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Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene: Commentary on Savory TED Video

Filed under: — group @ 4 November 2013

Guest post by Jason West and David Briske

Allan Savory delivered a highly publicized talk at a “Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED)” conference in February of this year (2013) entitled “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.” Here we address one of the most dramatic claims made – that a specialized grazing method alone can reverse the current trajectory of increasing atmospheric CO2 and climate change.

The talk was attended by many conferees and has since been viewed on the TED website over 1.6 million times. It has received substantial acclaim in social media, some of which is available at the Savory Institute website, but it has also received considerable criticism (of particular note is a blog post from Adam Merberg and an article in Slate magazine. Although these criticism quickly followed Mr. Savory’s presentation and are broadly supported by the available science, his sweeping claims have continued to resonate with lay audiences. An apparent example is his invitation to deliver a speech to Swiss Re during their 150 year anniversary celebration in London in September, in which he is quoted as saying “…only now due largely to my TED talk on the desertification aspect of the global problem, was the public becoming aware of such hope in a world so short on solutions…”.

As a result of the continuing discussion regarding this presentation, we felt compelled to interpret these claims within the context of Earth System science to facilitate broader discussions and evaluation. It is important to recognize that Mr. Savory’s grazing method, broadly known as holistic management, has been controversial for decades. A portion of this controversy and the lack of scientific support for the claims made for his method on livestock productivity and grassland ecosystem function may be found in peer-reviewed papers (e.g. Briske et al. 2008). This presentation, however, argued for an additional application to climate change.

We focus here on the most dramatic claim that Mr. Savory made regarding the reversal of climate change through holistic management of grasslands. The relevant quote (transcript by author from video provided on TED website) is as follows:

“…people who understand far more about carbon than I do calculate that for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, for their children and all of humanity…”

While it is understandable to want to believe that such a dramatic outcome is possible, science tells us that this claim is simply not reasonable. The massive, ongoing additions of carbon to the atmosphere from human activity far exceed the carbon storage capacity of global grasslands.

Approximately 8 Petagrams (Pg; trillion kilograms) of carbon are added to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel burning and cement production alone. This will increase in the future at a rate that depends largely on global use of fossil fuels. To put these emissions in perspective, the amount of carbon taken up by vegetation is about 2.6 Pg per year. To a very rough approximation then, the net carbon uptake by all of the planet’s vegetation would need to triple (assuming similar transfers to stable C pools like soil organic matter) just to offset current carbon emissions every year. However, the claim was not that holistic management would maintain current atmospheric CO2 levels, but that it would return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Based on IPCC estimates, there are now approximately 240 more Petagrams (Pg) of carbon in the atmosphere than in pre-industrial times. To put this value in perspective, the amount of carbon in vegetation is currently estimated at around 450 Pg, most of that in the wood of trees. The amount of carbon that would need to be removed from the atmosphere and stabilized in soils, in addition to the amount required to compensate for ongoing emissions, to attain pre-industrial levels is equivalent to approximately one-half of the total carbon in all of Earth’s vegetation. Recall that annual uptake of carbon is about two orders of magnitude smaller than the total carbon amount stored in vegetation.

At a global scale, grasslands are generally distributed in regions of low precipitation across a wide range of temperatures, with precipitation particularly limiting grassland productivity. Within a zone, grassland carbon cycles respond significantly and sometimes dramatically to fluctuations in inter-annual precipitation. This is because soil water is essential for vegetation to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis and it also drives variation in microbial processes that affect the loss of carbon from soils. Consequently, soil water availability represents a much greater limitation to maximum carbon storage in global grasslands than does grazing management. Grasslands represent approximately 30-40% of the planet’s land surface and only a fraction of annual global productivity and carbon sequestration (~20% of global carbon stocks). It is simply unreasonable to expect that any management strategy, even if implemented on all of the planet’s grasslands, would yield such a tremendous increase in carbon sequestration.

Humanity faces many challenging problems in this period of human domination of planet known at the Anthropocene. These problems, including that of climate change, require efforts to find solutions in all sectors of society and that we engage in diverse and dynamic dialogue about potential solutions, including those that may lie far outside the current mainstream. However, potential solutions must be assessed with a dispassionate and rigorous treatment of risks, benefits, and costs. We should pursue solutions that are most likely to succeed on the basis of scientific validity and societal acceptance . Extravagant claims like those in Mr. Savory’s TED video must be weighed against known physical realities to credibly serve society.

Rangeland management strategies appropriately emphasize conservation of previously stored soil carbon, rather than sequestration of additional carbon, based in part on the limitations previously described. Emphasis should be placed on climate change adaptation, rather than mitigation as advocated by Mr. Savory, to support the well-being of millions of human inhabitants. Mr. Savory argues that we adopt his grazing method as a simple solution to resolve a key Anthropocene contributor – the ongoing perturbation of Earth’s carbon cycle. The appeal of this claim to casual observers is enhanced in that it does not require humans to face any tradeoffs. The implication is that we can continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon into the atmosphere because application of holisitic management on the Earth’s grasslands provides a ‘silver bullet’ that will sustainably solve the climate change problem and provide abundant livestock products as well. We would be thrilled if a simple solution such as this existed. However, it clearly does not, and it is counter-productive to believe that it does. Humanity must look beyond hope and simple solutions if it is to successfully navigate its way through the Anthropocene.

152 Responses to “Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene: Commentary on Savory TED Video”

  1. 51
    DMW says:

    We can squabble about the order of magnitude, but with this strategy as well as other strategies, we may be able to bring the earth back to health. Why are we still giving subsidies to the fossil fuel industry? We don’t talk about this anymore. Big win for the industry! Why is industrial hemp still prohibited when we could be leaving trees to do their work and use hemp for paper (the yield is 4 times higher in one season than for trees in 10-15 years and no pesticides or dioxins are needed). We’re doing everything wrong because it still pays to dump poisons into the atmosphere. There is so much waste of energy it’s staggering but the public is not educated. The reason is because the fossil fuel industry does all it can to put that in the furthest parts of our mind. It’s a mind game that tries to keep everyone addicted. We may or may not be able to fulfill our energy needs with renewables but we’re not even trying to do it in a graduated way. We’re just not doing anything differently that how we’ve been doing things for the past 30 years.

