Authors Jon O'Riordan and Robert Sandford raise alarm over links between soil quality and climate change

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      Former senior civil servant Jon O’Riordan says human beings can no longer count on natural processes to absorb the impact of people on the Earth.

      In a new book he coauthored with Canadian water expert Robert Sandford, O’Riordan argues that the “nexus” of the challenge is where water, food energy, and climate all come together. Human beings are consuming resources in such a way that they’re pushing the Earth’s systems to the brink—and there’s no predicting the degree to which people will have to adapt to the planet’s response.

      “This nexus lies at the very heart of current civilization; it is ground zero in the fight on climate and hydrological change,” they write in The Climate Nexus: Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World.

      O’Riordan, a former B.C. deputy minister of sustainable resource management, told the Georgia Straight by phone that commitments made by countries at the recent COP21 climate summit in Paris are insufficient to ward off catastrophe. The goal of the Paris accord is to keep the average global temperature within 1.5° C of the average before the Industrial Revolution and to ensure it doesn’t exceed 2° C higher than the latter average.

      “The agreement has provisions for increasing the level of commitment from member states every five years,” O’Riordan noted. “I’ve always said 2020 will be a more important date than 2015 because we will find out whether the signing countries to the agreement are prepared for a higher level of carbon removal…by that time.”

      In the meantime, The Climate Nexus includes some ominous information about the effect of higher temperatures and droughts on the capacity of soil to store carbon dioxide. That’s because research has suggested that when alpine soil becomes 2° C warmer over a period of time, it can release a quarter of its stored carbon. In fact, the book states that humanity has “just a half metre of soil standing between prosperity and desolation”.

      There are approximately 400 parts per million of carbon-dioxide equivalent gases in the atmosphere. The international community has set the “maximum allowable concentration” of carbon-dioxide equivalent gases at 450 parts per million, according to The Climate Nexus.

      The book notes that John Harte at the University of California at Berkeley maintains there is four times more carbon in the first foot of soil around the world than there is in the entire atmosphere.

      “Harte calculated that if you release a quarter of that into the atmosphere, the amount would be equal to the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels,” O’Riordan and Sandford write. “In other words, if we warm the world’s soils by 2°C, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double from its present 400 parts per million to 800 ppm.”

      That means game over for humanity.

      O’Riordan and Sandford have both written reports for SFU’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team. Sandford told the Straight by phone that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has focused on atmospheric physics in assessing potential impacts of rising levels of carbon dioxide on mean global temperatures.

      “What we have not been good at is understanding the ecological effects of changes to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere with induced warming,” he stated.

      He insisted that there needs to be agricultural revolution to retain far more carbon in soil. And he wants Canada to lead that revolution, which would involve paying farmers to take steps to “protect crucial Earth system functions”.

      “I think we need agriculture that’s not just restorative but regenerative,” Sandford declared. “We need to regenerate the soil’s capacity and the Earth’s capacity to store and maintain the carbon balance.”

      Sandford pointed out that healthy soils can absorb 20 centimetres of rain an hour without flooding. Poor-quality soils with less retained water also retain less carbon.

      “Through careful soil cultivation and increased soil health, we can prevent more carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere,” he emphasized.

      The Climate Nexus highlights other serious concerns, such as the amount of food being tossed in the trash. “Today in Canada, between 30 and 50 percent of food is wasted along with the water and energy to transport it,” the authors write. “In a world facing the predicted severities of a changing climate, such waste cannot be tolerated.”

      This is one of several reasons why the authors have called for an education program in schools and postsecondary institutions to teach people to wean themselves off fossil fuels, conserve water, and stop wasting food.

      “I’m still optimistic that we can get there but not without some pain,” O’Riordan said. “There needs to be much more universal education about the nature of the nexus and what people can do.”