December 11 2015

Here in Paris we are entering the final day of the negotiations, and governments are hammering out unsavory compromises between closed doors. As a result of their desperate efforts to come to an agreement, we are hearing that oceans, agriculture, and soils have all been dropped from explicit mention in the latest “simplified” draft negotiating document!

The latest version says that temperature rises must be kept “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”.

This is completely inadequate to save coral reefs from functional extinction that eliminates most of their ecosystem services: fisheries, shore protection, tourism, & biodiversity. As I pointed out to Association of Small Island State delegations in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, coral reefs are already at their upper temperature limit and can’t take more warming. We have lost most of our corals since then due to our failure to stop global warming and land-based sources of pollution.


The French “4 per 1000” proposal including soil carbon accounting in UNFCCC and increasing it 0.4%/yr is the first serious solution proposed by any government during 25 years of failure. It is game-changing because emissions reductions cannot prevent climate overshoot, only increased CO2 sinks can, and only soil carbon has the capacity to hold enough carbon quickly enough to prevent dangerous climate overshoot.

Those saying 2 C warming is “safe” and “acceptable” do not understand the last time temperatures were +2 C, sea levels were + 8 meters (Jamaica has them perfectly preserved), equatorial coral reefs died, hippopotamuses and crocodiles lived in London, England, but CO2 was only 270 ppm!

Present CO2, 400 ppm, will cause equilibrium temperature +17 C and sea level +23 meters above now according to nearly one million years of climate data! IPCC projections are disastrous underestimates because they ignore the 1600 year warming time delay caused by ocean mixing. The deep sea holds around 95% of the heat, and until it warms we won’t feel the full effect.

Every country should support the initiative because they will benefit from increased soil carbon, increased soil fertility and water holding capacity, boosting food production, growing seasons, recharge of water into soil and aquifers, and reducing surface temperatures as plants pump water and heat from the ground into the air.

The French proposal is the last hope of reversing global climate change and saving coral reefs from extinction. 25 years ago I showed corals had been severely damaged by high temperatures and that we could accurately predict bleaching from satellite temperatures. Governments failed to act: we lost most of the corals in the world to global warming, and much more severe coral bleaching lies ahead in the coming El Niño year.

The French proposal must be urgently enacted to save coral reefs and billions of people on low lying coasts, but it must be greatly strengthened to reduce CO2 to safe levels of around 260ppm.

There is not a minute to lose. We have already lost around half the carbon in the biosphere and half that in degraded soils. Soils hold nearly 5 times more carbon than the atmosphere, only small increases will do the job. Without including soils and degraded land restoration, it is impossible to put dangerous excess CO2 back in the ground. Special focus is needed on marine wetlands, mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses, whose soils hold around a quarter of soil carbon, which are the fastest and most cost-effective CO2 sink because their soils are highest in carbon.

The French proposal corrects a disastrous error in UNFCCC and turns it into an effective problem-solving tool again. The soil carbon solution is old. In 1989, as Senior Scientific Affairs Officer for Global Climate Change and Biodiversity at the UN Centre for Science and Technology for Development, I added soil carbon, complete accounting of all GHG gas sources and sinks, and a goal to protect Earth’s most climate-sensitive ecosystems to the first UNFCCC draft. All were removed by governments in a scientifically-flawed treaty that ignored most GHG sources and sinks! In 1991 at the Geotherapy Conference in Lyon, funded by the French national research agency CNRS, I spoke on balancing CO2 using soil sinks. Only France listened.

Solution of global climate is easily achieved with known technologies, outlined in three books I recently edited. Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase (600 pages 34 chapters) shows results of increasing soil fertility and carbon by many methods in every inhabited continent through restoring plant nutrient balance with natural materials. Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration (300 pages, 17 chapters) shows coral reefs, oyster reefs, seagrasses, salt marshes, mangroves, fisheries, and beaches grown back in a few years by stimulating natural energy-generating mechanisms of all forms of life. The Green Disc, New Technologies for a New Future; Innovative Technologies for Sustainable Development (1633 pages, 64 chapters) describes new methods for restoring ecosystems to provide sustainable food and energy through intensified recycling.

The task can be achieved, but if COP-21 fails to act immediately and misses the last chance to restore our planetary life support systems, our descendants will never forgive them.

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD

A biogeochemist from Jamaica, is a delegate of the Caribbean Community Centre for Climate Change. President, Global Coral Reef Alliance