    We don’t know the earth’s propensity for healing. We haven’t tried or tested it on a large scale so we don’t know. We are not doing enough in ways that we can. Even if Allan Savoy’s method doesn’t sequester as much carbon as stated, holistic management in concert with conservation, using hemp and other stocks for replacing trees and petrochemicals, ramped up public transit systems plus educating the public to conserve makes the most sense and could very well save our sorry asses.

  2. 52
    wili says:

    Thanks for that link, hank. I have a friend who is doing something similar (perhaps inspired by Phil? I’ll have to ask her).

    I got so excited about the project that I went out and bought a big bag of hazelnuts. Unfortunately, it turns out I have allergies to them and ended up in the emergency room near death’s door. As with everything else, we need multiple such innovations to accommodate different needs.

  3. 53
    Scott Strough says:

    Looks like RealClimate and a whole lot of posters missed the boat on this one. There is a fundamental problem with 90% of the Savory detractors comments, the carbon sequestration is NOT in the grass, it is in the soil. When grass gets grazed the plants shed roots in much the same way trees shed leaves in fall. This lignified carbon becomes food for a whole web of life in the soil and quickly gets reduced to stabilized humus. Unlike trees though, the humus is deep in the soil, not on top in the leaf mat. Also unlike trees, the grass plants can potentially shed this lignified carbon many times a year. The result is that it builds the soil fertility and nutrient/water holding capacity while sequestering far more carbon than is in the plant itself. It is all in understanding the grass plant and optimizing this trait with a good management system.
    I am not sure exactly why Briske has such a block on the concept. He himself admits his conclusion “derives from experiments that intentionally excluded these human variables”. Savory is advocating Holistic management. Management is all about “human variables”. Management is the breakthrough, not the biophysical properties. The biophysical properties have been well known and proven for decades.
    If Briske is not smart enough to set up a trial that includes these management variables, that’s on Briske, not Savory. Savory was able to set up a trial, and that trial won the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Award. Plenty of other scientists have confirmed the carbon sequestering biophysical properties of the grassland/grazer symbiosis are real too.
    Cenozoic Expansion of Grasslands and Climatic Cooling
    Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie
    Pastures for profit: A guide to rotational grazing
    So before everyone starts jumping on the RealClimate/Briske bandwagon that failed, maybe reconsider that it might be better to go with the scientists that succeeded?

    “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward” Edison

  4. 54
    Glenn Gall says:

    John Kempf cites Horst Marschner — Mineral Nutrition of Higher Plants. Healthy plants exude 60-70% of their productivity to symbiotically feed microbes in the rhizosphere. This carbon induction is often the missing piece in the discussion about grazing effectiveness. I’ve been told that 4-5 tons of added carbon per acre per year is impossible. Well, according to Marschner, and based on hay yields, farmers who get 5 tons of forage in a season could be putting 20 tons of sugar in the soil, and some have even higher yields.

    “A healthy plant will have at least as much root biomass below ground as there is plant biomass above ground. So if we have 100 pounds of plant biomass above ground, and an additional 100 pounds below ground, this still represents only 30 to 40 percent of this plant’s total energy production. This [carbon induction] is the real secret to building soil carbon effectively and efficiently. We can readily see why forage-based livestock agriculture and perennial polycultures are the most efficient method of building soil organic matter and stable humic substances. Carbon induction is the answer.”

    “… forage-based livestock agriculture and perennial polycultures are the most efficient method of building soil organic matter and stable humic substances.”!!!

    Let’s learn from the people that are making these “outlandish” claims.

    I’ve been to field days and workshops with biological farmers, cover crop practitioners, holistic grazers, (who, to a person, intend to keep improving) and more often than not, someone will show up and claim he is doing better using this or that improvement. They get by with less inputs, have deeper soil, stock at higher rates, get higher yields. One guy in Ontario broke 300 bu/acre corn. Fantastic. Nobody else is doing that. It probably took him a couple decades to figure out how to do it. Don’t try to prove him wrong with one experiment! Some farmers whine that they tried his method and it didn’t work. No surprise. That’s farming. Some will keep trying, and some of those will succeed. A good decision framework like HM can only help.

    There are successful HM practitioners around. If you can make it to Springfield, that’s the one on Illinois, you can meet a few of them at the Acres USA conference next month. And maybe talk to John Kempf, and a whole host of practitioners that are revolutionizing agriculture, … naturally. Find out how they do it, and support it, and do it, too.

  5. 55
    Helen D. Silver says:

    Comments on Dot Earth – Revkin November 7, 2013
    Far from being helpful, this post by Messrs. Briske and West on Real Climate is misleading – at best. Mr. Briske’s work is hardly the unassailable refutation of Holistic Management that he claims. Rather, it is largely irrelevant. While we should all be focusing on advancing towards a solution to the climate change crisis, which I discuss below, first and foremost, it is paramount that the record straight be set straight.
    Briske’s own work makes it abundantly clear that his conclusions have no bearing on Mr. Savory’s work: “Experimental evidence indicates that grazing systems, in the absence of adaptive management, explain little additional variability beyond that of stocking rate and weather variation” regarding ecological factors (Briske et al., 2008, p. 57, available at (emphasis added)).
    The operative phrase here is “in the absence of adaptive management” – this qualification is not a trivial one. Anyone familiar with Mr. Savory’s work and the Holistic Management Principles is aware that monitoring and adaptive management responses is essential to Mr. Savory’s frame work. In fact, Holistic Management materials have referred to “plan” as a twenty-four letter word “plan-monitor-control-replan”. Therefore, the work by Mr. Briske and his colleagues – by its own admission – is irrelevant. No amount of grandstanding or brute repetition can cure these fundamental defects.
    With respect to soil carbon in particular, Briske et al. correctly make realize that the work they have evaluated in inconclusive: “The response of SOC to stocking rate is equivocal, based partially on the limited number of investigations conducted” (Briske et al., 2008). My colleague, Seth Iztkan of Planet-TECH associates, provides an excellent analysis of the numerous other reasons that the work of Mr. Briske and other has no bearing on the proper implementation of Holistic Management ( or its observed effectsw.

