climate change

For peat's sake

peat mines.jpg

2500 years ago Plato wrote about ancient Greece many years before: “... the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.”

At a remarkable mid-June gathering at Morvern in the West Highlands I read the above excerpt from Plato, who was describing Greece before farmers totally screwed it up.  The theme of the conference was ‘Soil Matters’ and it brought together leading soil scientists, artists, musicians, government and NFU officials, land managers and others with an interest in soil and sustainability. It was hosted by the Andrew Raven Trust, a trust established in memory of his profound influence on Scottish land management and environmental issues.  Because we were in the Highlands the role of peat in climate change and sustainability was a topic.  Peat has a deep resonance with the spirit of Scotland - I’m not talking about whisky here but about peat bogs. 

The Scottish landscape has seen some hard times - the Clearances led to populated areas seeing the longstanding human residents sent off to Glasgow or America or Australia, to be replaced by deer and sheep.  Now the Scots are recreating the marvellous environment that reflects the levels of rainfall that typify the region and rebuilding rural populations living in harmony with this unique environment.  A surprising number of the new migrants are from England.

Misguided post-war policy gave indiscriminate tax incentives to forestry. Trees were inappropriately planted on peatlands, the bogs dried out, the ecosystem collapsed.  Now there are active peat bog restoration projects all over Scotland and the benefits to environment and climate are inestimable.  A peat bog can compete with a woodland in the amount of carbon dioxide it takes out of the air and stores permanently in the depths of the earth.  Scotland’s peat bogs are making a huge contribution to mitigating climate change and we still don’t pay them a penny for doing it.  With carbon pricing on the horizon that could change.  If the carbon price is £50/tonne CO2 then an undisturbed peat bog could earn its owner £2-300 per hectare per year.  That’s more than you could make by cutting the peat for fuel or compost.

Peter Melchett, the late Policy Director of the Soil Association, dreamed of the day when peat use was phased out completely from organic farming.  A 2010 Government deadline for removing peat from horticulture was quietly extended to 2020 and now neither Defra nor the EU have any concrete plans to phase out peat use - the pressure from horticulture is too strong - tomato and vegetable growers are a powerful lobby.


So, while the Scots are diligently restoring peat bogs the rest of the world is still digging it up to save microscopic amounts of money.  We deserve to die if we can’t do anything about this insanity.  Vast peat bog areas of Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Canada are being mined on an industrial scale to supply vegetable growers. There have been attempts to phase peat out of organic and conventional production. ‘Peatless peat’: compost blends of coir, composted shredded bark, biochar and green waste perform just as effectively but cost a tiny bit more. They have a vastly lower carbon footprint.  The organic movement sees itself as superior to other growers and farmers but the use of peat is one area where we must hang our heads in shame.  Every principle of sustainability is contradicted by the use of peat;: it takes tens of centuries to replace; it turns into carbon dioxide within a year or two of being used; and it destroys biodiverse habitats. Growers feel under tremendous pressure from supermarkets to cut costs in any way possible and peat is cheap.

Alternatives that don’t devastate the environment can do the job just as well, they just cost 1/2 a penny more than peat for a seedling plant.  A tomato plant can produce 50 tomatoes, so that’s 1/100 of a penny that is saved by using peat to grow tomatoes.  Screw the planet, let’s save a penny per 100 organic tomatoes.

It is time for the organic movement to revisit its founding principles, look to the Scottish example and drive a worldwide movement to restore peat wetlands and make peat use extinct before peat use makes us extinct.

Carbon Farming to Reverse Climate Change

This paper outlines the global threat from Climate Change and proposes a simple economic model as a practical solution through which land use innovation can drive behaviour change and reverse global warming. The planet is warming, we are losing the race to save all the inestimable physical wealth and cultural value that humankind created over the centuries and yet we have singularly failed to use the most efficient tool for reducing carbon dioxide levels: photosynthesis. Nothing else comes close to sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, yet we neglect it.Two decades of policies to address the rising threat of catastrophic climate change have focused on reducing emissions. They failed, however, to slow the increase in greenhouse gas levels. Instead, directly and by default, government policies have brought about continuing increases instead.

Forestry and farming are the cheapest and most effective ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere, sequestering it in the vast unexploited reservoir of the soil and trees. Yet instead of actively pursuing these low-cost options we have deforested and degraded forest carbon and soil sinks.  How can we fix this?

