Science & Technology

Why reducing emissions isn’t enough to change our climate trajectory

Audience members at the Living Soils Symposium’s climate talk on Oct. 15 fell silent when the conference’s final speaker, President and Co-Founder of The Carbon Underground Larry Kopald, spoke out on the bleak future of climate change mitigation.

“I’d like to start by saying we’re not going to save the world,” Kopald said.

The symposium was hosted from Oct. 13 to 15 by Concordia University, and featured a team of interdisciplinary speakers discussing how soils play a role in many of our most pressing social and environmental issues. Food producers, government delegates, journalists, and NGOs joined the league of speakers to pitch in their two cents.

Among them was Kopald, a branding professional of 25 years, whose advertising portfolio includes some of the biggest names in consumerism; from American Express to Huggies diapers, all the way down to chicken McNuggets. But behind his savvy business sense is his passion for environmentalism. Kopald expresses the need for a world-wide wake up call on climate change.

“We don’t have 50 years,” Kopald said. “And so far nothing we’ve done has gotten the world to come together and say ‘this is a crisis.’”

The last 250 years have witnessed the industrialization of both energy and food. In terms of energy, incredible progress has been made in re-industrializing cleaner, more efficient forms. Thirty-five per cent of Germany’s power production for the first half of 2017 was renewable energy, and in August, Orlando became the 40th American city to pledge to reach 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

“[Clean energy is] less expensive, it’s reducing emissions, it’s producing millions and millions of new jobs around the world and it’s never going to save the planet,” Kopald said.

This statement seems terribly inaccurate considering the scale of ‘green’ energy operations over the last 40 or so years. But Kopald argues that we can’t save the world, because creating renewable sources of energy and reducing emissions is only one half of the equation to which a bigger picture exists.

Carbon stays permanently in the atmosphere until it’s removed, and though the time lag between when carbon enters the atmosphere and when its effects are visible is debated, the upper limit is centuries long. If every country were to reduce their carbon emissions to 0, global warming would still continue. Kopald thus brings the other half of this equation to light—and why soil is one of the variables.

“What if we look at food the same way we look at energy,” Kopald said. “What we’re looking at is renewable foods, and ultimately, renewable soils.”

Renewable foods is the second half of the equation. Soil’s capacity for carbon sequestration–the removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the atmosphere–is astounding, but the intensive agricultural methods that have been used since the industrial revolution have not only degraded the soil to the point where it no longer is arable, but have inhibited its ability to sequester atmospheric carbon.

As a result, a new demand for regenerative agriculture grows: A system designed to maintain healthy soils that can absorb atmospheric carbon. Science is capable of restoring soils; according to Kopald, it’s now a matter of creating incentive for food producers to practice regenerative agriculture and for corporations to invest in it.

“Ninety-three per cent of the Fortune 100 companies have made investments in renewable power,” Kopald said. “What if we’re offering food companies renewable food? What we’re doing is offering healthier supply chains.”

He argued that, fundamentally, the situation demands a better business model. Science has the means to regenerate soils but it’s a matter of big corporations and governments initiating the shift. The solution to the world’s carbon problems isn’t just a matter of reducing our emissions–it’s understanding what we can do to reverse the damage that’s already done.

“And when you put renewable food together with renewable energy, you get a very promising future,” Kopald said.

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