    Second, when based on appropriate studies, rotational grazing has shown clear benefits. The work of Teague et al. – colleagues and prior coauthors of Mr. Briske – make clear what ranchers employing Mr. Savory’s methods have known for decades: “Our study contradicts a recent review of rangeland grazing studies (Briske et al., 2008) which suggested MP grazing does not improve vegetation or animal production relative to continuous grazing. The discrepancy is because we measured the impacts on vegetation and soils achieved by ranchers managing at the ranch scale and adapting management in response to changing circumstances in order to achieve desirable outcomes” (Teague, et al 2011 ( ISBN 978-1-60692-023-7)).

    In sum, this post by Messrs. Briske and West is only the latest iteration in fundamentally flawed assessments of the impacts of grazing systems.

    I assume, however, as Messrs. Briske and West profess, that we are all sincerely dedicated to finding solutions to the climate crisis. To these ends, Briske et al. themselves point to a way forward: greater integration of the results of actual ranch operations – including the management systems that are integral to actual performance – in evaluated studies. Along these lines, Teague et al. (2013) propose specific and testable hypotheses that grazing research could evaluate. Let us do that. Instead of continually bemoaning the limits of experimental data to date, let us base our claims on actual the results of actual ranch management operations. While perfection and absolute certainty are impossible – as every ecosystem is unique and undergoes changes from year to year – that is no excuse for complacency. There are numerous management operations that could be observed. This is just one way in which to move forward toward much needed solutions to the climate crisis.

    Helen D. Silver
    Director of Policy
    Biodiversity for a Livable Climate

  6. 56
    wili says:

    The last few posts both

    1)seem to overlook the fact that many posters do aver that grassland sequestration has a role to play, as I do in post #4 “I do think that grasslands can and must play some role in sequestering carbon.” and

    2) don’t even attempt to address the mathematically indisputable (as far as I can see) fact that grassland sequestration cannot come close to offsetting the current levels of carbon emissions, much less reduce the excess carbon already in the atmosphere (at least not while said emissions continue).

    Having said that, I do think that there are misconceptions when people who don’t know about them hear that native grasses can act in this way. IIRC, 90-95% of the biomass of these grasses is underground, stretching over three meter deep into the ground, and wildly brachiating: a four month old sprig of grass will already have grown a root structure which, if segmented and laid end to end would measure 137 miles. And, as pointed out above, bits of it are constantly dying and turning into soil.

    But for the prairie to play a major role in carbon sequestration, we would need to re-purpose vast swaths of the land that is now in use producing grain, this in a world that is about to face major shortages of food as population expands and GW bites ever deeper into yields. I’d love to see the rewilding of the plains and midwest, with buffalo grazing in profusion again. But there are many political obstacles and practical impediments to that ever coming about.

    I am glad to see H.D. Silver use the term “solutions” in her final sentence, as this is a tacit admission that grassland alone can not ‘solve’ global warming. Perhaps this could provide a basis for common ground and useful discussion?

  7. 57
    Matt Owens says:

    The tip-off was when Savory himself in the TED talk prefaced his statements by saying he wasn’t big into carbon budgets.

    #53, I almost agree, but the rate of carbon storage versus the rate necessary to pull CO2 from the air is the critical factor. In Earth history, net soil carbon has accumulated at comparatively small quantities per year, which is why annual CO2 levels haven’t been constantly plummeting over the course of Earth’s history. I looked at the numbers based on IPCC tables for land types by area and carbon storage and plant vs soil carbon, and I conclude maybe 60 GtC could be sequestered in plant and maybe about 60 GtC in soil after some time of decades or longer. We can’t just shove carbon down the throat of the soil, so to speak. We should still pursue the suggestions though, even if it is 60 or 120 GtC, that’s nothing to laugh at. Here’s a bit more of my thinking on the Savory TED talk, if interested:

  8. 58
    Dan H. says:

    Exactly. That is why harvesting trees will have no effect on CO2 levels. Reforestation will sequester the CO2, removing it from the atmosphere. I have not seen any calculations as to how much this would reduce those levels.

  9. 59
    SecularAnimist says:

    wili wrote: “grassland sequestration cannot come close to offsetting the current levels of carbon emissions”

    No method of sequestration, or combination of methods of sequestration, can come close to offsetting the current levels of carbon emissions.

    To suggest that sequestration removes or lessens or postpones the need to end ALL anthropogenic GHG emissions as rapidly as possible is irresponsible and dangerous.

    Given that the already existing anthropogenic excess of GHGs is already self-evidently dangerous, we need to draw it down to pre-industrial levels as rapidly as possible — and that’s where sequestration comes in. But that only has a chance to succeed IF we stop the ongoing emissions.

    A world powered by solar and wind energy, and fed by organic agriculture, and devoted to protecting and healing damaged forests and other ecosystems, has a chance of survival.

  10. 60
    Tony Weddle says:


    Good point 2. What supporters of Savory’s method need to show is that the figures given in this post (8PgC added annually, versus 2.6PgC taken up by all earth vegetation annually). For a small fraction of the earth’s land surface to be able to sequester 8PgC, and climbing) annually seems hugely optimistic, at best. Unless the figures we’ve been given are very wrong.

