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Carbon counting

Opinion Piece

In recent weeks there has been much talk about global warming with world-wide protests, particularly by the young. Even so, I suspect very few appreciate the real catastrophe future generations might be facing. We could be talking billions fewer people on our planet within the next 100 years or so.

We are told that atmospheric carbon is the primary factor in global warming. Whilst the science around global warming is somewhat speculative, it is widely accepted and thus demands relevant action. The problem is that much of that action is financially and politically “inconvenient”.

One NZ solution is to plant a billion trees! Unfortunately, the “think-talk” is “Pinus radiata forests” which have fundamental shortcomings. Monoculture is not how nature works. She exists and thrives on diversity.

The radiata monoculture is an extraordinary biological, ecological and financial risk. One disease could devastate our radiata forests, a disease which could evolve or be imported at any time. I have recently driven down through the South Island and was surprised by the amount of dead material visible in some forests.

When harvested, radiata quickly degrade and re-expose our fragile hills to erosion. The thousands of tonnes of logs and slash on the beaches at Tolaga Bay illustrate another issue with radiata monoculture; and for every tonne we might add several tonnes of soil.

There is one critical factor which is currently ignored: One third of excess atmospheric carbon has come from global topsoil where, in the form of organic biomass, it is an essential element for the growing of food and crops.

Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney noted several years ago that projections of topsoil degradation indicate that within the next 45 years our planet will produce 30 percent less food for a population demanding 50 percent more. This equates to a food deficit of some 50 percent. Already upwards of thirty million people die every year from starvation. An extraordinarily high proportion of the rest of us suffer from malnutrition, either from a lack of food and/or poor food choices. These are compounded by the declining nutritional quality of all food resulting from plant breeding and modern farming techniques.

Science tells us how important soil carbon is for soil fertility and climate change, yet it is not measured as part of the carbon equation. In this context our, and other governments, are mis-calculating our true carbon position and defrauding us all, regardless of whether we are in carbon deficit or surplus.

There are many reasons and ways to plant a billion trees which can greatly enhance our environment and productive systems.

Every single tree counts, as does every kilogram of soil carbon. So many trees should be planted for farming and other benefits, yet most of those trees are excluded from carbon measurements. Such considerations must be included in government discussions and calculations. Satellite technology can so easily measure every tree canopy metre. Measuring soil carbon may be a little more challenging but it is a critical element of the climate equation, and for the survival of future generations.

Marcus Williams