The “4 per 1000” (‘Quatre pour Mille’) initiative launched at the Paris COP21 aims to do just that, by rewarding carbon farming.vBritain is a signatory and a Forum and Consortium member.  “4 per 1000” states that, if farming and forestry increased soil organic carbon annually by four parts per thousand per year, that would be enough to totally offset the annual 16 billion tonnes increase in greenhouse gas levels.  With carbon a marketable crop, we could stop worrying about global warming.

In 2015, the French National Assembly responded to ‘4 per 1000’ by setting a €56 (£50) a tonne carbon tax to comes into effect in 2020.

Carbon emissions reduction policies have failed so far:  

  • HM Govt has spent over £1.5 billion supporting Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), the idea that you can capture CO2 emissions and bury them securely in the ground. For CCS to work and be effective it would cost at least €70 per tonne CO2 stored and require an increase in fossil fuel use of 35%.

  • The voluntary market has created credits for 1 billion tonnes of CO2 in the past 10 years. That’s a mere 1/500 of emissions. Cap and trade is subject to political vagaries. The European Climate Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange went bust in 2010 when EU political decisions led to a gross oversupply of carbon allowances.

  • The EU Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation requires mixing sugar beet ethanol, rapeseed oil or palm oil with petrol or diesel. 7 million tonnes of the world’s annual palm oil production of 66 million tonnes is burned as biodiesel, much more than is consumed as food in the EU. Land across the EU is degraded by intensive production of sugar beet and rapeseed for biofuel use, with negligible reductions and, even in some cases, increases in CO2.

The “4 per 1000” initiative is predicated on there being a price on carbon, whether emitted into the atmosphere or removed from the atmosphere. The Government sets a price for carbon and all emissions of CO2 are paid as part of a company’s tax bill, declared as part of its annual returns.  If a company can purchase carbon offsets for less it can deduct these offsets from its tax bill from carbon aware farmers. 

What would happen if there were a £50 per tonne CO2 price?

  • Nitrates, pesticides and herbicides would become uneconomic in many applications and farmers would minimise or abandon these inputs

  • Farmers would increase soil carbon by the use of grass leys and compost. They would minimise tillage and grow green manures to keep ground cover all year round

  • Carbon from straw, sawmill waste and forestry arisings would be converted into biochar (agricultural charcoal) then added to the soil to permanently enhance fertility and increase the carbon in the soil ‘carbon bank.’ Biochar is 80-90% pure carbon and stays in the soil for centuries.

  • Farmers would plant trees and hedgerows instead of growing rapeseed for biodiesel.

  • Wood burning would 10.5 billion be disincentivised. Wood would replace steel and concrete in buildings and homes. Wood is carbon negative. Modern cross lamination technology produces wood that equals or exceeds the strength, durability and load bearing capacity of concrete and steel.

  • The £1.5 billion Government subsidy to date wasted on carbon capture and storage research would be saved.

  • Peat use would end overnight - peat bogs capture more carbon than any land use other than salt marshes.

  • The sea would be more productive. Reduced fertiliser use and reversal of soil erosion would herald the end of harmful algal blooms that damage coastal ecosystems and fish stock populations.

Soil is the world’s most important and valuable commodity.  With a realistic carbon price, we would not suffer the resource misallocation of agricultural subsidies such as in the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Wind and solar are getting cheaper, but are nowhere near as competitive as 4/1000.  Money has been poured into supporting wind energy.  Every tonne of CO2 saved by onshore wind costs €162, from offshore wind £267.

A regenerating degraded forest can profitably generate CO2 savings for a cost of less than £5 tonne CO2.  Forestry management costs of planting, then thinning are minimal. Forests, pasture and arable farmland can easily sequester “4 per 1000 per annum.”  Yet we still lose 31 football fields per minute globally of productive agricultural land because industrial farming methods need take no account of carbon emissions.

How does a Carbon Price affect Fossil Fuel Prices?

A carbon tax would add $10 to a barrel of oil.  That is well within the range of fluctuations in the oil price (e.g. recent OPEC decisions).    

There is a financial opportunity. The Government simply establishes a tax that can be offset by carbon credits.  This then puts carbon dioxide, like any other valuable commodity, in the hands of markets.   

Fossil fuel emissions are 33 billion tonnes CO2 a year globally. At £50/tonne the market for carbon credits would be more than £1.5 trillion. If Britain leads on this by example then London would be the financial hub for carbon trading . The City of London has the depth of liquidity and the reputation for integrity that a global carbon market will need to succeed. 

The flow of cash into sequestration will be transformative.  Agricultural subsidies can fall away without impacting on land values.  Rural economies will be invigorated and farming can begin to remediate the misallocation of resources that current CAP policy encourages.

