Michael Pilarski | A carbon sequestration proposal for the world

I have been following the climate-change and carbon storage debates for over 30 years and still have not heard of any proposals that make as much sense as the one outlined herein. I was inspired to write this after attending the 2009 Klimaforum09, the grassroots alternative to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, in which 50,000 people from civil society, small farmers, indigenous people, NGOs, etc., participated.  These grassroots activists went home and made real changes that count. As a result of that conference, I set about to calculate what it would actually take to reforest the planet to reverse climate change and secure a sustainable future for ourselves and other species.

The following proposals are needed global investments whether you “believe” in climate change or not. They make financial sense, require no new technology, and will result in net gains for society and biodiversity at large.

There are four main themes in this proposal:

I. Reforestation/Afforestation of 5 billion acres worldwide = 150 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

II. Earth repair and improved ecosystem management of existing forests and all other terrestrial ecosystems = 100 billion tons of carbon sequestration. This includes cities, forests, marshes, savannas, grasslands, steppes, and deserts.

III. Increasing the soil organic matter content by 1% on arable farmland worldwide = 43.86 billion tons of carbon sequestration (This translates to adding 75.62 billion tons of organic matter, which is 58% carbon, to the soil.) These figures are for the top one foot of the soil. Most farm soils in the world currently have between 1% and 3% organic matter levels.

IV. Mobilizing the people and resources to accomplish these goals.

The above initiatives add up to a total of 293.86 billion tons of carbon sequestered. A billion tons is a gigaton (Gt). There are currently 780 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. There are estimated to be 575 gigatons of carbon in the world’s biomass. This proposal calls for increasing the amount of biomass-carbon on Earth by another 50%, from 575 gigatons to 865 gigatons. This level of carbon sequestration would bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down to where they were in the early 1800s, if done in tandem with lowering human-caused carbon emissions.

“Although the figure is frequently being revised upwards with new discoveries, over 2700 Gt of carbon is stored in soils worldwide, which is well above the combined total of atmosphere (780 Gt) or biomass (575 Gt), most of which is wood. Carbon is taken out of the atmosphere by plant photosynthesis; about 60 Gt annually becomes various types of soil organic matter including surface litter; about 60 Gt annually is respired or oxidized from soil.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_carbon

My method for obtaining the carbon sequestration figures above are explained below. Undoubtedly some figures will need to be revised as more information becomes available, but not enough to dismiss the general validity of this proposal.

I. Reforestation/Afforestation

Increasing the world’s forest cover by 5 billion acres (from 10 billion to 15 billion acres)

= 150 billion tons of carbon sequestration

(For those more accustomed to European units of measurement, 1 hectare = 2.47 acres; 1 square kilometer = 247.10 acres)

Reforestation is the practice of planting trees on land which has just been clear-cut harvested or had been forested within the last 50 years. Afforestation is the practice of planting forests on land which was once forested but has been de-forested for more than 50 years, sometimes hundreds of years, and in some cases did not historically support forest.

Depending on which expert’s figures you use, the world has only 30% to 40% left of the forest cover that existed prior to the development of agriculture. “Eighty percent of the forests that originally covered the Earth have been cleared, fragmented, or otherwise degraded.” (World Resources Institute)

Adding 5 billion acres to the current 10 billion acres of the world’s forest cover would go a long way toward the desired carbon sequestration. It takes a while for the benefits to accrue, as new forests’ capacity to tie up carbon increase over time, beginning slowly in the first decade but then accelerating. Each forest has a maximum amount of carbon it can store—a point it generally reaches after several hundred years, assuming it is unduly, negatively impacted by humans or natural disturbances such as fire, wind-storms, hurricanes, insects and disease epidemics.  Although every forest is subject to natural disturbance regimes that damage growth, forests have adapted to this. The disturbance regime in some forests is mainly small-scale, but others experience large, high-intensity disturbances such as hurricanes, ice-storms and forest fires. Hot, stand-replacing fires can drastically reduce forest carbon levels. In the natural scheme of things even though parts of a forested region may suffer high carbon losses to fire, a region’s overall forests will attain greater carbon storage over time (barring large-scale climate shifts). Human forest management can be used to assist this carbon storage process, to mitigate and reduce natural disturbances and to extract timber and other natural resources at the same time.  Although I do not advocate intensive management of all forests, I do advocate intensive management of most new afforestation projects to assist these new forests to succeed.  I discuss management of existing, natural forests in the second part of this four-part proposal.

In Friends of the Trees’ 1988 International Green Front Report, I wrote a long article on a 5 billion-acre, worldwide, afforestation plan. How many trees would it take, how many tree planters would be needed and how much would it cost? The following afforestation discussion is an abridged version of that article. [ii]  Here is a synopsis of my 1988 calculations, updated to reflect current data:

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 1978 estimate for total world forest area was 10 billion acres (which means it was actually less). An updated (2012) estimate is 9.48 billion acres, or essentially the same. Earth Policy Institute 2012.