  11. 61
    Hank Roberts says:
    Climatic Change
    May 2013, Volume 118, Issue 1, pp 89-103,
    Open Access
    Ecological limits to terrestrial biological carbon dioxide removal

    Very high sequestration potentials for these strategies have been reported, but there has been no systematic analysis of the potential ecological limits to and environmental impacts of implementation at the scale relevant to climate change mitigation. In this analysis, we identified site-specific aspects of land, water, nutrients, and habitat that will affect local project-scale carbon sequestration and ecological impacts. Using this framework, we estimated global-scale land and resource requirements for BCDR, implemented at a rate of 1 Pg C y−1. We estimate that removing 1 Pg C y−1 via tropical afforestation would require at least 7 × 106 ha y−1 of land, 0.09 Tg y−1 of nitrogen, and 0.2 Tg y−1 of phosphorous, and would increase evapotranspiration from those lands by almost 50 %. Switchgrass BECS would require at least 2 × 108 ha of land (20 times U.S. area currently under bioethanol production) and 20 Tg y−1 of nitrogen (20 % of global fertilizer nitrogen production), consuming 4 × 1012 m3 y−1 of water. While BCDR promises some direct (climate) and ancillary (restoration, habitat protection) benefits, Pg C-scale implementation may be constrained by ecological factors, and may compromise the ultimate goals of climate change mitigation.

  12. 62

    #48 & #50 … Anything which turns carbon dioxide into methane will increase the radiative forcing of the carbon atom considerably. Put a bunch of heaters into a room, now magically transform some of them from 1-bar heaters into 105 bar heaters. Will that have an impact? Of course. The fact that the heaters turn back into 1 bar heaters after 10 or so years does not mean that they won’t have any impact when they are on. It matters, of course, what the ratio of transformed to untransformed heaters is and that ratio has been rising for quite some time … i.e., there’s now more methane atoms per CO2 atom than there was 100 years ago.

    The difference between turning carbon from grass into methane and carbon from coal into methane is miniscule compared to the impact of the methane while it is methane. A tonne of methane has 105 times the impact of a tonne of co2 over a twenty year period and if it came from grass carbon, it only has 104 times the impact.

  13. 63
    Dan H. says:

    A few posters have suggested that no amount of sequestering can come close to offsetting carbon emissions. Yet, as Ashley Ballantyne’s work shows, current vegetation levels are still soaking up about have the carbon emissions, even as emission rates have increased. It does seem that far fetched that Savory’s method has merit.

  14. 64
    Jason West says:

    It’s great to be part of the RealClimate discussions here, including the discussion of soils, the carbon cycle, organic matter, etc. I think folks are grappling with the major issues and would point everyone to the Fifth Assessment Report from the IPCC, specifically Chapter 6 that deals with C and other biogeochemical cycling, lots of good info in there ( We’ll try to continue to comment inline if we see appropriate places to do so!

  15. 65
    Chris Dudley says:

    What is bothering me about this discussion is that at about 19 minutes into the TED talk, Savory says what he proposes can help after we’ve stopped burning fossil carbon. Given that proviso, it is not all that unreasonable that a target of 280 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration could be achieved through land surface based sequestration. The action of the oceans alone bring us to 350 ppm within a couple centuries if we stop emissions now. Dropping another 70 ppm through land management practices is not out of the question at all. Biochar, irrigation of dessert land, crushing of serpentine silicate rock, even burying algae have been proposed at times as at least scalable possibilities. Revived grassland, if it works, is just another of these.

    But the discussion here seems to have built up a strawman that he is claiming to capture ongoing emissions entirely. It just does not sound like he is making that claim in the talk.

  16. 66
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan H.,
    Four words +1 proper name: Leibig’s Law of the Minimum. Google it and then look what is happening to phosphorous levels in soils.

  17. 67
    Glenn Gall says:

    Tony, and all —
    The figures are close to the round numbers I use in general discussion, which come from NASA’s carbon cycle diagram. Those aren’t the only numbers to consider. So 9 Gt or Pg C emitted annually, 2 –> ocean and 3 –> biomass and soil. The remaining 4 account for the 2ppm CO2 annual increase in the atmosphere. 6 GtC is what the terrasphere doesn’t handle, and the amount that needs to be reduced to “stay even” more or less, though the ocean will then reduce atmospheric C until equilibrium is reached.

    The other relevant number here is 123 GtC, the amount of annual carbon flux in the terrasphere. 3 GtC is only the net which is currently sequestered in new growth. This amount is actually astounding, considering the planetary ecosystem destruction being experienced. Stopping the damage reduces emissions. Reversing the damage increases the benefit.

    6 GtC is less than 5% of total productivity, and 8 is 6.5%. Looking at it from the point of view of doubling or tripling the net or new growth makes it seem much more daunting than it is, which is actually still daunting. But it’s not impossible. A 6% increase in total flux. That’s a more realistic perspective. Any NEW growth is what helps. Soils and tropical forestry are rapid and massive sequesters. Savory’s method is indeed optimistic. There is a lot to overcome to be able to transition and restore enough land to turn things around. But it’s not impossible.

    But Ag has to change. The sooner the better. Some estimate humans appropriate 40% of natural productivity. Much of that is damaging. We need to transition to more holistic and naturally abundant approaches. Like SRI, for example. Tripling rice yields, and increasing 75% for maize and other crops. Permaculture, HM, biological farming can contribute to a better understanding of what it takes to heal the earth and feed us at the same time. And look at the abundant landscapes that can emerge when we manage well using natural principles —

    The other overlooked aspect of mitigation is that new biology can favorably alter the earth’s heat dynamics. Bare earth re-radiates more heat than trees and grasses, which also hold moisture. More trees mean more moisture cycling, as well as more cloud and droplet nucleation from leaf emissions such as terpenes and bacteria. All of this adds up. We need less brown showing and more green. More life!! Conventional cropping, grazing, and conservation to some extent, tend to degrade the landscape.

    Transitioning farms and farmers is a huge challenge, especially when farmers in the US get $1 Bn in fuel subsidies, and more in other subsidies annually.

    Concerning supplying food, Savory is not talking about taking prime cropland for cattle. There is plenty of degraded land.

