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Ontario's Environmental Watchdog

Soil Carbon Sequestration vs. Carbon Capture and Storage: A World of Difference
Posted on June 20, 2011 by Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

In my latest Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Progress Report I talk about the potential for soil carbon sequestration as a tool for mitigating climate change. In fact, one of my four recommendations is that “the Ontario government investigate and publicly report on the potential for soil carbon sequestration as a GHG mitigation strategy.” At the press conference following the release of my report, one member of the media asked why I was recommending a strategy that was costing billions of dollars in Alberta with very little in the way of results to show for all that expense. It was clear that the questioner had confused carbon capture and storage (CCS) with soil carbon sequestration – an understandable mistake given that the former has received a great deal of publicity and the latter practically none. A World of Difference Yet there is a world of difference between the two. CCS is a high-tech, highrisk, costly, and as-yet-unproven approach with no co-benefits. Soil carbon sequestration is a low-tech (but quite scientific), low-risk, inexpensive, and proven approach with a myriad of co-benefits. The table below compares and
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contrasts these two distinct methods for reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Approach

Carbon capture and storage

Soil carbon sequestration

How it works

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured at source as a gas an industrial process), transported by pipeline to a site where it is injected deep underground or into the ocean. The CO2 can be captured before or after combustion. The goal is to trap the CO2 in geological formations or in the deep ocean where, ideally, it will remain indefinitely.

In nature, the secretions and remains of plants and animals going basis. Carbon, in the from soil on an on-going basis, as microbes break down soil organic matter (SOM). This is known as the carbon cycle. An equilibrium in any given soil is reached when inputs equal outputs, on average, over time. Conventional agricultural methods (e.g., tilling the soil, leaving soil bare, using inorganic fertilizers) lower the carbon content in soils by accelerating the decomposition – i.e., the loss – of SOM. Such methods have depleted carbon stocks in agricultural soils worldwide by up to 75 per cent.Alternatively, methods that increase SOM (e.g., no-till, manure and compost application, cover crops, green manures, etc.) raise the carbon content in soils and reduce atmospheric CO2.

(usually from the emissions of add carbon to soil on an onliquefied under pressure, and form of CO2, is also released

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Benefits

reduced emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere; if technology can be further developed such that CO2 can be captured directly from the air, CO2 released previously can also be removed (drawdown of atmospheric CO2)

reduced CO2 emissions removal of CO2 released previously (drawdown of atmospheric CO2). PLUS the following cobenefits: higher SOM levels in soils confer many other benefits, including: higher levels of fertility; drought resistance; and general soil health and resilience.

Relative cost

Still unknown, but expected to Varies with method used, but be very high. This is because in general quite low and offset CCS requires significant amounts of energy. by co-benefits.

Permanence Proponents believe that carbon storage via CCS will be permanent but some feel that there is a risk that the CO2 will gradually leak out through escape routes and return to the atmosphere.

Changes in agricultural management practices must be maintained for the sequestration to be permanent. However, as mentioned above, these practices also bring cobenefits, off-setting maintenance costs.

Will Soil Carbon Sequestration Work? I’ve used very conservative assumptions in my report. Projecting forward, I think it is reasonable to expect that an enhancement in recommended management

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practices (RMPs) could result in the sequestration of close to 10 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 per year by 2020. It’s an exciting opportunity and I look forward to the government’s response to my recommendation to investigate and report on soil carbon sequestration’s potential in more detail. Resources: For more detailed information on CCS, see the Pembina Institute’s Canadian Primer on the subject at http://pubs.pembina.org/reports/CCS_Primer_Final_Nov15_05.pdf) For more detailed information on Soil Carbon Sequestration, see the Ohio State University’s Extension Factsheet entitled Soil Carbon Sequestration – Fundamentals, at http://www.envirothon.org/pdf/CG/carbon_sequestration.pdf
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