My calculations are for adding 5 billion acres to the world forest cover–from 10 billion acres to 15 billion acres.

If we assume an average of 300 trees to the acre, we would need 1,500 billion trees to reforest 5 billion acres. The world’s population in 2018 is estimated to be 7.6 billion, which means we only need to plant 197 trees per person. My proposal gives us 10 years to accomplish this task.

How many tree planters would be needed? I go into this in some detail in my 1988 article and ended up estimating an average of 400 trees planted per day per tree planter and a planting season of 60 days a year, which is a total of 24,000 trees per tree-planter per year. A ten-year plan to plant 5 billion acres would take 62.5 million tree planters for two months of the year. It would make sense that many of them would work in tree nursery production, or other earth repair work during the rest of the year. Bear in mind that these are full-time job equivalents. Part of the work can be done as part-time jobs so people have time to grow food and do things for their family and community. Bear in mind that many individuals already grow and plant trees on their own and the upscaling of movements like Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya could accomplish a lot at the ggrassroots level.

How many nurseries are needed? These figures are per year for a ten-year program. It would take 150,000 nurseries growing a million trees each. Or 1.5 million nurseries producing 100,000 trees each. Or 15 million nurseries producing 10,000 trees each or 150 million people producing 100 trees each. Undoubtedly there would be a wide range of sizes of tree nurseries, but small to medium size are best. These nurseries would require a labor force of perhaps 20 million. Part of this workforce could come from the tree planters in the off season.

How much would it cost to plant the trees? I go into this in some detail in my 1988 article and ended up estimating an average of $1.00 a tree as an average cost for tree raising, planting out, protection, and tending for several years. Tree planting/tending costs in the U.S. are much higher per tree than in places like Africa or Asia. $1 a tree is a global average, at which rate it would cost $1.5 trillion to reforest our proposed 5 billion acres. Spread over 10 years, this is $150 billion/year, distributed globally.

The industrial inputs to accomplish this are surprisingly few. Food for the workers is the main input, along with shovels, rakes, hoes and hand tools. People could walk to work if they needed to, but when available, transportation vehicles are desired. When I was in back country Nepal, a day’s walk from the nearest road, I could find nurseries producing tens of thousands of tree—each with the only industrial input being some thin plastic sheeting for seedling tubes. They even showed me tree tubes made out of local leaves, if plastic was in short supply.

Let’s put this in perspective. Global military expenditure will reach $1.67 trillion in 2018 (http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/report-2018-global-defense-spending-will-reach-highest-level-23763), its highest level since the Cold War. In other words, a single year of the world’s military budget would cover the costs of this 10-year afforestation plan.  Or consider this: The total US bank bailouts in the 2008 financial crisis were estimated to be as high as $4 trillion—almost three times the cost of this 5 billion-acre forestation budget! (According to a team at Bloomberg News, at one point last year the U.S. had lent, spent or guaranteed as much as $12.8 trillion to rescue the economy. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/economy/the-true-cost-of-the-bank-bailout/3309/)

Thankfully we don’t need to pry the money out of the military or the banks to get the job done, as I outline in the social section of this proposal.

Where to plant the trees? This would vary from country to country, as there is a lot of variation in current land ownership and land concentration. The location of tree-planting activities are best decided at the local level. They do not all have to be contiguous, closed-canopy forests, but can include tree-planting in cities, towns and farmland, as well as on degraded lands. Farmland tree planting would include a combination of windbreaks, agroforestry, orchards, and converting some marginal farmland to timber crops. Good agroforestry systems on 10% of the arable farmland would improve the yields on the remaining 90% so that crop production would not drop. In addition, agroforestry offers other benefits, depending upon the type of trees planted.

Who owns the trees? There are many ways to answer this question. Here are some possibilities:

  • Farmers plant trees on their own land.  They retain full ownership of the land and all the products of the planting.  Society subsidizes them to do this.
  • Public land is used, whether city, town, county, state, or federal. Plantings are of native species and designed for native habitat restoration.
  • Landowners sell land to individuals, groups, or communities for forest establishment.
  • Individuals or cooperatives lease government land to put in plantings for future harvest. Subsidized at the beginning and paying tax on harvest later.
  • Landowners apply for subsidies to plant native trees on their land. Funds can be provided by native plant conservancies, conservation trust lands, etc.
  • Privately owned lands can be purchased by cooperatives who plant, tend and harvest trees.
  • Tribes and cultures with common land can plant some of their common lands. Future products can be for common good or leased to families
  • Abandoned land can be planted by local communities or possibly homesteaded.
  • Indigenous peoples can be subsidized to plant trees in their territories.
  • Trees can be planted in specially designated restoration communities.
  • Private landowners can give long-term leases on parts of their land for planting and harvest.
  • Forestation/afforestation can be part of land reform efforts.
  • In all cases, care should be taken to protect and augment any healthy native ecosystems.
  • The trees (forests) can be owned by the local community who support the people to plant them and tend them. The initial investment costs can be borne at the local community level. In some cases the people who do the planting and tending are compensated with harvest rights from the trees they plant and tend. If these plantings are well planned and executed there can start being some payback in only a few years, with gradually increasing productivity over time.
  • Tree plantations by outside corporate interests in lesser-developed countries for export to developed countries should be made illegal. Forests should be owned/controlled/stewarded by local people and communities and should be used to meet their needs first before export. Exports after meeting local needs should be given a fair price. The “Fair Trade” movement is providing some experience in this regard.
  • In places with high tree failure due to grazing, subsidize the planting and give a payment to the tender for every year that the plant lives. Once harvests start, the payment stops.  This is one way of giving people incentive to protect trees in development projects.

