03 May The olive tree and climate change
By Francesco Serafini, president of The Garden of Peace
LET’S TALK ABOUT CARBON SINKS
I think everyone knows by now that one of the most important functions of plants is to absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere and release oxygen (O₂). Due to respiration, a part of the CO₂ returns to the atmosphere while a part is stored in the various organic components, creating a carbon sink.
The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) defines carbon sinks literally as “wells” that absorb CO₂ removing it from the atmosphere. CO₂ is the most important greenhouse gas, the emission of which has increased drastically in the industrial age mainly due to the combustion of fossil fuels. Thanks to the action of carbon sinks, CO₂ can be removed from the atmosphere and ‘stored’, no longer causing the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’.
A carbon sink is consequently a system that retains CO₂ in greater quantities than it releases: forests are a typical example of this.
It can therefore be said that if a plant increases its biomass (wood) over time, it is absorbing and storing carbon in its organic molecules, with a positive balance in atmospheric carbon sequestration by storing more than it emits.
THE OLIVE TREE AS A CARBON SINK
Agriculture contributes to approximately 13.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions but, , in some cases, and particularly in olive growing, when relevant management practices are applied, the relationship with climate change is bi-directional.
What is bi-directional?
The production of olive oil necessarily causes greenhouse gas emissions due to the typical cultivation operations for managing an olive grove including planting, fertilisation, phytosanitary treatments, pruning, harvesting, etc. These particles have been monitored and their impact quantified through the methodology known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
The ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) has since defined and adopted standards that provide references for the correct application of LCAs.
To produce our dear liquid gold, greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable, but, at the same time, the olive grove plays a key role as a carbon sink due to its ability to capture CO₂ from the atmosphere and store it, both in permanent vegetative structures and in the soil, increasing the organic matter content and converting it into a permanent store of CO₂.
OLIVE OIL IS GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
According to the study on the CO₂ balance of olive oil in the world conducted by the IOC (International Olive Council) in 2017, the world’s olive groves are able to capture 47 million tons of CO₂ per year. Considering that the world olive grove area is 10.5 million hectares, according to the IOC’s data, we can say that, in average terms, one hectare of olive grove is able to capture 4.5 tons of CO₂ per year.
If we translate this figure into the production of one liter of extra virgin or virgin olive oil, we can say that for such production, the CO₂ emission is about 1.5Kg. Nevertheless, the olive tree, in its vegetative parts and in the soil (through appropriate management practices), manages to sequester 11.5Kg of CO₂, with a positive balance of 10Kg of CO₂. If we want to visualize this figure in an even more obvious example, we just need to think of the pollution a small car produces in 100 km.
According to the data published by FIAT, a car like the Fiat 500 emits 120 g/km of CO₂ in 100 km. Its emissions are therefore 12 kg of CO₂. This allows us to say that the production of one kg of extra virgin or virgin olive oil compensates for the 100 km contamination of a small car.
Recently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published the AR6-SYS-REPORT in which CO₂ capture by agriculture is highlighted as one of the main strategies to combat climate change.
Today, the olive groves are recognized as part of the solution against the climate change. The olive tree is the world’s largest woody crop and the most powerful artificial CO2 fixative, making it an effective tool against the climate change.
It is really essential to let people know that olive oil is good for health and good for the environment. This is what needs to be communicated to consumers in order to make them aware of this very important aspect. The gift of Athena never ceases to amaze us. Not only does it help us from a health and nutritional point of view, but it helps mankind clean the skies and make them better for future generations.
Francesco Serafini ha lavorato per 23 anni presso il COI come capo del dipartimento di ricerca sviluppo e ambiente.. Attualmente è presidente dell’associazione The Garden of Peace e presidente onorario dell’Associazione olivi millenari dell’Andalusia.