Curbing Climate Change in Our Own Backyards

Aerial shot of Greenvale Vineyards. Photo credit: Robert A. Elias.

Carbon gets a bad rap. It’s known as a greenhouse gas and an air pollutant. It warms our planet and fuels climate change . It’s a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. Too much of it in our oceans causes acidification. But carbon is also a building block of life and makes up much of the biomass on Earth, including our own human bodies. For centuries, scientists have studied the composition of our planet and grappled with the mysterious forces that dictate life on Earth.

While many scientific conundrums still exist, planet Earth as we know it is undoubtedly defined by the delicate balance of its elements and our harmonious existence with them. Anthropogenic, or man-made, climate change has disrupted this natural balance through the accelerated burning of fossil fuels, agricultural practices, deforestation and other land-use changes.

As one of the most common elements and greenhouse gas emissions, carbon can be found virtually everywhere. There are five main pools where carbon is most abundant:

  1. Atmosphere
  2. Ocean
  3. Biosphere
  4. Soils
  5. Fossils

The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, taps into Earth’s ancient carbon deposits and releases them into the atmosphere. Cutting down forests releases carbon stored in the biosphere within plants and trees, and agricultural practices, such as plowing and tilling, also expose carbon stored in our soils. Thankfully our ocean absorbs much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere and serves as a primary carbon sink. In fact, the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat from climate change, and is the sink for roughly 30% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. But too much carbon in the ocean can lead to ocean acidification and coral bleaching, resulting in devastating effects as demonstrated in the Great Barrier Reef. 

From Fossil Fuels to Flatulence

Yet, carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas we need to worry about. Methane is another heat-trapping gas that contributes to climate change. Although not as abundant, methane is more potent than carbon because of how effectively it absorbs heat. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, a common fuel source, which has been falsely seen as cleaner energy . On the contrary, the mining of natural gas, especially through fracking, leaks harmful methane emissions into the atmosphere, further exacerbating the effects of climate change. Not to mention, methane emissions are also associated with other activities, such as livestock flatulence and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal landfills.

With an issue as complex and endemic as climate change it’s difficult not to feel hopeless, as if individual actions can’t make a difference. While it will take systemic change to wean our dependence on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy sources, communities and individuals everywhere have the power to take local action and make an impact. It all starts in the backyard.

We have the ability to bring balance back to the natural systems we have disrupted. And believe it or not, the key lies in composting. Composting is a natural process that turns organic material into a dark rich substance, also known as humus (not to be confused with the Mediterranean dip, hummus). Not only does composting produce nutrient-rich soil, perfect for organic gardening, it also helps divert unnecessary food waste from the landfill and reduces those harmful methane emissions. Composting may start in the backyard, but the benefits certainly extend far outside the garden.

Carbon Sequestration

Studies have shown that compost can aid in a powerful natural process called carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and it’s one method used to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of curbing global climate change. When applied to soil, compost functions as a carbon sink, trapping and storing the element in the soil. And if carbon is in the ground, it isn’t in our atmosphere or our ocean. Nutrient-rich soil allows plants and trees to grow and remove more carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Composting is much more than a waste diversion strategy, it’s a way to curb climate change and bring balance back to the carbon cycle. Applying a thin layer of compost to top soil provides an ongoing positive feedback loop that pulls increasingly more carbon from the atmosphere each year. Carbon sequestration is so effective in pulling carbon out of the atmosphere that there is a new wave of farming dedicated to this effort. it’s called carbon farming.

This modern way of land-use management aims to address our 21st challenge using a variety of agricultural and forestry practices to increase the amount of carbon in the soil of crop and range lands. Carbon farming includes practices, such as agroforestry (growing trees and crops together to increase carbon retention), no-till agriculture (to avoid erosion and carbon loss) and keeping farmland covered with nutrient rich compost, as bare soil releases carbon.

The best part about composting is that it’s easy and accessible for everyone. You don’t have to be a scientist or need fancy equipment to start reducing your food waste, enriching soil, and curbing climate change right at home!

Healthy Soils, Healthy Seas Rhode Island

Photo credit: Aquidneck Community Table.

We believe in the power of communities and individuals to make positive change through small actions that have big ripple effects. That’s why we launched Healthy Soils, Healthy Seas Rhode Island, a new initiative to help residents and businesses on Aquidneck Island take local action with long-lasting environmentally responsible behavior that starts on land. Whether you are a renter looking for curbside pick-up, a restaurant that needs frequent collection, or a homeowner who wants to do backyard composting, our pilot program offers a food waste diversion service that’s right for you and your family!

Restaurant collection with The Compost Plant

Residential curbside pick-up with Rhodeside Revival

Farmer’s market drop-off & backyard composting with Aquidneck Community Table

Diverting food waste through composting is a tangible way to make a difference that empowers communities to build a more sustainable future in harmony with the natural world. By reevaluating our waste footprints and our need for low-and-no value materials in our waste stream, we can start to make more responsible decisions about what we choose to throw away and how we choose to manage our waste. Together we can build healthier, stronger, more resilient communities and bring balance back to people and the planet.