    And here is what is happening in Oz —, and The latest is there are now 5000 such pasture croppers in Australia, growing grain in pasture. “By using Holistic Management techniques of herbivores like cattle or sheep, the biomass and available nutrients of that pasture builds even faster. Which means the topsoil, in turn, also builds at a rapid rate.” Hmmm. One inconclusive report, 5000 successful farmers with challenging landscape. That’s only one example of HM success. And the featured farmer, Colin Seis, has sequestered over 30 Tn CO2/ha/an. There are farmers in the US that rotate crops with pasture, and some are using pasture cropping methods. Well managed grass systems can solve a host of issues.

  18. 68
  19. 69
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, Dan H. must have meant not farfetched; I’m guessing Dan H. is referring to the Nature Letter by Ballantyne et al., — but that’s about the global mass balance for carbon:

    we use global-scale atmospheric CO2 measurements, CO2 emission inventories and their full range of uncertainties to calculate changes in global CO2 sources and sinks during the past 50 years.

    Yes, the atmospheric level of CO2 increases about half as fast as the total fossil fuel being burned; that has been true for decades.

    No, that Letter doesn’t attribute that to an increase in _vegetation_ as Dan H. claims.

    Where’s it going? The Editors’ Summary alongside the Letter sums it up.

    About half of the current carbon dioxide emissions are taken up by land and ocean carbon sinks. Model studies predict a decline in future carbon sinks, resulting in a positive carbon-climate feedback, and several recent studies have suggested that land and ocean carbon sinks are beginning to wane. These authors use a global mass balance approach to audit the global carbon cycle, focusing on well-constrained observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and estimates of anthropogenic emissions and a rigorous analysis of uncertainties. They find that carbon sinks have actually doubled during the past 50 years and continue to increase significantly. There were no signs, as of 2010, that carbon uptake has started to diminish on the global scale

    We don’t know; it’s controversial. What they don’t say is — so far we’ve been very lucky. We don’t know why nature is handling half the fossil carbon we burn, and we don’t know where it’s going, and we don’t know if it’s going to bite us in some unexpected way when we find out where it went.

    Best guess — mostly into the ocean; if we’re lucky as sinking dead plankton directly into sediments; if we’re not lucky, as increasing acidity, slime and toxic algae blooms.

    Do we feel lucky? Do we?

  20. 70
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by Geoff Russell — 8 Nov 2013 @ 6:04 AM

    Again, responding only to concern about methane release from the digestive processes of domestic grazing animals:

    You said – “Anything which turns carbon dioxide into methane will increase the radiative forcing of the carbon atom considerably.” All plants convert atmospheric CO2 into carbon compounds (plant structure) which, if not digested by a grazing animal, will still be converted into methane and CO2 by natural processes. A cow makes very little difference because it is just a different component of the carbon cycle. A cow doesn’t make methane, bacteria in the cow’s gut makes it, and similar soil bacteria and other organisms digest dead plant matter, if not eaten by the cow, to make methane and CO2.

    Methane is released into the atmosphere where it is measured in parts per billion next to CO2 measured in parts per million, not into a small room as in your example in which its concentration could dominate.

    Methane lasts less than 10 years while CO2 lasts many hundreds of years. This means that long term constant methane release, after 7 years or so, leads to a constant level of methane in the atmosphere and no increasing warming, while any CO2 release is additive and every small increase in the atmosphere increases temperature for close to a hundred times as long.

    Methane released by domestic grazing animals is a small part of total natural and anthropogenic sources. You might as well also gripe about rice farming, termites, or natural lakes or swamps. If you really want to go after methane release into the atmosphere, concentrate on fossil methane released during the development of fossil fuels or just cut to the chase, the fossil fuels themselves. Fossil methane once it is converted to CO2 is additive.


  21. 71
    rustneversleeps says:

    @61 Hank Roberts – thanks for that pointer.

  22. 72
    dhogaza says:

    “A few posters have suggested that no amount of sequestering can come close to offsetting carbon emissions. Yet, as Ashley Ballantyne’s work shows, current vegetation levels are still soaking up about have the carbon emissions” …

    Uh, Dan H, the ocean is absorbing about 40% of current carbon emissions, which hardly leaves room for vegetation to be soaking up 50%, given that about 50% is being retained in the atmosphere.

  23. 73
    dhogaza says:

    Here’s a link to the summary of the study which Dan H – unsurprisingly – misrepresented:

    They clearly include the ocean in their estimate of natural sinks of CO2, and their conclusion is that while sinks continue to increase the amount of CO2 absorbed (not a surprise at all for the oceans), the future is very uncertain. They certainly don’t suggest, as Dan H does, that modest changes in agricultural methodologies can lead to vegetation acting as a sink for 100% of emissions.

  24. 74
    Dan H. says:

    The misrepresentation of which you speak is self-imposed. I never said that modest changes in vegetation would act as a sink for all the carbon emissions. In your haste to discredit, you make rather large errors. However, I did say that massive reforestation could alleviate more than the 50% that is currently occurring.

  25. 75
    Tom Adams says:

    This paper in the October issue of Rangelands is a response to his talk. The guy must have no peer-reviewed papers since none are listed in the citations.

    Rangelands 35(5):72-74. 2013

    The Savory Method Can Not Green Deserts or Reverse Climate Change
    A response to the Allan Savory TED video

  26. 76
    Steve Metzler says:

    Dan H… still as strident as ever after hanging out here for, what, at least 3 years now? Leads one to believe that he doesn’t really listen to anything the scientists or the astute commenters here say. Rather, he’s always too busy trying to toss his 2-bit disinformation bites our way to actually pay attention to any of the traffic coming back at him.

    You’d want to be careful going against all that traffic, Dan. It’s going to run over you sooner or later.

    My personal fav was when you interpreted the PDSI the wrong way around. Don’t think you ever recovered from that.

  27. 77
    dhogaza says:

    Dan H:

    ” In your haste to discredit, you make rather large errors…”

    Dude, you said “Yet, as Ashley Ballantyne’s work shows, current vegetation levels are still soaking up about have [sic] the carbon emissions”.

    His work shows no such thing. I provided a reference and quote to Ballantyne that makes it clear. Hank provided another.

