How soil mismanagement causes climate change

Carbon Count

July 28, 2022

The Carbon Count team spends the majority of their lunch breaks chatting about the relationship between soil, carbon and climate change. The following deep dive into this relationship is composed of extracts from our CEO Philip Mulvey and his daughter Freya’s book Ground Breaking: Soil Security and Climate Change. The basic tenet in this book underpins all that we seek to achieve at Carbon Count. 

As we discussed in our previous blog post, climate change is initially and significantly controlled by the small water cycle from continents. Because of this, we argue that global temperature rise is actually an inadequate measurement of climate change.

Our research suggests measurement of precipitation loss predates agreed measurable global temperature increase by at least 20 to 30 years.

It is important to understand that, because of the complexity of the climate system and the limitation of computing power, caution should be exercised in over–reliance on current climatic modelling methods, specifically focusing solely on global temperature rise, to gauge the intensification of climate change.

Nevertheless, given the critical role of  science in shaping how we understand climate change and our policy responses, modelling global temperature rise is necessary to explain the  range within which an outcome may occur, as well as evaluating impacts of proposed solutions. 

Even so, we argue that, because precipitation is an earlier precursor of climate change, climate model projections of precipitation must be carried out that account for soil and vegetation cover as well as season variability, and all associated sensitivity analysis.

Soil and precipitation, especially the small water cycle (see figure 1) , are interconnected aspects of landscape management. For example, much of southern and central Australia has experienced a reduction in rainfall of as much as 30 per cent in the last 50 years, along with a decrease in rainfall predictability. However, it is not generally recognised that this rainfall loss is potentially attributable to degraded soil from agricultural practices.

Figure 1: The small water cycle. (Source: Ground Breaking: Soil security and Climate Change. P Mulvey and F Mulvey, August 2021)

Figure 2 depicts the boundary of the Western Australia’s Rabbit Proof Fence; a pest–exclusion fence constructed between 1901 and 1907 to keep rabbits and other agricultural pests, from the east, out of Western Australian pastoral areas. In 2005 the world’s largest experiment in climate change and desertification began on the two sides of the fence.

The landscape offers striking evidence of the negative impacts of agricultural practices on soil and climate. It became known as ‘the Bunny Fence Experiment’, the only regional scale, paired-climate experiment in the  world (we dive into more detail in Groundbreaking: Soil Security and Climate Change). 

Figure 2: Aerial view of clouds forming preferentially over native vegetation. J M Hackere in Eesaul N, Lyons T J, Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 114 (2002) 3–12. Source J M Hacker

On the left the cloud build up over native vegetation is obvious and, on the right, there are no clouds over the less vegetated agricultural ground. However, in order to understand that  the climatic events captured in the photograph are not a coincidence, first we explain the basic science which underpins the landscape and  atmospheric processes at play. 

Agricultural mismanagement of soil has historically marked the collapse of civilisations, including the river-dependent people of Mesopotamia through to the rain-fed upland people of ancient Greco-Roman civilisations, to the irrigation-dependent New World of the native American Ancestral Puebloans. 

Although soil is the foundation of life, in Australia, it is not regulated as an environmental function—in the way that water, air, flora  and fauna are. Furthermore, in state government planning acts, agriculture is not subject to the same scrutiny as urban development. Each  farm is seen as its own entity and not part of an integrated landscape.  The aggregated impact of farms on landscape are not considered in  any planning regulation. We contend that the accumulated impact of  this neglect is a key factor underpinning continental climate change. 

For obvious reasons, how we practise agriculture is a key influence on our environment. 

Landscape resilience, soil and ecosystem health are collectively  the components of Natural Capital. Mining soil organic matter and  generating bare ground, outcomes of historical and in many instances  current agricultural practice, run down our Natural Capital. The running  down of Natural Capital has had a huge impact on the productivity and  health of our country. Financial Capital is the financial capacity of the  farmer to economically run the farm for optimum sustainable return. Currently, and historically, most farms have run down Natural Capital  to bolster Financial Capital, which is a false economy and perpetuates  a cycle of poor land management. 

Immediate action is required to develop sustainable solutions for  soil security, not just to moderate but to reverse anthropogenic climate  change. Soil security is about more than soil health and soil quality, it  extends to a qualitative framework of allied soil aspects. 

Maintaining farm profitability, improving Natural Capital while  retaining Financial Capital, is key to any proposed solution. Addressing  our soil security issue, at a very simplistic level, mandates that we  sequester organic matter in soil, create air turbulence by eco-corridors  and mitigate and prevent bare ground. As stated above, regenerative  agriculture and natural sequence farming demonstrate the success of  land remediation, and consequently are a critical part of the solution to anthropogenic climate change. 

We at Carbon Count have made it our mission to regenerate landscape and thereby reverse anthropogenic climate change and reinvigorate agricultural communities through soil carbon farming practices. If you would like to find out more about the power of soil carbon sequestration or would like to understand whether your land is suitable for a soil carbon project, reach out and someone from our team will be in touch.

Postscript:  A book shop release of Phil’s and Freya’s book is due out later this year.

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