Since the arrival of agriculture, humanity has degraded as much as a third of the world’s potential farmland, mostly due to conventional agricultural practices. But (conventional) agriculture and the inherent soil degradation is not only a major contributor to climate change, it is also one of the most important sectors to be affected by it, particularly through water shortage or erosion of topsoil during storms.
The key to these issues is to replace conventional farming practices dependent on intensive tillage and massive chemical fertiliser use with practices that rebuild soil health and make farms resilient to extreme weather and thereby ensuring good harvests. In the previous blogs we have talked about how Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) can be a major tool for carbon removal in the struggle to meet climate targets and how soil organic carbon (SOC) plays a role in this process. We also established that well-executed NCS not only have the benefit of being cost-effective but also provide many other multiple benefits.
The multifaceted problems induced by the current “triple crisis” (climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution) call for multifaceted responses. And as far as integrated solutions go, NCS are the best way forward. In this blog we will summarize some of the additional benefits that NCS projects can induce.
The core of these benefits is represented by what are called ecosystem services (or life support systems) that are provided by nature. These include provisional services (food production, water, pollination), regulation services (nutrient cycling, water purification, flood attenuation) as well as cultural services (recreation, tourism, mental health). So apart from climate change mitigation through carbon removal and storage, what other benefits can we expect from NCS?
Climate change adaptation
NCS that focus on healthy ecosystems will also exhibit healthy soils. One example is the preservation of soil structure. This not only traps SOM, preventing it from oxidizing (i.e. releasing CO2) and thus storing carbon over long periods of time. Along with other factors such as vegetation cover, it also supports the storage of water, preventing it from evaporating, or secures the soil from erosion due to wind and water. Typically, climate change induced hazards such as drought and erosion from extreme rainfall have shown to have less severe impacts in landscapes managed based on nature as opposed to conventionally managed ones. At the same time, improved infiltration (rather than run-off) of rainwater at the source is a major contributor in mitigating flood risk.
Naturally managed landscapes exhibit a greater heterogeneity than conventionally managed ones. These diverse landscapes provide habitat and refuge for a variety of species, including niches for highly intolerant and specialized species. Most importantly, however, is giving up the application of synthetic pesticides, which will play a major role in inhibiting the dramatic decline of insect and bird populations in recent years.
Healthy, biologically diverse ecosystems have the advantage that they can recover faster from disturbances. And while having a high diversity always bears the risk of also harbouring pests, these are also more likely to be controlled naturally through competition and predation. As a side note: Structurally diverse forests have also shown to have a greater cooling and carbon storage capacity than single species forests.
Healthy soils and plants (and the underlying natural processes) provide us with food and raw materials, so it goes without saying that taking care of these resources by means of NCS can have economic benefits for communities and landowners (not to mention the additional income that can be generated by selling carbon credits). Overexploiting these resources, on the other hand, can have detrimental effects. Desertification, for example, is a degradation of soils induced mostly by bad management of soil resources and ignoring the need for natural recovery. So not only do these soils release the carbon stored in the SOM, but they are no longer biologically active and thus no longer productive. Conservation agriculture (such as carbon farming) and grazing practice (such as holistic planned grazing), which rely on the natural regeneration of soil fertility can therefore provide food and resources from areas otherwise lost for use.
It is also no secret that nature is attractive for recreational as well as touristic activity and it has been shown that time spent in forests, close to water bodies and listening to birds chirping can be beneficial for mental health.
However, there are also less obvious socio-economic benefits that can be gained from a well-executed NCS. Reduced input of synthetic fertilizers, as well as nutrient uptake and prevention of large scale erosion by riparian buffer strips such as trees and hedgerows, can lead to lower nutrient input into water systems. Clean water is a vital part of life, health and economic activity, yet the cost of treating water from eutrophied and polluted surface and groundwater bodies is very high and can be a strong economic impedance. NCS can therefore play a part in creating additional positive externalities for health and economic benefits.
Reading this it may seem like a lot of extra effort is required to reap all of the mentioned benefits. So what does this mean for the implementation of NCS?
Luckily, many measures go hand in hand as many benefits already come as a combo. For example, measures that promote carbon storage in soils (such as no-till farming, intercropping, or restoration of riparian vegetation) also prevent wind and water erosion and promote water storage over longer time periods. Riparian hedges also provide habitat for birds and insects which can act as natural pest control agents while reduced pesticide application can assure that the habitats created are also actually inhabited by living organisms and plays a major role in counteracting biodiversity loss. At the same time, reduced application of synthetic fertilizer and the additional buffer capacity by the hedges prevent excessive amounts of nutrients from ending up in the ground or surface water.
But this doesn’t mean the co-benefits can just be left to their own devices. To avoid other potential negative outcomes or to strengthen the positive ones, it is always better to consider these effects in the planning phase before implementing an NCS project. Nevertheless, luckily for natural systems, it’s never too late to retrofit.
These co-benefits also play a part in the cost-effectiveness of the NCS project. However, despite being more cost-effective than most carbon removal options out there, the costs of implementation unfortunately are not insignificant. In fact, Monitoring, and Verification (MRV) takes up the largest portion of the funds and implementation time. At SEQANA, we have developed a state-of-the-art technology that not only accelerates the MRV process but comes at a lower price tag. We are convinced that this technology can spur permitting of NCS projects to keep up with the growing demand for carbon removal.