    And yet, you say that *I* made rather large errors?

    C’mon, show us you can at least be honest enough to correct yourself and withdraw your claim that vegetation aborbs 50% of our carbon emissions.

    Or don’t. It’s your reputation, not mine or hank’s, that is at stake.

  28. 78
    Tokodave says:

    As I mentioned earlier in the thread, I’m a bit familiar with “holistic grazing management” as U.S. federal land management agencies went through a time in the 1980s and 90s when there was interest in the idea. This discussion has focused on the idea that alternative grazing methods can aid in the sequestration of CO2. Certainly healthy rangelands can have an important role in developing robust and adaptable enviroments.
    One of the aspects of the Savory grazing method, as I understand it from discussions with range management scientists, is intense grazing of individual pastures with the associated trampling of manure, vegetation and whatever else. If you ever seen rangeland that’s been heavily impacted by grazing you’ll quickly see a potential problem with this approach. Erosion. Trampling of vegetation and soil and whatever else can severely disrupt the soil structure and in the event of heavy rainfall events this soil is easily moved somewhere else. It’s hard for vegetation and soil to sequester anything if it’s being transported somewhere else. If we’re having more heavy rainfall events (and we are, Karl, et. al, 2009) the last thing you want is for rangeland is soil that’s been disturbed to the point of easy mobilization/removal through rainfall events. See Warren from a 1986 Journal of Range Management article for a more thorough discussion.

  29. 79

    Let’s quantify the problem. Annual CO_2 emissions are about 30Gt. Convert that to carbon only, and it’s about 8Gt. The density of carbon is about 2 g/cm^3. If I did my sums right, this equates to 4km^3 of carbon, which will generally amount to more than that in a compound (about 3 orders of magnitude more in a gaseous state, which is why sequestering CO_2 directly is not going to happen at scale).

    How many km^2 of grassland do we have available for running the experiment? What fraction of the below-ground volume will become carbon, and how deep? And remember, we need to do this every year to make a difference. Even if industrial emissions stop, we will need to keep going for some time before we get down to pre-industrial levels.

  30. 80
    Rafael Molina Navas, Madrid says:

    RE- Comment by Fish 6 Nov

    You are right, but you can´t count the grass removal of CO2 both to balance the methane emissions and to “solve” global warming problem.

  31. 81
    Rafael Molina Navas, Madrid says:

    My recent post was sent after seeing only the blog first page … Nonetheless, I consider it valid.

  32. 82
    James Cross says:


    Savory’s method is not intense grazing for a long period of time. It is intense grazing for relatively short periods of time with long periods of time for recovery. This is done in an adaptive manner with respect to the actual conditions of the grass and rainfall, not by blindly following some formula.


    Frankly I am still having a problem with what the actual numbers are.

    Wiki says this:

    “Burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum is the leading cause of increased anthropogenic CO2; deforestation is the second major cause. In 2010, 9.14 gigatonnes of carbon (33.5 gigatonnes of CO2) were released from fossil fuels and cement production worldwide, compared to 6.15 gigatonnes in 1990”

    Which is in the general ballpark of your numbers.

    However, it also says this:

    “For example, the natural decay of organic material in forests and grasslands and the action of forest fires results in the release of about 439 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year, while new growth entirely counteracts this effect, absorbing 450 gigatonnes per year.”

    So that means new growth each year absorbs over 100 gigatonnes of carbon each year. So even a few percentage points increase in storage of carbon in by restoring grasslands and forests and/or reduction of fires and deforestation would cancel out a significant portion of the increasing CO2 levels. It does not solve the entire problem and I am advocating it as the only solution. It is just that it is not insignificant.

    Wikipedia link where the footnotes are:'s_atmosphere

  33. 83
    Hank Roberts says:

    natural decay … and … forest fires … release … 439 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year, while new growth entirely counteracts this effect, absorbing 450 gigatonnes per year.”

    So that means new growth each year absorbs over 100 gigatonnes of carbon

    Can you make that arithmetic a little clearer? You start by counting gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (439 minus 450) and calculate that the difference is over 100 gigatons of carbon.

    I don’t quite see how that works out.

  34. 84
    Arun says:

    Given the real political and economic constraints that we live with, isn’t it true that there is no silver bullet solution to our climate problem? Instead we have to do a little here and a little there and in sufficient number of places to come up with a solution? If there are fifty different things we can do that each take care of 2% of the CO2 problem, then that is the practical solution, is it not?

  35. 85
    James Cross says:


    450 gigatonnes CO2 = ~123 gigatonnes carbon

    The point is that new growth is already absorbing a lot of CO2. A 2% increase would be almost 2.5 gigatonnes offset. A reduction in fires and other destruction might provide another gigatonnes or so. Not a complete solution but significant.

    Same Wikipedia entry also says:

    “In 1997, human-caused Indonesian peat fires were estimated to have released between 13% and 40% of the average carbon emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels around the world in a single year.”

  36. 86
    Anonymous Coward says:

    Hank wrote: “… and calculate that the difference is over 100 gigatons of carbon. I don’t quite see how that works out.”

    I’ve not checked the 450 number but “over 100” is obviously not the difference.
    I assume it’s supposed to be net primary productivity (see: )… which has been estimated at around 5 GtC/yr for grasslands! Obviously it’s inappropriate to use the global NPP number (including that of the oceans) in relation to schemes such as Savory’s.
    But the main swindle lies in the unstated assumption that most of the “few percentage point” increase in “new growth” will not be used as food by some organism (or as fuel by fires) and converted back to CO2 (or CH4) within the year but will be somehow sequestered. Sure, it ought to be possible to stimulate sequestration. But only a fraction of NPP can possibly be sequestered!

    Another swindle concerns the amount of arable land where such schemes could possibly be carried out. Take a good look at the numbers which have been bandied about in this comment thread!
    The user calling himself Jim Bullis was pushing a similar swindle on RC a while back.
    Carbon sequestration through sequestration of organic matter could be a great way to bring back CO2 levels to 350-400ppm AFTER a >90% reduction in fossil fuel use. When people propose to offset growing emissions by building soils or burying wood, it’s a swindle.

