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  • Writer's pictureTony Kendle

Gardeners vs Climate Change

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

That a climate change is upon us is now widely accepted as is the need to take action to avert the worst consequences, especially for the most vulnerable.

Many researchers and activists are declaring current actions and commitments as far from adequate – there is a growing call for better solutions and more action.

Going beyond net zero

A goal of net zero emissions is simply a goal to not let things get even worse and in carbon terms only. But there is a problem waiting. Whatever we do about current emissions, the legacy of past pollution will continue to disrupt the climate for years to come. The sea holds vast stores of dissolved carbon dioxide and as fast as we decrease the levels in the air they will rise again.

The harsh reality is that as a target net zero is too little and too late. Increasingly the language of climate repair, climate healing or climate restoration is heard. These have in common a focus on approaches and actions that reach a long way beyond net zero or similar current targets

Forward thinking researchers and policy makers are highlighting actions that aim to radically reduce global heating and that offer the hope of returning climate to a more stable state - one that is more likely to support healthy lives, biodiversity and food security into the future.

To achieve this goal we are advised not to only focus on one of the causes (such as carbon dioxide) but on the full set of greenhouse pollutants and especially on the core problem of too much heat energy in our biosphere.

The eco-restoration alliance says that the carbon narrative ‘jumps right over the key issue of too much heat driving extreme weather events. The most urgent thing, they argue, is to focus directly on the problem of too much heat and to look at how to cool our climate and restore the natural processes that regulate our weather.

If we focus on those goals we can hope to reduce extreme weather events and crucially we buy time to get de-carbonising on track to where it needs to be. De-carbonising is still a necessary and desirable thing but we need faster solutions to compensate for decades of inaction.

Recently I have been inspired and given hope by the work of the visionary soil scientist Walter Jehne in Australia. His thinking and research is clearing a new path through the thickets of climate change and political inaction. By observing what nature does to regulate climate and working with those processes, there may be ways to at least reduce the damage, giving vital time to make other adjustments such as increasing renewable energy and reducing emissions.

So important are his insights I would like to do what I can to share them.

This is a link to a presentation by Walter himself; below I have highlighted the key points that lead us to a clear picture of what gardeners and any land managers can do.

Work with the Water

In his presentation, Walter explains that by focusing just on carbon (what the eco-restoration alliance call "carbon tunnel vision") we overlook that the water cycle is a dominant, and, critically, easier to influence contributor to global heating and climate changes. He tells us that water influences 95% of global heat retention compared to 4% from carbon dioxide in the air. Other authorities agree - the Stockholm Water institute state that "climate change is water change, climate chaos is water chaos"

The important point they make is that the first and most direct impacts of climate change are manifesting through a destabilised water cycle. Droughts, floods, extreme storms and wildfires are all consequences that are hitting people now both globally and nationally. What had been a regular cycle has broke loose and is whirling around like a tornado.

A consensus is building that water is key

Shortly before the COP 26 negotiations, a call was made to governments to prioritize integrated water and climate action and to address more effectively the water dimensions of climate change adaptation and mitigation. The call was made in a letter signed by the heads of the World Meteorological Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,(UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN University (UNU), UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Global Water Partnership (GWP).

In this call they explain further:

“Climate change is primarily a water crisis. We feel its impacts through worsening floods, rising sea levels, shrinking ice fields, wildfires and droughts.”

They go on to explain that climate change is dramatically affecting the water cycle, making droughts and floods more extreme and frequent and decreasing natural water storage. Changing precipitation patterns are already impacting agriculture, food systems, and livelihoods are becoming increasingly vulnerable, as are ecosystems, and biodiversity. Rising sea levels threaten communities, infrastructure, coastal environments and aquifers.

They emphasise that accelerated action is urgently needed to address the water-related consequences of climate change that impact people and the planet. Water can also fight climate change. Sustainable water management is central to building the resilience of societies and ecosystems and to reducing carbon emissions. Everyone has a role to play – actions at the individual and household levels are vital.

“Climate policymakers must put water at the heart of action plans.”

Pulling this together, a network of researchers and policy makers across the globe have collaborated on what they have called 'A New Water Paradigm for Healing the Climate'

The findings of this network are endorsed in the UN White paper: Water for climate healing – a new water paradigm and the UNEP Foresight paper explains more.

In case you doubt that our communities have the resources available to contribute meaningfully let us look at the numbers, starting with domestic greenspace

On average one quarter of the area of a typical city, and half its green space, is private garden. Researchers have calculated that the UK has a total cover of private gardens of roughly 433,000 ha, which is a fifth the size of Wales and comparable to the area of the Norfolk Broads, and Exmoor, Dartmoor and Lake District National Parks added together.

So gardeners can make a huge contribution to environmental challenges, whether helping biodiversity or starting climate healing. Add to that the community spaces, whether parks community gardens or just the weird shrub beds around schools and industrial estates (it is getting harder to tell them apart).

This means that there is a lot of land we can do something with.

Together we can trial techniques start a movement and set the bar for government.

By beginning to heal the water cycle, which is something we as individuals can contribute to more easily than solving atmospheric carbon, we could hope to achieve some relief from these early impacts as well as starting to address the bigger issue.

Of course this is not instead of decarbonising, but the two can be complementary.

