environments that can sequester more carbon than they release are called carbon sinks—tropical forests and mangrove wetlands are a few examples. Household gardens are capable of being carbon sinks, too. These processes are natural, organic, and slow, generally speaking.

While fossil fuels takes the lion’s share of blame for greenhouse gas emissions, industrial agriculture has weakened the planet’s ability to sequester carbon.

What does soil have to do with it?

In the mid-1900’s, agriculture became highly industrialized to explode crop yields in what is called the Green Revolution. Traditional practices of growing crops and raising livestock were traded for technological means of production. Synthetic fertilizers were developed so the land would be suitable for rapid harvest cycles. This process stripped the soil of its nutrients and its ability to store carbon effectively. Industrial agriculture continues to produce a lot of waste, is inhumane to livestock, creates runoff, and reduces biodiversity.

Conventional/Industrial Agriculture vs Regenerative. Via https://www.singingpastures.com/regenerative-agriculture

Restoring soil health restores the natural processes necessary to sequester carbon and thus, fight climate change. Permaculture, regenerative agriculture, holistic farming…these are all a few names of growing methods that restore soil health and mimic biodiversity found in nature.

Want to see an example? This 14-minute video is about a regenerative farm called White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, GA. I highly recommend watching.

I’ve heard about technological innovations that could fix the climate. What about these “moonshot” solutions?

Ideas like building machines to eject excess carbon into outer space are for billionaires who can profit off those sorts of things. If a solution does not transition us to renewable energy or restore ecosystems, it is a stop-gap that masquerades as a climate solution. An adequate climate crisis response must affect the source of the problem, not just alleviate a symptom.

Mother Earth sequesters carbon just fine. By restoring soil health and repairing Earth’s ecosystems, we can bring back natural sequestration processes. These solutions are slow, so they must be coupled with other climate projects, but they are also our best bet at long-term resiliency.

Mangrove wetlands. Photo via onetreeplanted.org

Previously: What is Climate Change?

Up Next: Who is Affected by the Climate Crisis?

If you found this helpful, feel free to buy me a coffee to fuel the next blog. Venmo: @Mary_Meade

4 replies on “The Lowdown on Carbon

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