The dirt that stores CO2, the bank that trusts in soil carbon and a modern mythology

Issue No 2

How do soils swallow CO2 from the atmosphere? After neutralizing the emissions of our channels with a soil carbon certificate in the last issue, today we are exploring how soils store carbon underground and much more:

  • Soil carbon sequestration: The dirt that stores CO2

  • Knowledge snack: The theoretical impact of agroforestry

  • How they do it: Soil carbon in the executive floor of a Swiss bank

  • Best picks: New data and new ideas

  • Future fantasy: The age of the immortals

Since the last issue on the digital carbon footprint we are also working on a tool to remove website emissions, here is an early version: zeroheroapp.com Try it out and tell us what you think.

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Soil carbon sequestration: The dirt that stores CO2

Reducing emissions will not be enough to reverse climate change. We must additionally remove already-emitted CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide removal methods such as soil carbon sequestration are needed to store CO2. Soil carbon sequestration in bullet points:

  • When plants grow they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere

  • The plants direct carbon to the roots to grow and feed the soil

  • The soil sequesters carbon by converting it into organic matter

  • Soil organic carbon(humus) can increase ~0.4% per year

  • Soil can capture up to 20t CO2 per hectare and year

  • The global potential is ~5 Gt CO2 per year

  • There is a range of agricultural methods to “farm” soil carbon

  • Erosion and desertification are the enemies of soil carbon

I met Wolfgang Abler, Joe Santo and Benjamin Seitz on a field in the east of Switzerland . They are running companies to measure and market soil carbon. In this video they answer seven questions on soil carbon sequestration (German with subtitles, transcript in the description).

When a farmer first becomes a carbon capturer, Joe and Benjamin take soil samples. They send the samples to an accredited lab to establish a baseline for the carbon content of the soil. The results are shared with the farmer and Wolfgang’s company Carbocert. Two to six years after the initial analysis the second sampling takes place. The new data is compared with the baseline and the difference is converted into tons of CO2 (see and calculate the data) and sold as soil carbon certificates. Farmers receive two thirds of the sales price. To guarantee the durability of the sequestration a third soil analysis takes place five years after the payment.

Planting trees and protecting forests is the most commonly referred natural climate solutions. Soil carbon sequestration is the lesser known sibling of biological negative emission technologies in the land sink sector. According to Project Drawdown land sinks are currently absorbing a fourth of our emissions. Within the next thirty years they have the potential to store 243.1–387.8 gigatons of CO2e. Soil alone can sequester up to 5 gigatons per year. But how securely is carbon stored in soils?

Currently, wildfires in California show the vulnerabilities of natural climate solutions. Millions of trees can be planted, but if they burn down, the positive effects are gone, respectively negative. The risk of reversibility in soils is different. As a large proportion of organic matter is present in the top 10 centimeters of soils, protecting the soil surface from erosion is essential for retaining soil carbon. There are a number of land management practices to protect and increase soil carbon. The methods generally go under the term of carbon farming or regenerative agriculture. They include cover crops, mulching, no tilling, composting or planting trees in pastures and crops, also known as agroforestry.

Knowledge snack: In theory, agroforestry has a remarkable climate impact

Agroforestry is an agricultural production system that includes trees in crops or pastureland. It can increase soil fertility, control erosion and improve water availability. In Europe alone, agroforestry on 9% of agricultural land could offset up to 43% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, without reducing food and feed production. However agroforestry is labour intensive, which is pretty much the opposite of where modern farming is heading.

For farmers who are new to regenerative agriculture, knowing "how" is a particular challenge. To increase soil carbon, farmers also need to produce nutrition under their fields. According to soil researcher Paul Mäder a hectare of soil needs to nourish 25 tons of earthworms, fungi and bacteria. That’s the equivalent of 30 cows. “As farmers we have to change our approach completely”, says Pirmin Adler: "From solving problems to creating a resistant system that prevents them".

In addition to new knowledge, investments in machinery and equipment are also necessary, says farmer Stefan Brunner. The investments and risks are worthwhile if the soil becomes more fertile and yields remain stable. Selling certificates is just a pleasant addition. Joe Santo adds "Humus is the sum of the farmer's work". Even in difficult years, humus-rich soils can hold more water and recover faster from climate shocks.

Besides the many benefits, monitoring soil carbon sequestration is difficult and costly. And increasing the carbon content can take a lot of time. “The key is the amount of organic matter that is brought into the soil”, says Daniel Bärtschi, founder of Carbon Farms. The 4p1000 initiative assumes growth rate of 0.4% per year. To grow land restoration is a necessity, globally almost 2 billion hectares are degraded.

Isn’t it crazy that the very soils that are affected by climate change are a solution to climate change? I was going to say soil carbon sequestration deserves more spotlight. But it already has. Soil scientist Ratan Lal received the World Food Prize 2020 for research in increasing organic matter by sequestering atmospheric carbon in the soil. A company dedicated to carbon farming has raised 850 million dollars. Regenerative agriculture also arrived in Hollywood and on the stock market. Way to go!