Since decades of inaction means that decarbonising alone is too little and too late, other actions are possible that buy us time to overcome the blocks that have delayed action until now.

Ok what can we do?

Water vapour and carbon have this in common: we need some in the air to feed and water the plants and to hold some heat in. Without at least some of this, and the greenhouse effect that comes from it, we would face another ice age. But generally, the best place for both carbon and water to be is stored underground in the soil.

Fortunately the two are closely interlinked. Regenerative farmers say that water follows carbon. Every extra gram of carbon in soil organic matter holds 8 grams of water. A key principle that they frequently work to is: feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. Artificial inputs disrupt a system that works well without them. Certainly avoid the biocides that kills the biodiversity that regulates the climate.

Jehne and the authors of the new water paradigm prioritise these things:

1 Restore plant cover as much as we can

Walter explains that we have only approximately 50% of vegetation cover today compared to roughly 10,000 years ago. Even so, the plants we do have account for much of the climate stabilisation and cooling that still happens. Every every small increase in plant cover is a step towards getting our climate regulators back to full strength, every leaf is a step to a safer world.

The more soil is shaded the better things are - bare, exposed ground is not a good thing. At one point he even suggests too much lawn cutting should be avoided, to which I would add - let the fallen leaves lay wherever we can.

2 Protect and restore soils; feed the sponge

There is even a theory that the real cause of too much carbon in the air is not fossil fuels but thousands of years of soil degradation, clearance of forests and destruction of wetlands. Our most important soil and water stores have been turned into emitters.

Walter emphasises that a critical way to repair the hydrological cycle is to repair this soil damage and increase how effectively soils hold water. This reduces floods and droughts, boosts plant growth, and thereby cooling.

Key to this are soil ‘carbon sponges’. These are the complex molecules of humus, made of humates and glomalin, created by micro organisms (especially fungi) as they digest plant remains. The stable long lasting sponge structure they create increases soil water-holding enormously.

Feed the sponge should be our mantra - we do this by more plants, less digging that oxidises the carbon back to the air. Reduced tillage is a key principle of regenerative agriculture; keeping soil covered as much as possible and reducing chemical use. Fertilisers and pesticides both interrupt the action of the humus formers - the fungi and micro organisms.

3 Slow the water so that it soaks in

The researchers who devised the new paradigm argue that, along with urbanisation and a need for sanitation, arose a dominant ideology that the best thing to do with rain is to get it off the land into drains, sewers ditches and reservoirs. Aside from the enormous infrastructure costs, this approach wastes an increasingly valuable asset – roughly 80% of the water that falls on urban land is lost to drains. It never reaches the aquifers or other ground stores and is of no use to us.

It has been calculated that over the past 50 years, because of urban drainage, more than 1000 billion m3 of rainwater has been lost to the ground stores of Europe.

We live with a legacy of soil water deficit that contributes to our altered climate.

In the worst cases this drainage infrastructure fails and flooding accompanies droughts.

Another typical problem in urban areas is the destruction or conversion of adjacent wetlands and floodplains in the name of flood defence or to allow more construction. As well as impacting biodiversity directly, this behaviour reflects a failure to understand that these ecosystems were our original and best defence against flood events.

There are various techniques for getting water into soils. You can reduce run-off by creating Swales, soakaways, balancing ponds or rain gardens. Spreading mulches or leaving dense vegetation cover also works, it is cheaper and does not need major soil disruption. Trees have long been known to slow water run-off, allowing water to soak below. Long standing grass with wildflowers is effective too, as are the mosses on your lawn.

The more diverse a grassland is, the more structurally complex it will be and, with different plants growing at different times, the more water it will capture through the seasons. In addition, a diverse grassland supports a wider range of soil creatures who create the sponge and porous structure we need.

4. Mend the pumps

As well as all of the other important things that they do, plants (especially trees) are the pumps that help complete the water cycle. Every day they take carbon from the air and pump it underground. They pump water from the ground to recharge the clouds. In doing so, they take energy from their surroundings, cooling the air and soil in the process.

It is estimated that we have only half of the tree cover we used to have. So only half the pumps are working. Every tree we plant and every tree we can save keeps the water cycle and our climate healthy.

What can gardeners do to help?

In conclusion here are some simple things every single gardener can do to help reduce climate chaos:

1 Have less exposed soil, plant more plants

Even if you have crammed them in find a little space for more plants, if not on your land then in your neighbourhood.

Shade towns and cities by er…. more plants

2 Let a little wildness in

It does not need to be much. By allowing just a patch where you can let long grass stand, you will be helping climate and biodiversity. It is often forgotten that pollinators do not just need flowers - grasses are important food for many caterpillars and small mammals, and amphibians love them too.

3 Feed the soil sponge

Leave mulching, long grass and moss, have more plants and less bare soil.

4 Do less digging

Follow the lead of innovative farmers who are working with no dig or no till methods

5 Less mowing, less leaf clearing,

Every leaf we leave dead or alive helps us. Scientists have recently found that mosses are extremely important for carbon capture; even the tiniest things matter in this endeavour.

6 Leave the poisons in the garden centre

We don't all need to buy electric cars. Just do what we can, not more than we can. No-one has to carry the whole burden if we work together. Every one of us gardeners is helping nature do what is necessary. We can get out of the way, crack the gin and put our trust into the processes that have worked for millions of years.

What’s not to like?

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