For the sake of simplicity I have chosen to focus on the number of trees planted. However, a good permaculture or restoration design is going to call for planting ground-cover plants, shrubs, and vines, as well as trees. On many sites, planting may have to begin with erosion control plants, soil building plants, and tough pioneer plants to create the conditions for future plantings of late successional species. Trees alone do not make a forest. Fungi, soil microorganisms, insects, birds, mammals, etc., all contribute. In some cases, this calls for inoculation or re-introduction of species. However, it has been demonstrated all over the world that, if you plant the trees, many other species will show up on their own.

How much carbon would 5 billion acres of new forest sequester?  Obviously it would increase every year, with significant increases starting in years 10 to 20, depending on the climate, soils, etc.

How much carbon does a forest usually contain? This too varies widely, depending on the climate, forest age, management, etc. The heaviest forests in the world are the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, with up to 400 tons per acre of biomass.

For the sake of our purposes, I propose looking at how much carbon would be tied up in new forests at age 50. An acre of forest of widely-spaced trees in Africa’s dry Sahel will obviously weigh a lot less than an acre of forest in the wet tropics or in temperate rainforests.  However, if we estimate an average carbon amount of 30 tons an acre, at age 50 our 5 billion acres of new forests would contain 150 billion tons of carbon. I believe this is a conservative estimate.

It has come to my attention that some people in the world are proposing cutting down existing forests so they can plant new forests and claim carbon credits.  This is obviously an insane and obscene proposal. Current forests need protection and better management to maximize carbon sequestration.  You don’t increase carbon sequestration by cutting big trees down to plant baby trees!

Planting 5 billion acres of trees is feasible, desirable and doable. Forests become a huge carbon sink, greatly increase the natural resources available for human use, and have many other beneficial effects on world climate, such as increasing rainfall and slowing winds.

II. Earth repair and improved ecosystem management of existing forests, marshes, grasslands, shrub-steppes, deserts and cities

= 100 billion tons of carbon sequestration

Forests contain the largest amounts of carbon per acre, but almost all land surfaces store carbon in the form of organic matter. Grasslands, marshes, shrub-steppes, deserts, farmland, and even cities. A sensible human goal would be to assist nature to create biologically rich, resilient ecosystems that store carbon to the highest extent possible, everywhere.  Ecological land-use practices can achieve habitat restoration and at the same time increase food, livestock forage, medicine, fiber and resources for humans.  Well-managed, restored ecosystems grow in biological productivity, biodiversity and carbon storage over time.

There are many different kinds of earth repair work, such as erosion control, refilling aquifers, cleansing air, building soils, stabilizing riparian systems, reducing flooding, reversing desertification, planting forests, restoring native plants, animals and ecosystems, etc.

Note that I use a number of terms to describe the wide range of work needed to carry out this carbon sequestration plan. Earth repair, earth-healing, and ecosystem restoration are terms I use interchangeably. A term being used in Australia is “land care.” The Land Care movement in Australia [viii] is one of the world’s best examples of a nationwide restoration effort that involves government funding as well as a significant labor force of volunteer and paid workers. Of course, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the huge environmental problems Australia faces at this time, but it has given some very good experience to ramp up and for other parts of the world to study.

Restoration and improved management of existing forests

Applying restoration forestry management to the current existing world forests would increase the amount of carbon they hold by a large factor, plus there would be a steadier supply of higher quality woods than under current, short-rotation forestry methods. In addition, there would be fewer stand-destroying forest fires.  This is outlined in my 1994 book “Restoration Forestry: An International Guide to Sustainable Forestry Practices. [ix]

Over two-thirds of the carbon in forest ecosystems is contained in soils and associated peat deposits. The estimate of total above ground forest carbon is 359 billion tons. Another 787 billion tons of carbon are sequestered in soils (and peat).

According to The Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: Managing Forest Ecosystems, “Forests are important in the global carbon cycle because they store more than 55% of the global carbon stored in vegetation and more than 45% of that stored in soils,” concluding that 60 to 87 billion tons of carbon could be sequestered by improved forestry practices in the 55 years between the years of 1995 and 2050.  [x]

The most important part of the carbon sequestration in forests equation is how many pounds of biomass are there on each acre of forest. We need forests that include big trees, big snags, big downed logs and woody debris, plus healthy litter layers, soil organic matter and lots of big roots (both dead and alive) in the ground. All these things added up are the biomass along with all the soil life, insects, birds, mammals, etc.