The “How they do it” section explores how businesses are tackling climate change

How they do it: Soil carbon in the executive floor of a Swiss bank

“It was a coincidence, a BLKB-colleague learned about the project on television. Afterwards we got in touch with the people in charge.” says Marilen Duerr, Head Sustainability at the Basellandschaftliche Kantonalbank (BLKB). Together with the Ebenrain Center for Agriculture, Nature and Food the bank is looking for 1’000 hectares of land and will incentivize its farmers to take measures for increasing soil carbon. It is the aim to use the soil in the canton of Baselland and Basel-Stadt as a CO₂ sink. Experts at Ebenrain Center and the research institute for organic farming (FiBL) estimate that one ton of carbon dioxide per hectare can be fixed in the soil every year. The bank pays farmers 100 Swiss francs per ton of stored CO₂ and also pays for the first two scientific soil tests that measure the increase of soil organic matter within the next six years. However, according to Marilen Duerr the greatest value for the farmers will be the improvement of the soil, which makes it less vulnerable to degradation and consequently produces a more reliable harvest. The board of directors and the executive committee have defined a strategy for BLKB of how to become the most forward-looking bank in Switzerland. “We are fully committed to implement this strategy”, confirms Duerr. It is even an option that the bank adds the carbon hectares to banking products for customers. For example, by making customers godfathers or godmothers of a piece of land or offering them climate neutral accounts that have been compensated in their region. “From 2021, we’ll be providing our carbon offsets on a completely local basis,” says Marilen Duerr — thus ensuring the region has a bright future.


The “Best picks” section presents selected articles, podcast, videos and links

Best picks: New data, ideas and funding

Our World in Data has a new site on CO2 Emissions

The new site includes graphs of some of the most central points around GHG emissions:

First five recipients of Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund

Last year Amazon announced a $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund. This are the first recipients:

  • Redwood Materials recycles electronic waste into high value metals and chemicals.

  • Pachama is a marketplace for forest carbon offsets that are verified by satellite imagery.

  • CarbonCure Technology injects recycled CO2 into fresh concrete.

  • Turntide Technologies develops software that makes electric motors use less electricity.

  • Rivian develops electric adventure vehicles.

The lowest carbon newsletter and your emission remover

Innovation happens everywhere. Here are people I personally know and would like to share their ideas with you:

  • Maisie and Dom of Halo help companies to put sustainable materials into everyday products. Apparently, they also make the world's lowest carbon newsletter. I receive and read it on Fridays. You can sign up here.

  • Fabienne and Ewan of Carbon Removed sell negative emissions to permanently remove your carbon footprint. Choose to compensate a flight; give the gift of negative emissions to a loved one or subscribe today to erase your future emissions on the go. Live carbon neutral today.


The “Future fantasy” section provides a fictional short story

Future fantasy: The age of the immortals

In greek mythology Prometheus made humans out of clay. His brother Zeus had wished for a gadget to play. But the creation of mortals was also meant to be kept under control (seems like we are leading the same discussion today about artificial intelligence). We know for sure it got out of hand with humans. Humans have become their own gods and are working to become immortals. But not without backlash, in 2028 longevity experiments are being forbidden altogether. A few biohackers continue their efforts in the dark. In 2030 a new human creation leaks a lab. The inventor gets sentenced to prison and the underground movement is being fought even harder. Only years later, environmental necessities bring the idea back to life. The creation of an immortal species is the key to fix unsustainable behaviours. But biotechnology can not just massively decrease our footprint, it also massively increases our diversity. The outcomes are wild. Thanks to the advancement in brain–machine interfaces humans can transfer into mice, birds and fish. We become much more nature and much less a burden for earth. The greek gods and goddesses would envy us.


In the next issue

There is a clock in New York that counts how much time is left to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. More about net-zero emissions in the next issue.

Besides the main story, a Knowledge snack, How they do it, Best picks and another future fantasy will wait for you. If you want to receive the next issue, signup before October 30 and receive a 30% discount on a yearly subscription. Together we can help reverse climate change.


About the author, the project and the publication

My name is Samuel Bühlmann and combining ecology and business is my passion. I still know little about climate action. But every day I’m learning something new and I get better in finding questions worth answering and stories worth sharing. I served in large and small companies, launched an organic meat brand and worked for a farmers newspaper. I studied international management and information systems, where I recently delivered a thesis on a platform to remove carbon and help reverse climate change.

At Projectoasis.ch we support executives in reaching their emission reduction targets. Climate Pioneers is our first service. Every month readers receive freshly filtered findings at the intersection of business, sustainability and climate change. I'm thrilled by the idea to build bridges between capital, climate and the community. Every day counts. Today we beta launch the zeroheroapp.com - check it out!