News clips of forests burning in California, conflagrations on hillsides, black smoke billowing into communities, got me thinking about alternatives to the merits of planting trees to fight climate change. Trees store carbon that photosynthesis has pulled from the air as carbon dioxide. Plants take energy from the sun to break CO2 molecules into carbon and oxygen. The oxygen is released into the air where we may breathe it. The carbon becomes substance, the stuff of trees.
Yes, planting trees captures carbon. Yet, promoting the growth of ecosystems other than forests is needed. Before describing other solutions, before adding to society’s to-do list, let’s revisit the problem.
Global warming induced climate change is the result of too much, an excess of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. The gasses drift about, become globally mixed, encircling the planet like smoke over a burning hillside. Of the three top greenhouse gasses we are releasing, carbon dioxide is 64%, methane 17% and nitrous oxide 6%. Once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide lasts hundreds of years, methane about twelve years, and nitrous oxide about one-hundred-fourteen years.
Therefore, most of the attention is on carbon dioxide. It’s good stuff in moderation; I exhale it every day. However, in excess it smothers. Carbon dioxide can even put out fires by depriving the burn of oxygen.
When atmospheric carbon dioxide swelled from 300 parts per million to 400 parts per million, it acted like a greenhouse, blanketing the world, preventing heat from radiating and escaping the planet. Of the retained heat energy, 93.4% went into the oceans.
In warmer water the molecules spread a bit more than in cold water. This causes sea levels to rise. With the oceans covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, containing 97 of the Earth’s water and 99% of the living space on the planet, a one-degree rise in seawater temperature is a big deal for us landlubbers. Some ocean water bodies have increased two degrees in thirty years. At the scale of this blue planet, the loss of Greenland’s glacier will be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Sea levels will keep rising.
So here we are experiencing more extreme weather events, longer droughts, worst forest fires. At sea, Category 4 hurricanes grow into category 5 hurricanes in just twenty-four hours. A category 5 hurricane has four times the destructive energy of a category 4. That’s a terrible lot of power gained from exhausting much carbon dioxide into the air.
There are two ways to reduce the ravages of global warming induced climate change. One is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, burn less fossil fuels. The other is to capture more carbon dioxide, get more carbon out of the air.
For the first way, industrialization is responsible for too much fossil fuel exhausted. We can modify our ways. For capturing carbon, nature does it best with photosynthesis. We can make way for nature and become better stewards.
In California, grasslands store more carbon than forests because they are less impacted by droughts and wildfires, report authors of a study from the University of California, Davis. When fires burn grasslands, roots store fixed carbon and plants recover quickly after a burn. The researchers go on to note that this does not include the potential benefits of good land management to help boost soil health and increase carbon stocks in range lands.
Your lawn will capture more carbon, better fight climate change, if you stop spreading quick-release fertilizer. When grass plants are no longer swimming in fertilizer, the roots grow into the soil, soil health improves with the interactions, and the plants become more resilient. Healthier grass puts on more foliage, more blades. A non-fertilized lawn better resists pests and weeds. (Conversely, spreading quick-release on a lawn increases the need for pesticides and herbicides.)
Capturing more carbon, a non-fertilized lawn absorbs more water and releases it slowly, better protecting homes from extreme weather events. Replacing a hard-surface patio with a patch of lawn will further protect your home, capture more carbon, and might feel better under foot.
Grazed grass captures more carbon than does uncut grass. When the grass is big enough to go to seed, growth slows when energy is shifted to seed production. A pasture with grass-fed beef captures more carbon than does a pasture gone to hay.
Every year we exhaust 40 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Stopping emissions will not bring down the parts per million carbon, not decrease extreme weather events. Quality of life improvements will come when more carbon is captured than emitted. We need both more plants and bacteria photosynthesizing, and less fossil fuel burning.
Should you find yourself deciding between ordering a veggie burger and grass-fed beef burger, or the choice of soymilk or real ice cream, consider the one that captured more carbon. Give a nod to the cattle and cows grazing towards cleaning up the excess carbon dioxide smothering our planet.