Auditing, validation and certification of carbon sequestration represents an opportunity for the certification industry, much of which operates out of the UK.

What is the scale of the opportunity?  Carbon sinks are primarily forests, fields and meadows.

The world has 1.5 billion hectares of arable land, 4 billion hectares of forest and woodland and 5 billion hectares of grassland, a total of 10.5 billion hectares that can be put to work removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  The annual net increase in CO2 levels is 16 billion tonnes.  If every hectare of our available land annually removed 4 tonnes CO2 then we would remove 41 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, which would get us back to pre-industrial levels in just 35 years.

Is 4 tonnes CO2 per hectare realistic?

La Vialla, a biodynamic family farm in Tuscany, comprises 1440 hectares including arable, pasture, woodland, vines and olives. Taking this as an example and microcosm of the global distribution of land use types, the University of Sienna, using IPCC methodology has evaluated La Vialla’s annual carbon cycle for the past eight years. Calculations show that 4.24 tonnes of CO2e per hectare have been captured every year for the past eight years. 

 An obvious criticism of soil and forest sequestration is that it can be reversed through human and natural impacts.  A farmer can plough up the soil, a forester can chop down the trees and then much of the carbon captured is released back into the atmosphere.  An additional risk is that fire, war, flood or hurricane can reduce the carbon store.

A two-part payment can address this by providing:

  • a payment for the annual increment of CO2;

  • an additional ‘interest’ payment on the carbon that is stored in the carbon ‘bank.’

Soil is the foundation of our natural capital.  In a capitalist system it should be valued.

Farmers can insure against loss of carbon. Banks will advance loans against land to farmers who operate best practice carbon farming in the knowledge that the asset that is loaned against is increasing in value as its carbon content increases.

The cost of low carbon food would come down and the cost of high carbon food would go up. No longer would price be a barrier to eating food that is rich in nutrients, low in pesticide residues and which delivers tangential social and environmental benefits.

Carbon sequestration in farmland, pasture and forests is a cheap and effective way of reducing greenhouse gas levels.  Compliance with agreed Paris COP 21 targets will be unlikely if we continue to depend on technological solutions and biofuels to reduce emissions.  Using up precious soil and forests for the production of biofuels is wasteful, uneconomic and does nothing to help mitigate climate change. An economic incentive to maximise soil and forest sequestration of carbon dioxide is the most effective, practical and low- cost solution to achieving greenhouse gas reduction.


Go Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior 3

In 1977 Greenpeace organised a ‘Save the Whales’ rally in Kensington Gardens. Spike Milligan came over to rally the troops with a quirky but passionate speech. We sat on the grass to listen and many people ended up soiled by dogshit. This was just inside the park gates where dogs would dump as soon as they were let loose on the grass. In those days people never cleaned up their dog mess. What’s more dog food was usually made with whale meat. The irony of the moment was not lost on us and I couldn’t help thinking, darkly, that ‘what goes round comes round.’

A few months later in a debate against Jilly Cooper on LBC Radio I said that people should clean up after their dogs. The call-in hot lines nearly melted with outraged dog owners saying I should go back where I came from and generally questioning my sanity. Yet over time cleaning up after one’s dog became normal behaviour.

Greenpeace fought much tougher battles. They were trying to stop nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean and whaling in the Atlantic. At the end of 1977 I went along to Surrey Docks to see a rust bucket trawler that Greenpeace had acquired which they planned to refurbish and rename the Rainbow Warrior. (I had the chance to go on the maiden voyage to Iceland to challenge whaling, but I had court appearances scheduled over Whole Earth jam illegally sweetened with apple juice).

The Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland, New Zealand, on the orders of France’s President Mitterand in 1985. During ‘Opération Satanique’ French secret agents attached explosives to its hull to blow it up before it could lead a flotilla to oppose nuclear testing in Pacific island atolls. This act of terrorist sabotage killed Fernando Pereira, a photographer. The culprits were sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter but released when France threatened to block New Zealand’s agricultural exports to the EU.

Greenpeace converted another ship, Rainbow Warrior ll, and carried on being a pain in the bum for evildoers in the whaling, bombing and oil rig industry. It’s retired and is now a hospital ship in Bangladesh.

When Monsanto’s GM soybeans started flooding the market in 1996 the Soil Association lobbied hard to protect organic food and had desperate meetings with tin-eared ministers of agriculture and environment. While we talked Greenpeace took action. First they sailed up the Mississippi to block the export of soybeans at source. Later, led by Lord Peter Melchett, Greenpeace activists pulled up a GM maize crop in Norfolk, ‘decontaminating’ the field. Arrested and jailed, they were exonerated in court and set free. They had stopped the GM tide, protecting organic farming from extinction.