    And that’s not even the worst problem with Savory et al.’s modest proposal: what happens when conditions change and your extra-carbon-heavy soil goes the way of Russian peat?
    It’s not enough to sequestrate carbon in the soil for a few decades or even a century! The only sequestration which could be considered an offset has to be stable in the long-run, like coal in the ground. If we’re not confident about future regional precipitation levels, temperatures, acid rain and whatnot we can’t trust sequestration in live soils.

  37. 87
    Tokodave says:

    # 82 James Cross I didn’t say anything about the length of grazing, and it really doesn’t matter. If you graze a site intensely you’ve got soil immediately available to be displaced and mobilized/eroded if you have a heavy rainfall event. Don’t take my word for it, though I have actually observed it. Here’s what Warren et al (1986, Journal of Range Management, Vol. 39, No. 6) say: “heavy stocking rates are almost universally detrimental to rainfall infiltration and sediment loss, regardless of the grazing system in use.”
    If you lose your soil, arguing about much else is really pointless.

  38. 88
    Steve Metzler says:

    @#86 Anonymous Coward:

    Bingo. While we would all love there to be a ‘just grow more trees’ type solution to the AGW problem… not going to happen. Yeah, stop adding carbon to the atmosphere first, 60mph – 0 in a few years flat, and then we can possibly start talking about pure agrarian/land management solutions to draw down the carbon. Else, it’s just pie-in-the-sky greenwashing stuff you’re talking up here.

    Seriously, get a grip. The people here in the comments around the #50 mark: have you done the math?

  39. 89
    James Cross says:


    “I’ve not checked the 450 number but “over 100″ is obviously not the difference.I assume it’s supposed to be net primary productivity…”

    I guess this is why you are anonymous coward.

    I am just repeating the wikipedia quote:

    “… while new growth entirely counteracts this effect, absorbing 450 gigatonnes per year.”

    But have translated the CO2 number to carbon number.

    I think we have a sort of glass half empty glass half full situation here.

    If you want to look at the difference between 450 and 439 which is what the somewhat unexplained “2.6 Pg per year” in the original post may be , although mostly unexplained. You probably think the glass is half empty.

    On the other hand, if you realize that new growth takes up about 450 gigatonnes of CO2 or about 123 gigatonnes of carbon every year, you might realize that a small improvement (1-2% in the net) could make a significant impact on the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Glass half full.

  40. 90
    Scott Strough says:

    Sorry it took so long to get back.

    @ wili 56 7 Nov 2013 at 7:40 PM in reply to 53
    “don’t even attempt to address the mathematically indisputable (as far as I can see) fact that grassland sequestration cannot come close to offsetting the current levels of carbon emissions, much less reduce the excess carbon already in the atmosphere”

    Actually I was disputing the math just by pointing out the numbers used are irrelevant.

    “But for the prairie to play a major role in carbon sequestration, we would need to re-purpose vast swaths of the land that is now in use producing grain”

    Agreed. That is part of why the current numbers being used are irrelevant. The numbers used are CURRENTLY roughly correct, but have nothing to do with what the numbers would be if we changed and adopted Savory’s or any number of other closely related management systems that are proven to work. Nor do the numbers reflect anything at all to do with humus. Also it is not only re-purposing land currently producing grain but not sequestering carbon, it is also re-purposing land that isn’t producing much if any at all, because human abuse has deteriorated it beyond its limits to recover naturally in any reasonable period of time. That land even gets worse when fallow.

    “this in a world that is about to face major shortages of food as population expands and GW bites ever deeper into yields”

    That’s the beauty of it. When you add humus (sequestered carbon) to soil, you actually increase the lands productivity significantly. Ask any gardener who ever added compost to heavy clay soil. Also vast acreage is being used to raise grain, not for human food, but for livestock feed. That livestock does eat grass. If the productivity increases and they are eating grass instead of grain, then those “vast swaths” of re-purposed land are still producing food. Actually more net human food, WHILE still sequestering carbon. If you rotate grain production through wisely you get better yields per acre grain, AND still producing meat from the re-purposed land now in grass, meaning you can even further reduce acreage in grain. You will always have some grain, but the amount of land needed for destructive grain production shrinks until it approaches what we actually need to feed ourselves, instead of the wasteful CAFO system we have now. Keep in mind this has a two pronged effect. The CAFO system is a major part of emissions. So this not only increases sequestration, it reduces emissions too. The use of the term “holistic” is not trivial. It is the WHOLE system that matters. Not just the individual parts.

    Matt Owens says:
    7 Nov 2013 at 8:55 PM

    “#53, I almost agree, but the rate of carbon storage versus the rate necessary to pull CO2 from the air is the critical factor. In Earth history, net soil carbon has accumulated at comparatively small quantities per year, which is why annual CO2 levels haven’t been constantly plummeting over the course of Earth’s history. I looked at the numbers based on IPCC tables for land types by area and carbon storage and plant vs soil carbon, and I conclude maybe 60 GtC could be sequestered in plant and maybe about 60 GtC in soil after some time of decades or longer. We can’t just shove carbon down the throat of the soil, so to speak. We should still pursue the suggestions though, even if it is 60 or 120 GtC, that’s nothing to laugh at.”

    And you are almost there too! The sink is somewhere in the neighborhood of ~500-600 GtC. Remember, this is biomimicry. Which means it mimics unguided nature, but isn’t precisely “natural”. By guiding it with human variables of management, natural systems can be boosted far beyond what unguided nature does. In other words you use natural principles, but optimize them for human uses. I think you’ll find that your numbers are dramatically low, instead of decades, that probably potentially could be done in 5 years. But as you said, even if it only helps with 60-120 GT and it takes decades, (after all there is a learning curve for farmers and ranchers) it is still a step in the right direction. Besides we are getting pretty good at forestry too. Since the land with be more productive, it is possible our reforestation efforts will help take up some of the slack while our farmers struggle to learn and catch up to the most modern management methods like this. Solar is coming along too. That will help.