In other words, we need forests that weigh a lot. A forest with thousands of spindly trees does not sequester much carbon. A forest with a diffuse cover of small trees does not have much carbon. Forests need to be managed for a goodly amount of old growth. Thinnings can provide lots of wood of all diameters, while maintaining a “heavy” forest.  We can have our lumber (and better quality lumber), and have good carbon tie-up at the same time.

Here in the Okanogan and in the interior Pacific Northwest in general, there are a lot of overstocked young forests and abnormally high rates of hot, stand-replacing fires which burn out most of the carbon.  To get long term carbon storage in these forests, we need much better forest management. This includes cool burns and thinning so that we reduce our frequency of stand replacing fires. Once our dryer site forests get reasonably large trees than they are much more resistant to fire. Thus, fire can have a place in a landscape that still manages to achieve a high carbon storage overall. All we have to do is look at the historical records of what was here a short 200 years ago. Gorgeous forests with heavy carbon storage being managed by the indigenous peoples.

By my reckoning we need to dramatically increase the world’s forest cover AND we need to increase the weight of most forests by a large factor, depending on the current level of forest health or degradation. Only a small percentage of the world’s forests have not been degraded and are operating at natural weight levels.

All forests cannot achieve equal weights. Limiting factors include light, growing season, water, temperatures, and soils. The heaviest forests in the world are in the Hoh valley rainforest on Washington State’s Olympic peninsula with weights of up to 400 tons of biomass per acre.  This is due to big trees plus slow decomposition rates. Big logs pile up. In the tropics, decomposition rates are fast and so almost all the biomass is in the live tree mass. Tropical forests can never get as heavy as temperate rainforests. It would be interesting to see a chart on the average biomass weights of old-growth forests from climates all around the world.

Heavy forests are what we need to aim for.  Helping forests gain weight is the primary single solution to drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide. The add-on benefits are immense, including oxygen production, ozone layer strengthening (from stronger oxygen columns extending up into the atmosphere), a large increase in the production of timber and forest products, flood amelioration, soil building, healthier fresh water ecosystems, better ocean fisheries, etc.

Every area needs a team of forest weight-watchers.

Restoration and improved management of shrub steppes and grasslands

Approximately 40.5 % of terrestrial area on Earth, or 12.97 billion acres, is grassland. (World Resources Institute. [xi])

The vast majority of grassland and steppe is used for domestic livestock grazing. The biomass/carbon weight of these ecosystems is held largely below ground as root mass and soil organic matter. Restoration activities and improved grazing management could likely double the amounts of carbon held in these ecosystems.

Restoration and improved management of freshwater and saltwater marshes

Freshwater wetlands cover just 6% of the world’s land area, perhaps half their original extent, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Atlas of Population and the Environment.  (http://atlas.aaas.org/index.php?part=2&sec=eco&sub=wetlands) Marshes are one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth. They have a high carbon content and a high carbon turnover. Marsh restoration and improved management have many benefits, including carbon sequestration, improved fisheries, biodiversity and protection of land from storm surges.

Much of the carbon in wetlands is released as methane by natural processes, accounting for roughly half of the methane currently released into the air. (ibid) Molecule for molecule, this is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide , and much more could be released if climate change warms and dries the northern peatlands, triggering slow destruction or catastrophic burning. Wetland maintenance is therefore significant in helping to moderate global climate change. The world’s largest wetland restoration project will spend US $700 million over two decades to revive the Florida Everglades. It will include a series of six artificial wetlands known as “storm water treatment areas,” which will receive and clean up excess nutrients that enter the wetland from neighboring farming districts. Similar wetlands restoration projects could have similarly beneficial effects on carbon sequestration, fisheries restoration, water quality enhancement, storm surge abatement, and more.

Restoration and improved management of cities, towns, and villages

Human settlements of 1,000 residents or more cover 3% of the world’s land surface, according to the Global Rural Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP) (http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/collection/grump-v1.)  Most cities, towns and villages will be more livable places with a healthy addition of trees, shrubs, vines, gardens, parks, etc. The concrete jungles of the world need to be turned into places like the fabled “Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” Home gardens for food production in cities, suburbs, and towns are already major contributors in many parts of the world and are rapidly becoming more popular. The greening of our cities results in increased vegetation, biomass, soil organic matter and carbon sequestration.

III. Increasing soil carbon levels in farm soils worldwide

= 43.86 billion tons of carbon sequestration

This proposal calls for increasing the soil organic matter content by 1% on arable farmland worldwide.