On November 10 we attended the launch of Rainbow Warrior lll near Tower Bridge. No rustbucket of a trawler this one but a brand new ship that will travel mostly by sail, with engines powering it for perhaps 10% of the time. Its €16 million cost was funded entirely by contributions from tens of thousands of supporters.

Damon Albarn re-formed The Good The Bad and The Queen and played on deck to spectators lining the shore at Butler’s Wharf. Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Festival, £400,000 a year contribution to Greenpeace) had driven the ship on the last leg of its trip. We toured the ship and learned about its revolutionary design – soon container ships could be using its advanced wind-capture principles to cut the emissions from seaborne trade.

Greenpeace has been on the front lines stopping the destructive greed that makes the world a worse place, thereby providing cover for organisations like the Soil Association, Garden Organic, Slow Food and Fairtrade that are working to build a better world. We all owe them a tremendous debt. Joining Greenpeace and supporting their work is the least we can do to repay their efforts.

This Triple Whammy on Climate Might Just Hit Home

In 1990 my daughter Rima commented to her friend Dan as they choked their way across a fume-filled Harrow Road: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the drivers of these filthy cars had to plant trees to mop up the pollution they created?” Dan Morrell agreed and founded Future Forests to do just that. When we launched Whole Earth organic wholegrain cornflakes back in 1996, they became the first ‘carbon neutral’ food product. Dr. Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management did a lifecycle analysis of the cornflakes to establish how many trees Future Forests should plant to balance off our CO2 emissions. We were pleasantly surprised to find the cornflakes were almost carbon neutral already – because they were organic.

A few weeks ago Future Forests invited me to a preview of The Day After Tomorrow, the blockbuster teen romance thriller whose plot revolves around a greenhouse gas disaster. This movie will move the global warming debate beyond climate scientists on one side, and the hired guns of the oil industry on the other, and put it squarely in the mass consciousness. At the launch of the Climate Group a few weeks earlier, Tony Blair told us “Commitment to preventing global warming has to transcend the electoral cycle and become a permanent part of national policy. We need the public to support us on this if we are to achieve real results.” When I asked Margaret Beckett if future emissions trading arrangements would reward the huge contribution to greenhouse gas reduction that comes from organic farming, she smiled thinly and said that she couldn’t comment on policy still under development. But Steve Howard, the Climate Group’s CEO, responded positively and the President of Timberland Boots said they already used 5% organic cotton in the lining of their boots and counted it towards their carbon reduction targets. Here are some facts. Organic farming uses half of the fossil fuels used by agrichemical farming, per unit of food; emits less nitrous oxide than agrichemical farming (a greenhouse gas 310 times more warming than carbon dioxide); absorbs one tonne of carbon per hectare into the soil every year. Combine all of these and you have an annual saving of the equivalent of 2 Gigatonnes of carbon. To bring greenhouse gas back to a stable level requires an annual reduction of 6 Gigatonnes of carbon. So if we adopted organic farming practices worldwide, including green manures, non-use of nitrates and pesticides and composting of animal manures, we would be a third of the way towards saving the planet. What does agrichemical farming offer the future? Every tonne of nitrogen fertilizer costs one tonne of carbon to manufacture and transport Nitrogen fertiliser runs off into water and becomes a nitrous oxide source - nitrous oxide is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide Animals eat subsidised soybeans, and fart prodigious quantities of methane into the air – methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful than CO2. Cheap subsidised feed also produces a proliferation of meat animals. Organic cows fart too, but they don’t suffer the chronic acid rumen digestive problems that lead to E.coli O157 infections in ‘normal’ cattle because 80% of their diet must be pasture or hay - cows’ natural food. And the Soil Association supports the CIWF campaign to reduce meat consumption and move from quantity to quality. I was born in Nebraska, a prairie state. When my pioneer ancestors first built their houses from prairie sod, many proudly preserved a few acres of virgin prairie so their grandchildren could see what the land was like before it went under the plough. Those bits of prairie now stand as much as 8 feet higher than the surrounding farmland – Nebraska’s shame. Unsustainable farming practices have turned all that rich organic matter into dust, sand and a hell of a lot of CO2. We are at a crucial juncture: grain prices are at historic highs, which will impact on meat prices, oil prices are at historic highs, which will make chemical fertilizers and pesticides more expensive - now public concern about global warming is about to reach historic highs. This triple whammy might be extra momentum we need to swing to organic farming - one of our planet’s best hopes for as sustainable future.