Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Media Coverage

We should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal

Publication: Gates Notes

Author: Bill Gates

I’m done with cow farts.

I’ve written about them several times over the last six months, and I bring them up in polite conversation more than I should. In my defense, I have a legitimate reason: cows, with their burps and farts, are a good example of something that contributes to climate change but isn’t related to generating electricity.

Most discussions about fighting climate change focus on electricity and the need for renewable energy. De-carbonizing the way we generate electricity would be a huge step, but it won’t be enough if we don’t reach zero net emissions from every sector of the economy within 50 years (and make a serious dent in the next ten). That includes the agriculture, forestry, and land use sector, which is responsible for 24 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—just one percentage point less than electricity.

Gassy cattle are a memorable and significant example of emissions—but they’re not the only major contributor to agriculture, forestry, and land use’s slice of the emissions pie. We’re just as well-off picking on soil.

Here’s a mind-blowing fact: there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. That’s not a big deal when left to its own devices. But when soil gets disturbed—like it does when you convert a forest into cropland—all that stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That’s one reason why deforestation alone is responsible for 11 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. (Another reason is that forests and grasslands are natural carbon sinks. Clearing them reduces the planet’s capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.)

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