    I know one thing. We broke it. It is our responsibility to try and fix it using all the best tools we have. The buffering effect of our oceans has saved us so far. One can only hope we are wise enough to fix it before the oceanic effect starts reaching diminishing returns.

  41. 91
    Crazy Dave says:

    I am also a non-scientist – intelligence analyst – follower of this forum with both personal and professional interest in climate change, and thanks to you certified smart folks for furthering my understanding of the topic. I have spent many years in Alaska and traveling throughout the far north – I do not care care for the changes now occurring.

    My question concerns Pleistocene Park (, a rewilding project in Siberia to recreate, as far as possible, the Mammoth Steppe. The aim of the project is to convert tundra to grassland, through the re-introduction of Pleistocene mammals) or their functional equivalent. Carbon sequestration would increase; a thickening soil layer and higher albedo would provide better insulation than what now exists. The project’s director reports that grassland is replacing the typical tundra flora in the park.

    Depending on how you define it there are about three million square miles of tundra. Conversion would be a slow process and I expect there would be resistance from many to remaking large areas of tundra as grassland, though increasing animal populations would be popular.

    It this a viable idea or is there some variable, unique to climate in high latitudes, which would argue against it? If viable, I might be able to circulate the idea around a bit.

    And if mammoths are brought back, the plan is to reintroduce them to the park – I would have to go take a look.

    On the general issue of climate change my professional opinion is that humans will continue to drive the truck, as fast as possible, right over the cliff.

  42. 92
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Has anyone done the sums on a per cow basis?

    How much methane/CO2 do a cow produce

    How much CO2 is sequestered in soil with this method of grazing?

    Answers in kilos would be best for me.

  43. 93
    Jef says:

    A question please.

    “Approximately 8 Petagrams (Pg; trillion kilograms) of carbon are added to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel burning and cement production alone. This will increase in the future at a rate that depends largely on global use of fossil fuels. To put these emissions in perspective, the amount of carbon taken up by vegetation is about 2.6 Pg per year. ”

    Does this include ocean up take?
    If not what is total estimate ocean CO2 up take?

  44. 94
    Len Conly says:

    How about inviting the organizers of the TED talks to explain their vetting process on RealClimate. I ran across a link to this video a few months ago and after watcning the first few minutes of it began wonder if TED is now being run by the National Enquirer or the Onion – or worse, have the Koch brothers bought the operation?

  45. 95
    dhogaza says:

    Scott Strough:

    ” That is part of why the current numbers being used are irrelevant. The numbers used are CURRENTLY roughly correct, but have nothing to do with what the numbers would be if we changed and adopted Savory’s or any number of other closely related management systems that are proven to work.”

    Proven to work? Do you have any reference that backs up the claims of massive increases in carbon sequestration, actual measurement and observations over a significant period of time, or is your “proof” merely based on Savory’s claims. Which apparently many professionals believe to be overblown, even without taking into consideration his claims regarding carbon sequestration.

  46. 96
    wili says:

    Scott wrote: “I know one thing. We broke it. It is our responsibility to try and fix it.”

    Great, and I don’t think anyone is disputing that these methods can eventually have some role in the process.

    But would you also agree that we have to stop doing the breaking before any effort at ‘fixing’ is likely to do much good?

    Jef, as noted above, ocean uptake is estimated at about 40%.

  47. 97
    Scott Strough says:

    @Jef 93
    Very good question. One that points out why the math used by RealClimate is misleading at best and completely irrelevant at worst. I am sure it was not purposeful, yet it doesn’t even come close to accurately depicting the complexity of the carbon cycle, as your question points out so well. It is a carbon cycle, not just carbon emissions, and there are multiple sources and multiple sinks currently operating, both long term and short term of each. Activity by mankind has effected both sides of this cycle in multiple ways.

    This is why the problem is best seen by first looking at the net results of the entire system instead of calculating emissions alone. Then you can see how changing one part of one side of the equation might change the system as a whole.

    The best way to answer your question is by saying the current net annual carbon increase in the atmosphere is ~2.5 ppm/year +/- after taking into consideration all sources of emissions both man made and natural, and all sources of sequestration, both man made and natural. (that number has been rising, so likely the new figures are slightly higher)

    Savory has shown that, assuming enough land is restored to health using his management system, ~6 ppm/year +/- reduction of atmospheric carbon into the soil by way of those newly restored grasslands is an entirely reasonable conservative estimate.

    2.5ppm/year-6ppm/year = NEGATIVE 3.5ppm/year. In other words we would be actually slowly returning to pre industrial levels unless the 2.5ppm/year increased beyond the 6ppm/year Savory’s method has been shown capable of sequestering.

    That certainly doesn’t mean we should rely only on Savory’s method. Not everyone one who tries Holistic management, or the many closely related management strategies closely related, gets it right the first try. There is a learning curve. It is also highly unlikely you could convince everyone to even try, at least in the beginning. There is a lot of vested interest in maintaining the status quo by many in the current concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) system and support industries. You can expect a large “Luddite like” reaction from them to any changes, no matter how destructive their system has proven to be.

    We most certainly will still need to reforest large areas. We will still need to conserve what we use and develop things like solar. If anything just to keep the scale of the problem to a manageable size during the transition period.

  48. 98
  49. 99
    James Cross says:


    No it is clear this does not account for ocean.

    But it is very misleading without the context.

    New growth actually takes up about 123 Pg each year, about 15 times human emissions. What the authors, I think, are talking about is the difference between new growth and biological emissions due to decay and forest fires.

  50. 100
    Hank Roberts says:

    > the difference … growth … decay and forest fires.

    Yep. And we know preventing forest fires isn’t going to help.
    Stopping decay wouldn’t be such a good idea either.

    One of the old denier talking points was the claim that carbon cycling is a huge amount, so the little bit people added couldn’t matter. Like saying a huge balance can’t be tipped by a small thumb on one side of the scale.