A defining moment in the fight against climate change, time for action on the ground

Dr Bruce Lascelles, president of British Society of Soil Science explains that a key solution has been right under our noses, and feet, the entire time: soil.

Science has established beyond doubt that the window for action is closing rapidly. As the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27) in Egypt, Sharm El-Sheikh comes to its conclusion, we are all waiting to hear the learnings, actions and outcomes that will be decided to ensure the sustainable future of our planet. This is a golden opportunity for us to rise to the occasion and tackle effectively the global challenge of climate change, biodiversity, and food security to pave the way for the sustainable future of our planet.

Lots of people may not have considered that a key solution has been right under our noses, and feet, the entire time: soil. Many global policy frameworks, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), address land and soil. While there is not one dedicated to soil, many of the goals directly or indirectly impact soils – or cannot be achieved without soil including Life on Land (SDG 15), Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) and Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6).

On the path towards enough food resources for the world’s growing population and a more sustainable future, we cannot afford to lose any more fertile land. We must focus on maintaining and restoring our soils, finding solutions to meeting environmental targets, achieve climate neutrality, zero pollution, sustainable food provision and a resilient and biodiverse environment.

Soil holds the key to our planet’s past and future and is the answer to our food, water, and energy security. “It represents the difference between survival and extinction for most land-based life” (Doran, 2002) and guides us, on how to live sustainably in harmony with nature.

Our soil serves as media for growth of all kinds of plants, modifies the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and the like) and dust. It provides habitat for animals that live in the soil and to organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that account for most of the living things on Earth. Not only that, our soil absorbs, holds, releases, alters, and purifies most of the water in terrestrial systems. When managed well, soil can store significant amounts of rainfall, preventing flooding and stop soil washing away, which can affect the health and safety of communities.

Our soil also processes recycled nutrients, including carbon, reused by living creatures over and over again. It is estimated that there are 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon in the world’s soil; three times more than in all vegetation and forests. Deforestation, global warming, and poor farming practices can lead to the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and in turn speed up the climate warming process. Soil can serve as a carbon sink to help combat climate change.

“Sustainable soils should be the new normal for Europe, people, food, nature and climate. Soils are essential for achieving climate neutrality, a clean and circular economy, reversing biodiversity loss, providing healthy food, safeguarding human health, halting desertification and land degradation.” – Arwyn Jones, Joint Research Centre, European Commission

Addressing soil issues is a global problem and it is important that we all play our part to ensure this vital resource is fully understood and managed sustainably.  Ahead of COP 27, where the President’s vision was to move from negotiations to implementation, we set out our asks, including the need for additional soil policy advocacy.

Our recommendations call for the raising awareness of and building an understanding of soil’s value, amongst policy makers. Our second ask, is to raise ambition by joining forces and building a case for soil in pivotal umbrella policies. These need to harmonise global efforts, policies should be developed in collaboration, rather than silos. Where policies are developed in isolation, unintended consequences for soil, land and biodiversity are often found.

The final stage of our framework is raising execution; detailing targeted policy development and building consensus at all levels. Rather than just focusing on personal, local and regional agendas, it is essential to think nationally, internationally and globally and highlight the real societal costs of soil pollution to government, such as inadequate nutrition and food shortages.

At the British Society of Soil Science, we highlight this in our recent campaign, produced in conjunction with the World Congress of Soil Science 2022, a leading international soil science conference, which drew together experts, policy makers, academics, regulators and politicians to discuss soil science.

As COP27 moves from negotiation into implementation, now is the time for action on the ground, literally. Solutions Day brings together government representatives, businesses and innovators to share experiences and ideas with the aim of spreading awareness, sharing best practice and perhaps building future alliances and collaborations. As Ronald Vargas, Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out, “Partnerships, gender balance and inclusion of youth in soil are crucial and should be common action.”

The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, and as a society we are facing huge challenges. Urgent action needs to be taken to combat climate change and its impacts. Many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved without healthy soils, sustainable land use and strong policy. “Soilists” from diverse backgrounds and cultures from all over the world have come together to lead new ways of thinking, better solutions and faster progress. Soil policy is critical to achieve net zero targets, food security and to ensure the sustainable future of our planet. Only by collaborating, can we drive change. It is time we take a ‘ground up’ approach to protect our most valuable resource, that supports life on Earth; our soil.

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