Desertification: The Forgotten Side of Climate Change


Figure 1: Global GHG Emissions by Source - Data provided by EPA

Figure 1: Global GHG Emissions by Source – Source EPA

Many efforts to combat man-made climate change have been focused on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by redesigning energy infrastructures with the introduction of new technologies, including renewable energy sources. Further efforts include creating new products for the transportation system, such as electric vehicles and fuel cell powered buses. Research and development in energy technologies has recently experienced a surge of glamour among academic and industrial institutions. Organizations and communities are also increasing their efforts of “going green” and becoming more energy efficient. These efforts should continue to grow, as the energy sector accounted for 26% of global GHG emissions in 2004, while the transportation sector accounted for 13%.

This emotional draw to energy technologies has been combined with significant engineering, business and policy advancements that have promoted the recent economic growth of renewable energy technologies. However, the large focus on energy and transportation often prompts people to overlook the effect of agriculture and forestry practices on climate change. Even though agriculture and forestry problems may not foster solutions to their issues as sexy as the Tesla Model S, their impact is equally, if not more, important than the impact of the energy sector. One major reason for the great importance of agriculture in climate change is the existence of devious positive feedback loops that lead to adverse secondary effects: increased global temperature leads to enhanced desertification, which then leads to higher temperatures and continues the cycle. Desertification is already becoming more apparent in multiple landscapes across the world as more and more spoils and unable to support plant or animal life. The following figure outlines the vulnerability to desertification across the globe:

Figure 2: Global Desertification Vulnerability – Source USDA

Bad treatment of soil further increases GHG emissions into the atmosphere by removing important carbon sinks from the ground. A recent study in Nature highlights that climate scientists may be overestimating the capability of plants as a carbon sink, and desertification may be a significant factor for the miscalculation. Furthermore, GHG emission data, such as Figure 1 above, often only account for direct GHG emissions caused by agricultural practices or deforestation, but not for the losses in carbon storage caused by land degradation. Therefore, the effects desertification and land degradation on climate change may be significantly underestimated and not fully understood. Ironically, we appear to be making great strides in enhancing our energy infrastructure, while at the same time the grass is slowly disappearing under our feet.

Fortunately, there remain some dedicated innovators who are looking for solutions to the numerous agriculture and forestry problems. One particularly impressive innovator is Allan Savory, the founder of the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In his TED talk, Savory outlines the scale at which agriculture affects climate change: “Burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than 6,000 cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than one billion hectares.” After a lifetime of dedicated research, Savory has developed a method to reverse the desertification trend displayed by current land use practices. Savory studied the natural cycle of grasslands in the past and analyzed holistic causes of why grasslands were more fruitful in the past. From his studies, Savory concluded that by driving cattle animals across grasslands, the land would be renewed and supplied with nutrients from the cattle. This solution may appear counterintuitive at first, since many times cattle cause land to become arid in the first place. However, Savory’s method involves coordinated movement of the cattle derived from past natural movements as cattle tried to escape predators. The results of Savory’s test grounds are truly amazing, as entire landscapes have been transformed by his method.

Left: Fertile land after Savory’s method; Right: Desertification without Savory’s treatment – Source: Savory Institute

Savory’s work provides an inspiration to tackle the agriculture problem and instills an appreciation for the scale of change nature can induce. Savory’s work further demonstrates that problems that are not glamorous can often be highly impactful.