3.98 billion acres of arable cropland x 19 tons (weight of 1% organic matter in an acre of soil) = 75.62 billions tons of soil organic matter x .58 (soil organic matter is 58% carbon [xii] = 43.86 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

Arable land is that capable of being used for crop growing and, thus, has qualities including a fresh water supply, nutrients, and a suitable climate.

According to the World Bank, in 2010 the total arable land in the world was 3.98 billion acres, or nearly 11% of the land surface (https://sciencing.com/much-earths-land-farmable-16685.html). The definition used is land that is under cultivation or temporarily fallow (for less than five years) — but it excludes abandoned land resulting from shifting cultivation. Different people have different definitions of arable land. Permaculture, for example, does not have a black-and-white definition of arable and non-arable lands, but teaches how to recognize the productive potentials of every acre of land. In a sense, all land is potentially productive, even though we may not till or cultivate. For instance, we may enhance and manage for valuable species for wildcrafting. The yields we aim for are not only in the form of crops, but also in the form of environmental functions, biological productivity, stability, resilience, and biodiversity.

The average organic matter in world arable soils at present is somewhere around 2%. A 3% organic matter content is considered good soil; however 1% is not uncommon. Best farming practices could likely double the amount of organic matter content held in the world’s farm soils. This would store a huge amount of carbon, increase crop yields, reduce erosion and reduce floods, all at the same time. Let’s look at the current situation and what is possible.

“During the past 40 years nearly one-third of the world’s cropland (3.7 billion acres) has been abandoned because of soil erosion and degradation.”

“About 2 million hectares [4.94 million acres] of rainfed and irrigated agricultural lands are lost to production every year due to severe land degradation, among other factors.”

“Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.” [xiii]

For the sake of our purposes here, let us define an acre-foot as the top one foot of soil from an acre of land. 43,560 square feet.

Different kinds of soils have different weights per acre-foot.  For example, silicious sand weighs 110 pounds per acre-foot; “common arable soil” weighs 80 to 90 pounds per acre-foot; garden mold rich in vegetable matter weighs 70 pounds per acre-foot; while peat soil weighs 30 to 50 pounds per acre-foot. (Farm & Garden Rule-Book by L.H. Bailey).

For this proposal we have chosen 87 pounds as our average square foot of soil weight, yielding a global average of 1900 tons for an acre-foot. Increasing the proportion of soil organic matter in an acre of soil by 1% is a 19 ton (38,000 pounds) gain in soil organic matter. Each 1% of soil organic matter in an acre-foot weighs 19 tons.

Here are some methods to increase soil organic matter in farm soils. There are many books written on each of these topics.

  • Reduce or halt water and wind erosion
  • Use multi-year (typically 4-7 years) sod crops of grasses/legumes/forbs to build organic matter. Mostly these are used for livestock pasture and/or hay.
  • Grow green manure crops for incorporation back into the soil—one, two, or even more crops a year depending on the length of growing season and its place in the crop rotation.
  • Careful recycling of farm manures and crop wastes back to the fields. Better results are had if these are composted first.
  • Judicious use of fertilizers (preferably natural) to get good crop growth. These can be added when making composts to good effect.
  • The judicious use of the Keyline system of soil and water management developed by PA Yeoman in Australia. [xiv]
  • Addition of tree biomass to the soil, ideally through a composting process. Sawdust, chips, bark, chipped wood, leaves, leaf litter.
  • Conversion of some cropland from annual to perennial crops, particularly tree crops. Soils devoted to annual cropping have little organic matter in the 2nd or 3rd foot. Agricultural tree crops such as fruit orchards will obviously increase organic matter in all levels of the soil that the tree’s roots reach.
  • Long-term fallowing of degraded farmland—taking land out of cultivation for a decade or more. Manage for tough pioneers that can stop erosion, build soil and provide wildcrafting income. A prime area for planting some of the needed 5 billion acres of new forest.
  • Soil inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi, blue green algae, EM effective microorganisms, Biodynamic preparations, earthworms, etc.
  • Terra Preta and biochar. [xvi]

Terra Preta soils were created centuries ago by indigenous people and contain high amounts of charcoal and organic matter and, oftentimes, unfired pottery shards. Charcoal is a form of carbon that can exist in the soil for thousands of years,, where it functions as apartment housing for soil microorganisms, and provides concentrated storage for nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and nitrogen. Pottery shards perform similar functions in the soil. In the last several years the term biochar has been used as a name for charcoal produced for agricultural use.  Biochar added to soils has the potential to substantially increase soil organic matter, crop production and long-term carbon sequestration.

Prairie soils hold their organic matter in a different form than forest soils. Soil organic matter in prairie soils is held primarily as humus. Organic matter in forest soils is held in the form of live and dead root material as well as varying amounts of humus. Some forests have a significant amount of humus, but many forest soils have little humus.

It is important to realize that there are two types of soil organic matter. One type includes stable humus compounds that are very long lived in the soil—decades to hundreds or even thousands of years. These long-lived humus elements are very important for soil health as they provide structure, permeability, water-holding capacity, resistance to wind and water erosion, and cation exchange capacity. Another part of the soil organic matter is transitory, with a shelf life of weeks, months or a few years. It provides the food base for the soil food web pyramid and releases nutrients for plant growth.

