Skip to main content
Read page text

Sphagnum capillifolium moss close up, Scotland © Tony Hamblin / seem not to be in operation, is the place to remember the effects of the changes we have been making.

The oaks are absorbing about 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year – just more than the emissions of a single seat on a holiday jet to Barbados and back. But global emissions are running at about 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year. We would need about 38 million square miles of Arienas woods – itself a paradisiacal idea – to absorb those emissions. Oak woods would have to cover about two-thirds of the land area of the Earth.

So what is to be done? What is happening in the Arienas woods is actually what needs to happen. The systems of the Earth itself can be harnessed to address a large part of the problem we have created. We need to look after the soil, particularly the organic peaty soils in which much of the wet west of Scotland is blanketed. Very nearly half of all UK soil carbon is in Scotland, and changes made to the use of organic soils are currently responsible for 15% of Scotland’s greenhouse-gas emissions. If a hectare of grassland on an organic soil is converted to arable, up to 8 tonnes of carbon a year is lost to the atmosphere. Ploughing up peat is guaranteed to increase global warming, but as long as peat stays waterlogged it very slowly but quite actively sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, locking it up in its anoxic depths. As soon as peat dries – and one of the internal contradictions of this subject is that there is no easier way of drying out peat soils than by planting trees on them – the peat starts to decompose.

The Arienas oak woods, for all their micro-pleasures and moss-bedded calm, are somehow connected to the urgent realities of a warming Earth

The carbon is released back into the atmosphere as the peat shrinks and blows away in the wind. No new drainage on peat, blocking up the old drains, and no plantings on peat soils will all contribute to a cooler Earth. Bogs are a modern good.

But there are some subtle feedback loops here. Most of Europe will get hotter and drier this century, so the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere is likely to increase. But there will also be more plant growth, and that will sequester carbon to the extent that the loss of soil carbon will be entirely neutralised. An increase in yield from an improvement in technology can also be predicted. If management and a changed climate are aligned, it is possible to sequester carbon, even in a warmer world. With the right policies, European soils (except in Scandinavia) could become a net carbon sink in the next century.

It’s the global poor, those who can’t adapt, who are in the most trouble. And the people who are suffering now are those who are going to suffer in the future. Central Africa has no money and no elasticity in the system. Lowlying Bangladesh is staring at the prospect of catastrophic

20 Resurgence & Ecologist

November/December 2019

My Bookmarks

Skip to main content