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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

The Role of Sequestration in Reversing Anthropogenic Climate Change

Thursday 3 January 2013

by Anandi Sharan

Much has been written about the need to adapt to climate change, to help the poor and the vulnerable. Much more has been written about how to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions to encourage capitalists to invest in renewable energy,1 rather than in fossil fuels and nuclear energy, in order to maintain living standards for the middle class without harming the environment. But these are partial responses to a problem which is actually systemic in nature and thus needs a system-wide solution.

The Earth used to have grasslands, forests, agricultural lands and soils which acted as giant carbon sinks and prevented a build-up of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the gases from anthropogenic sources in the last 300 years began to outgrow the sinks. The sources of greenhouse gas emissions are carbon dioxide from extracting and burning fossil fuels, other man-made gases, and other gases like methane released from positive feed-back due to temperature rise. The sinks are the ecosystems consisting of living organisms and plants which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and sequester the carbon in their living tissue, until it decays and returns to the soil, releasing some methane.

Oceans are another sink, which are also compromised by shipping and pollution. Mining, urbanisation, logging, agriculture, and defores-tation appropriate 80 per cent of the Earth’s net primary biomass production. Thus the reason for climate change is that the sources of greenhouse gases have increased, and the sinks have been more or less completely destroyed. Today a world population of seven billion people is appropriating nearly all the net primary biomass production of the Earth. Plants, trees and animals are being used without being replaced. Only human beings are being replaced, but the majority are being born into conditions of suffering and destitution, whilst the rich minority are making use of the technologies produced under capitalism to insulate themselves from the environmental calamities that their world system causes. Their comforts are achieved using fossil fuels and nuclear energy, which further exacerbates runaway climate change.

Technically it is not necessary to use biomass and the land in a way which causes climate change. Biomass use does not have to be a net source of carbon dioxide emissions. If a tree adds 12 kg of wood to its mass every year, then provided that you only take 12 kg of wood from that tree every year you are not destroying its sequestration capacity, especially if you do not burn the wood but use it to build a house and later let it decompose and turn back into soil carbon over time. If you burn the wood it is also not a problem provided that you plant another tree that will sequester the 22 kg of carbon dioxide that you emit when you burn the wood. Similar numbers and figures have been calculated for grasslands and agricultural production systems.2,3

These basic facts point to the global solution to anthropogenic climate change. In order to halt and reverse anthropogenic climate change, human beings must first change their social systems and remove the division between capital and labour. The system must be replaced with a rational and scientific communitarian society based on the social and ecological implications of anthropogenic climate change outlined above. Secondly, capitalists and the middle class must stop using fossil fuels and nuclear energy, thus eliminating the sources of carbon dioxide emissions.
Once these two changes are achieved, a global humanity which is neither middle class nor working class but simply a humanity living and working in associations of free producers, can do the hard manual work of restoring biotic sinks.

In the early days of the climate change debate many governments had looked forward to international cooperation to mitigate climate change through forestry restoration. Sadly the insistence on ‘least-cost’ solutions meant that forestry for carbon sequestration never took off in the international arena. Twenty years on, and after another failed UNFCCC meeting, it is necessary to remind ourselves again of the role that human forestry and agricultural labour can and must play in reversing climate change. Working on the land, with scientific management systems that advise workers in villages and town municipalities how to conserve carbon whilst producing food and building materials, must become the free and voluntary mode of human production and reproduction.

Because there are so many more people than there were in pre-capitalist days, the agricultural and forestry systems will be different from what was done earlier. In order that decisions can be taken on the basis of the scientific understanding of the Earth’s needs, all men and women and children will have to be retrained in soil, plant, animal, forest and human conservation. The emphasis on voluntary work and community control will have to unleash the interest of the scientific community in advising their kith and kin how to go about planting trees, producing food, and conserving soils and water.

Capitalism and the middle class have thus given humanity a formidable challenge. Not only must we overthrow capitalism, we must introduce in its place scientific social and ecological systems to address the problems the previous world system created.

The target is to return to pre-capitalist concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which were around 250 ppm. This is a reduction of 150 ppm from the current 400 ppm. Thus, in addition to eliminating all sources of greenhouse gases by totally abandoning capitalism and the middle class standard of living and thus eliminating the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, the human species must devote the rest of its species’ existence to sequestering 1166 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This figure is derived from the fact that 1 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 7.773 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Assuming that an average tree adds 12 kg of wood and roots—sequesters 22 kg of carbon dioxide—per year, we must plant 97 trillion trees. That is, each person on the planet must plant and maintain 13,881 trees.

Seen in the light of these facts and figures, the problem is not insurmountable. There is land, and we can do work. What is needed is the reorganisation of the world system so that associations of free producers can do this labour voluntarily for the sake of humanity and in order to feed themselves and lead a life in dignity and in harmony with the Earth. The associations must also remember not to emit any greenhouse gases whilst doing this work, or if they do, they must plant additional trees in proportion to the quantity of wood they have burnt.


1. Some environmentalists even advocate nuclear energy.

2. Douglas B. Kell, “Breeding crop plants with deep roots: their role in sustainable carbon, nutrient and water sequestration”. Annals of Botany (2011)

3. Lal, R., “Sequestering carbon in soils of agro-ecosystems”, Food Policy (2011)
Anandi Sharan is a Bengaluru-based writer. []

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