Managing farm soils for carbon sequestration and crop productivity means balancing and encouraging both of these types of soil organic matter—short-lived and long-lived.

Even with the best practices some soils may not be able to have their organic matter increased by 1%. But the majority of soils can achieve this and many soils can actually be increased by 2%, 3% or even more. Farm soils that are currently in good health and have a good organic matter content will have a relatively easy time adding 1% more soil organic matter. However, most farm soils in the world are getting worse, not better, at this time in history. How long would it take to achieve an average of 1% globally? As a general average I would say it takes four years to increase a soil’s organic matter by 1% if you have the resources to do it correctly. Few farmers have the resources to tackle this effort on all their acres at once, plus there will be early adopters and late adopters. However, if increasing the organic matter of soil becomes the goal of farmers worldwide we could see significant progress in the first 10 years of effort and possible achievement of this goal (1 % average increase globally) in 20 years.

I, personally, have established five agroforestry systems over the last 23 years.  In my more recent plantings I would estimate I have been able to add 1% soil organic matter every three years, the result of gradually reducing cultivation and gradually increasing trees, shrubs and perennial crops ,as well as managing live ground covers. My system uses labor-intensive practices on a small acreage with organic fertilizer inputs.

We are usually taught in school that it takes 500 years to create an inch of soil. This might be true if you think of how long it takes to weather rock into soil, but it is certainly not true about creating topsoil out of subsoil. Changing poor soils into rich soils can be accomplished in a matter of years or decades. Keyline practitioners claim that they can usually double the depth of the topsoil in four years.

The Keyline system of soil and water management was developed by PA Yeoman in Australia. It has many facets, but some of the most important are: it is integrated systems design, includes contour farming, reforestation of steep slopes, capture and storage of runoff for flood-flow irrigation, and subsoiling with special implements in specific patterns across the landscape to aerate the soil, build topsoil, and stop erosion. Livestock are also integrated into the system. [xvii]


Accelerated erosion affects a large portion of the world’s farmland. In fact, 40% of the world’s farmland is considered seriously degraded. Erosion carries off soil organic matter as well as nutrients. Keyline subsoiling is a technique that can greatly reduce erosion on sloping farmland under tractor tillage.

The use of inappropriate agricultural practices, like large monocultures and removal of shelterbelts, contributes to serious wind and water erosion. Soil and water losses are responsible for significant economic and environmental on-site costs in U.S. agriculture. Each year the estimated 4 billion tons of soil and 130 billion tons of water lost from 400 million acres of U.S. cropland translate into an on-site economic loss of more than $27 billion. The most significant component of this cost is the loss of valuable soil nutrients, which must be replaced by increased applications of fossil-based fertilizers in order to maintain and augment yields.” Pimental.[xix]

“Around the world, deforestation and desertification result from peasants pushing into sub-marginal land while high-quality farmland is either held out of use entirely, or used to grow export crops. The situation is so acute in Brazil, for example, that squatters have been massacred simply for occupying remote, unused areas of privately-held ranches. A large, organized movement has grown around the peasants’ demand simply to be allowed to use land that others have no (current) use for.”[xx]

An important point that isn’t understood on the world stage is that small-scale, intensive farming is just as good, or better, at producing high yields as industrial agriculture. If appropriate LEISA (low external input sustainable agriculture)[xxi] and permaculture methods[xxii] were used worldwide, there would be no starvation and everyone would eat well (even with today’s population).

Given today’s economic paradigm it is impossible to see how enough labor could be paid out of farm receipts to do the needed soil restoration work. Some countries pay farmers or cost-share to build soil.  I believe our goal can be accomplished by a multitude of new small farmers—people with small enough land bases that more individual attention can be given to each acre. Existing family farmers and subsistence farmers around the world should be assisted in staying on the land. Farmers need access to fertilizers and other inputs. All existing arable farmland should be protected from degradation and from loss to development.

Restoration communities could be given long-term leases for degraded land to do earth repair work in exchange for a place to grow food and build inexpensive houses using local materials. The restoration work and plantings eventually provide wildcrafting opportunities to make the communities self-supporting. In the early stages they could be given outside support, if available.

What is the size of the total workforce it would take to achieve these three goals? We calculated it would take 62.5 million tree planters and perhaps 20 million people to run all the nurseries. These are overlapping labor forces. Quantifying labor requirements for objective two is much harder to calculate. What I would suggest is that Earth repair is something that almost everyone would undertake to one extent or another.  It should be a career path for many, but a full flowering of humanity would certainly include a universality of kind and loving actions for the Earth.

