The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union may have been a victory in terms of America’s ideological war against communism. But in terms of climate change? It sucked.
Although the early 1990s were marked by economic chaos, Russia’s new “capitalist” oligarchs (many of whom had close connections to the government) were able to take lucrative state-held companies private on the cheap. Then came Russia’s oil boom, and suddenly you had a very small group of people making terrible amounts of money by producing more fossil fuels—and emiting plenty of carbon in the process.
While all this was playing out, the vast collective farms that symbolized Stalinist nationalism at home—and were symbolic of the state’s socialist failures abroad—were gradually returning to the wild. The transition of those 111,197,421 acres, the largest land-use change in the 20th century, has played a significant role in offsetting the country’s carbon emission—albeit a completely accidental one.
New research published in the journal Global Change Biology reports that the abandonment of those farms, which amounts to 23 percent of arable land in Russia, is sequestering 42.5 million metric tons of carbon per year. That amounts to a 10 percent offset of the country’s annual CO2 emissions. In 2010, according to the World Bank, Russia emitted 12.2 metric tons of carbon per capita, while the United State’s per capita output was 17.6.
Jonathan Sanderman, an Australian soil chemist, told New Scientist that the reverted farmland is likely the largest carbon sink humans have ever made (passively, we should add), but that “it came at the cost of enormous social and economic hardship.”
Which is a reminder of the obvious: We can’t simply stop growing food on the 408 million acres of agriculture land in the United States. Same goes for purposefully letting 27 percent of it go back to nature. But there’s real potential for productive farmland to help curb climate change through sequestration. The no-till farming, which has become common practice even in industrial-scale agriculture, can sequester an average of 3 tons for roughly every two-and-half acres—and as much as 10 tons under optimal conditions. That pales in comparison to the current appetite of the Russian carbon sink (each acre of former collectivist farmland pulls in approximately 93 tons annually) but it’s moving in the right direction. And it could be increased significantly.
And plowing fields after each harvest, in addition to reducing topsoil and increasing runoff, has already released a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere over the course of a few hundred years of mechanized agriculture—78 billion metric tons is one estimate cited by Rattan Lal, a leading soil science professor at Ohio State University.
Lal, and a major proponent of carbon sequestration in agriculture, has written that U.S. farmland could function as a 300-million-metric-ton carbon sink if farmers broadly adopt no-till farming, cover-crop planting, and other climate-change-minded management practices. That’s only 4.5 percent of the 6,702 million metric tons of CO2 the Environmental Protection Agency reports the U.S. emitted in 2011—but just try to find a reduction that large on the polluter-end of the equation.