In November this year, FCCT director Jonathan Smith attended a meeting of the 4 per 1000 intiative aimed at getting the importance of farm soils as a carbon sink recognised around the world. His report on the day is below.
Set in the Bad Godesberg town hall, around 200 delegates from many countries arrived to take part in the biannual meeting of the 4 per 1000 Initiative. This was started by the French Government in 2015 with the simple aim of getting the importance of farm soils as a carbon sink to be recognised, and promoting the co-benefits of doing so. The significance of 4 per 1000 is described as: “an annual growth rate of 0.4% in the [global] soil carbon stocks, or 4‰ per year, would halt the increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities.”
The meeting started with some good news – that COP23 (the climate change negotiations – also in Bonn) had recognised the importance of agriculture in reducing emissions, and had formally adopted it as part of the negotiations. This set the tone for a day characterised by upbeat proposals for increasing soil carbon as part of the solution to tackling climate change.
Ministers of agriculture from several countries spoke at the event, including Germany, France, Hungary, Tunisia, and Spain, as well as many other organisations, to expressly support the Initiative.
Speakers spoke about the importance of now being the time for action.
There are many different pathways, but fundamentally farmers must be at the heart of the proposals and fully engaged to enact change.
The renowned soil scientist Rattan Lal provided some inspiration with his rousing presentation. Outlining the potential for soils to sequester carbon, his estimations give a drawdown potential for soil carbon sequestration of 60-65ppm CO2 globally by 2100. This is an astonishing figure that surely gives us a lot of hope. He reiterated that humans have not had to deal with such a change in climate for the last 10-12 million years, such is the fundamental shift in our current climate.
At present he said, we have an extractive farming regime that results in destruction of soils, GHG emissions, hunger and war. Soil, he argues, is important for world peace because with healthy soils populations can feed themselves, whilst the societal benefits are enormous – such as reduced flood risk, biodiversity improvements, human health, etc.
The most cost effective way to reduce atmospheric carbon is to build carbon in soils; indeed without this then several Sustainable Development Goals cannot be met. In order to implement these methods it needs a combination of political will, science and action. All of those are necessary. The challenge of producing more food from less land in the future is substantial, but the aims are possible with the implementation of the aims of 4 per 1000.
Other high level support
Other speakers gave important input to the need for action:
- Danone aim to be fully ‘climate neutral’ by 2050
- Economic development, governance and soil heath are fundamentally linked, and key to the future success of Tunisia
- Of all the ‘natural climate solutions’ soil represents one third of all the cost effective global measures
- 850 million people are hungry worldwide, mostly in Africa and south Asia. Soil health is fundamental to resolving challenges in both climate and conflict
- There is a gap between action and policy. Ministers of agriculture and planning [and policy] need to integrate their approaches
- 250 million people in India depend on farming for their livelihoods. Positive farming solutions are necessary for these people, many of who are the poorest of the poor
Key points and questions
The Forum was for key members of the Initiative to present some key questions and policy options to consider, especially some of the practical issues. Some of these included:
- What are the trade-offs between building soil carbon and production of food, fuel, fibre, etc- and also multiple land uses?
- Are there any financial benefits to farmers?
- Projects that prevent soil carbon degradation are as important as those that raise soil carbon levels
- The proposals for land management must be evidence-based and policy relevant
- Many practical examples for carbon storage projects were demonstrated on numerous posters at the venue
- We can only keep under a 2°C rise globally if we cut emissions and sequester carbon in soils
- How do we maintain carbon stores so that the sequestered carbon is permanent?
- An increase in global temperatures can increase decomposition rates
- An increase in soil carbon also increases the availability of N, P and S – the ratios stay constant
- Beware that surplus N can lead to lower C and increased N2O releases
- Less inputs are needed with more fertile soils
- Different techniques and policies are necessary according to the climate, farm type, geographical location and other factors. An integrated approach is necessary but with a common aim (i.e. to increase soil carbon)
The most important point made was that farmers are the practitioners needed to be engaged to increase soil carbon levels. With this in mind we had a workshop session to look at the challenges and opportunities for farmers.
The role of the farmer
The workshop group discussed a number of measures of how to facilitate action on soil carbon by farmers, and how they could be supported to do so by the Initiative and wider policies. The main points included:
- Farmers need to be seen as leaders, not study objects. Participatory research and a bottom-up approach is essential for this
- Communicate to farmers the direct and indirect benefits of building soil carbon (and about the 4 per 1000 Initiative)
- Enable knowledge transfer, networking and exchange to share best practice and experiences amongst farmers
- Consider ways to get long-term commitments from farmers, policy makers, supply chains, etc. Building soil carbon is a long-term activity
- Farmers need to be in the centre of 4 per 1000
- Farmers are the enablers of soil carbon building!
- Farmers need to state exactly what they need for support
- The long-term nature of the challenge is suitable for farming, which tends to take a long-term view as businesses
- Policies and subsidies need to support the work, as well as research and supply chains
- Peer-to-peer learning is essential in increasing uptake of these measures
The meeting finished with the Consortium agreeing the aims, vision, finances and communications for the organisation in 2018. There will be meetings in Montpellier, France in June, and Katowice, Poland in December.
Some concluding thoughts from the day were summed up by the President, Ibrahim Mayaki:
- Useful science needs to deliver indicators for soil improvements for farmers
- Intelligent action is needed, and accelerate to implementation
- Carbon sequestration needs to be owned locally – everywhere
- Development of partnership working is essential
- Political momentum needs to be behind the change
Fundamentally it’s how we move from knowledge to action that really matters.
Presentations from the day can be found here