For the sake of a round number, how about 100 million people’s efforts employed in Earth repair work? This is one worker out of every 32 people in the world labor force, or about 3%.  Bear in mind that many of these people are only employed for part of the year and that as tree planting and other goals are completed they can go on to other work. One generation of Earth repair at the world level should suffice to get a great deal of the job done. There is less work (and more resources and time for enjoyment) for ensuing generations.

Implementing these practices will cost in terms of money, labor and resources. These proposals are not public giveaways or money out the door. They are wise investments that will pay off for generations to come in the form of the most important benefit of all: a livable planet. Thus, the question is not ,“Can we afford this?” The question is “Can we afford not to?”

IV. Mobilizing the people and resources to accomplish these goals

The knowledge of how to sequester the carbon in the atmosphere to a sustainable level already exists. We know how to afforest lands and put carbon back into farmland soils. Ecological ecosystem management is still evolving, but we know a lot already and have the methodologies to figure it out. The labor, the knowledge, and the resources are easily at hand.

What is lacking is direction.  The financial powers seem hell-bent on destroying the natural environment and maximizing human misery. A minuscule percentage of government and corporate budgets go towards Earth repair work. Most people in the world are busy trying to make a living, are living in slums, or are landless peasants. Not surprisingly, many have no sense of ownership of their local environment or even that they have a voice. The relatively few people who work with their hands on the land are often looked down upon.

However, if the current governmental and economic system breaks down, it opens the door for some new evolution of local control and governance.  If local people have to rely on their own environment for sustenance, they will be motivated to do local Earth repair work.  If a system of rewards was put in place to encourage this activity, more would choose it. The rewards can include future harvesting rights, management positions, community subsidy credits in the local currency, and even public prestige.

There actually are hundreds and thousands of real world examples to look at and draw upon. If the best are identified and multiplied across the globe we could have a global Earth repair movement, directed and funded at the local community level; no need to wait for permission and funding from upstairs.

Let’s take a few minutes to examine the world’s labor force. Unemployment and underemployment are huge problems in many countries of the world—including the U.S. This problem is only expected to grow as technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics displace increasing numbers of workers.

The CIA World Factbook (2017) estimates that the world unemployment rate is approximately 8%, but that the combined unemployment/underemployment rate is closer to 30%. Moreover, many of the most environmentally devastated areas of the world—such as sub-Saharan Africa—and war-ravaged regions—such as Afghanistan and Syria—have unemployment rates between 30% and 50%. (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2129.html) Even countries with relatively “low” unemployment/underemployment rates include millions of people idle who might welcome the opportunity to help heal and restore the Earth.

One of the permaculture principles is to turn problems into opportunities. This is certainly the case with the unemployed. Society needs to figure out how to unleash the human potential in these huge numbers of unemployed people. Another permaculture principle is to turn wastes into resources. This applies to humans as well as things. Society needs to learn how to make every person count. The profession of “horticultural therapy” has clearly shown that many disturbed people benefit from working with plants. The carbon sequestration workforce outlined here would require millions of people with a wide range of capabilities. A lot of the work is skilled; however, some of the work is capable of being done by people with marginal job skills or various handicaps. Everyone deserves a chance to have meaningful work that is within their capacity. Good training and supervision are necessary to optimize results.

One goal of a rational society is to encourage each of its citizens to be all that they can be and to utilize the talents and passions of every person. Current societal norms mean that a large number of people’s talents and energies are not being utilized. This includes the unemployed, under-employed, multi-generation welfare cases, disenfranchised, cast out, homeless, etc.  And if we looked closely at all the people who have jobs and pull down salaries, we could debate how many of them are actually doing useful work—or even work they feel good about. The point I am trying to make is that there is a huge amount of latent energy in our under-utilized (and mis-utilized) human resources.  Permaculture is not only about how to make symbiotic relationships between flora and fauna; permaculture is also about making symbiotic relationships between people. How can people cooperate to their mutual benefit?  How can true democracy and freedom be implemented to unleash peoples’ creativity?

I am not proposing that we bring all of the world’s unemployed into the formal workforce. Rather, I am proposing a new economic paradigm that recognizes the substantial work performed and benefits accruing from the so-called “informal economy,” which includes activities such as home food growing, barter, volunteerism, child- and elder-care, gift-economies, and now, forestation, afforestation, and Earth repair. True democracy and freedom are about decentralization and self-reliance; the opposite of globalization and specialization.

It is unlikely that the carbon sequestration measures outlined in this proposal would ever be fully implemented from the top down. Even so, we should recognize, and applaud, that there already is some government funding, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and lots of volunteer groups (from local to international) who are doing useful Earth repair work of all kinds. Most people are sympathetic to the concept of Earth repair. There are tree-planting and soil-building projects happening in many places. They are providing the knowledge base for larger efforts like those envisioned here.

How might these changes happen? Here is one possible scenario. A collapse of the value of the dollar throws the economy of the US and the world into shambles. Unemployment skyrockets. Production of real goods plummets. Globalized shipping shrinks. Government services are drastically curtailed. Many countries and regions are forced to rely more on their own resources.

Citizens of countries that are affected will be unhappy with the governments and powers that caused the mess. Here would be an opportunity to elect populist governments that favor things like freedom, justice, ecological development, local governance, protecting the environment and reversing the world’s carbon flows. There is no doubt that there are plenty of would-be dictators and wolves in sheep’s clothing that would also be vying for political power.

With unemployment so high, a good chunk of the unemployed may decide to go to work fixing up the ecosystems around them and making them more productive and habitable for life. How would they be compensated? This is going to call for a lot of innovative thinking and development of local economic systems. Necessity being the mother of invention, this scenario provides an entry point for developing systems that reward people for doing land care work in local environments. Everyone in the locality benefits and so they recognize this by rewarding the people doing the work for the whole community. Volunteer work could also be a big factor in how the work gets done.

A new economic paradigm is beginning to be articulated. Economic systems are not my specialty; planting trees and building soil are. Nonetheless here are some of my ideas of what a new economic paradigm might look like.

  • Barter of goods and services at the local level becomes a major means of exchange.
  • Local currencies spring up around the globe. Neighboring currencies develop means of reciprocity.
  • Stock markets, commodities exchanges and money speculating are made illegal.
  • Loans are made by local savings institutions and revolving loan funds embedded in local communities.
  • An internationally recognized medium of exchange enables things like travel, imports and exports. Gold and silver look pretty ideal to me as universally recognized and easy to travel with.
  • Abolish the World Bank, International Money Fund (IMF) and similar organizations.  Allow new international organizations to evolve based on equal rights to facilitate international exchange, but not to have control of any money.
  • Encourage local production for local consumption to the fullest possible extent. Most communities have the capability to produce almost all of their food locally and many of their other needs.
  • Re-localize manufacturing at the smallest scale feasible.
  • Self-employment, small businesses and worker-owned cooperatives become the norm.  The Mondragon Cooperative in Spain has demonstrated how to scale up worker-owned cooperatives into large manufacturing industries.
  • A much smaller percentage of people work for someone else as an employee.
  • There would be few chain stores, coast to coast fast-food joints, big-box chains, etc. Locally owned stores again become the norm.
  • A higher percentage of people are employed in the informal sector as compared to the formal sector.
  • Farmland is owned by farmers. No big outside ownership of plantations. No speculating in farmland. Limits on farmland ownership
  • Most taxes are collected locally and are allocated by local democratic decision-making. Regional, state and national governments need some tax money but a fraction of today’s.
  • The ideas listed above will be resisted by the current people at the top, but they will obviously benefit the farmers, the workers, and the vast majority of people in the world today. And even for the people at the top, just imagine what it would be like for your children and grandchildren to live in a world without fear, hunger, desperation, crime, violence, terrorism, war, repression, etc.  Really, it is in the best interests of everyone to come up with a new economic paradigm.

The seeds of a new economic paradigm are sprouting in many places. My personal belief is that the changeover will occur, not because of armed revolution but a worldwide economic collapse. A forced decentralization won’t be pretty. I believe that the powers at the top already know the collapse is coming and are positioning themselves to gain even greater control of the world. My hope is that when the dust settles, the new economic paradigm will have replaced the old.

The relevance of these economic and social comments to my carbon proposal is that local economic systems with local taxation can fund the needed Earth repair work outlined in this proposal. Local people will act in their own best interests when given the power to do so.  Fixing the local environment, building farm soils, having healthy forests, etc., is obviously in the locals’ best interests.

It takes an extremely optimistic outlook to see how the world is going to get from its present condition to a world which has accomplished the proposals outlined here. Obviously, vast changes would be needed in economic systems, land distribution, and governance. The world’s human population is straining the planet; the hungry and oppressed number in the billions; climate perturbations are increasing worldwide; a collapse of the current economic system could occur at any time; and the worldwide information network is enabling faster dissemination of information, knowledge, and ideas.

These are some of the factors affecting the future we will soon be inhabiting. Humans have shown great adaptability in the past and the knowledge of how to make a transition to a just and sustainable future is taking clearer outline. Will humanity choose this path?

Perhaps the nicest thing about this proposal is that it doesn’t require any international agreements or money from the big financial actors of the world.  It doesn’t even need a functioning world economy or world communication infrastructure. The solution is in a decentralized approach whereby local populations act in their own best interest. The impetus is from below rather than from above.

Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski is a lifelong student of plants and Earth repair. His farming career started in 2ndgrade and his organic farming career began in 1972 at age 25. He founded Friends of the Trees Society in 1978 and took his first permaculture design course in 1982. Since 1988 he has taught dozens of permaculture design courses in the US and abroad. His specialties include Earth repair, agriculture, seed collecting, nursery sales, tree planting, fruit picking, permaculture, agroforestry, forestry, ethnobotany, medicinal herb growing, hoeing and wildcrafting. He has hands-on experience with over 1000 species of plants. He is a prolific gathering organizer and likes group singing.

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