Catastrophic floods in Pakistan and China, life threatening-droughts in Africa, massive wildfires in Russia and the recent tornadoes in New York are all signs that we have affected the Earth’s climate in dangerous ways. These and other events have killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and now threaten to send the world into a major food crisis.
There are many sources of pollution that create climate change, yet often overlooked are those from destructive logging and farming practices. Together, deforestation and industrial agriculture account for more than 30% of worldwide emissions. In many instances, these ill-advised, unsustainable land-use practices are related to the financial desperation of the poor, as they slash and burn forests and overwork the land with livestock or agriculture.
In addition to contributing significantly to climate change, land degradation contributes to two more crises: the loss of biodiversity and the spread of deserts. In turn, poverty, biodiversity loss and desertification are all exacerbated by climate change, which affects the poor and vulnerable populations of both people and animals most, and increases the exposure of lands to extreme weather events like those we have seen in 2010.
Drawing upon a set of various examples that demonstrate ways to reduce poverty, regenerate landscapes, preserve biodiversity and sequester carbon, I propose a theoretical model that attempts to weave these methods into a symbiotic solution that addresses poverty, climate, biodiversity loss and land degradation simultaneously.
In brief, the model would function as follows:
In place of the carbon-offsetting schemes currently available to travelers, the funds derived from offsets should instead be used to microfinance the restoration of degraded lands, ubiquitous in the Global South. Degraded lands thus purchased would be loaned at low or no levels of interest or rent to local, impoverished farmers and peasants trained in specific land management regimes that regenerate soils, replant vegetation and provide habitat to support biodiversity, while providing local sources of food, fuel, fiber and medicine, and capturing significant amounts of carbon via sequestration. Primary revenue could accrue from selling carbon credits on future world markets, with secondary sources coming from crop and livestock yields, thus generating sustained, long-term income and wealthier, more resilient local communities. If successful, this model could proliferate across much of the world, with each regenerated landscape serving as an education center, and the farmers as instructors for those interested in achieving the same successes.
It should be noted that this idea is only unique in that it proposes carbon setting funds be used to microfinance specific land rehabilitation techniques. Otherwise, the connections between impoverished farmers restoring degraded lands and deriving revenue from carbon credits has been mentioned by Dr. Rattan Lal and many others.
To further explain this idea, it is important to begin by demonstrating the potential of land specific management techniques collectively known as “carbon farming” to sequester greenhouse gases into the ground. Carbon farming refers to a variety of ecologically regenerative practices that build soil, restore vegetation and rehydrate landscapes, including keyline design, yeoman’s plow, holistic management and biochar. The important point is that these methods can naturally capture and store significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
It is not commonly known that soil is the third largest sink of carbon on the Earth (the ocean being the largest), containing 4.5 times the sequestration capacity of all vegetation (including trees) and 3.3 times the capacity of the atmosphere. While Dr. Rattan Lal estimates that 10-20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions could be removed each year by sequestering carbon in soil, a study by the Rodale Institute was more optimistic, stating that “multiple research efforts verify that practical organic agriculture if practiced on the planet’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, could sequester nearly 40% of our current CO2 emissions.” Whatever the truth of the matter, it appears that even by conservative estimates, carbon farming holds significant potential to mitigate climate change.
The financial model would operate as such: funds obtained carbon-offsetting would be used to purchase degraded lands in areas around the globe. Use of these lands would be lent to local farmers or peasants educated in carbon farming techniques, who are given low-interest loans or pay little lease until they begin to derive income from selling carbon credits and other secondary income. After a time, the initial sites could become education centers if successful enough, with the pioneering farmers becoming the instructors for their communities and regions. Their new students would receive the same minimal-interest loans from carbon-neutral travelers of the wealthy industrialized world, and so the model could proliferate across the globe.
Connecting climate change and the biodiversity crisis with land misuse, and the ability to sequester carbon and alleviate poverty by giving farmers and peasants the leg up to do via microfinance, in theory it could work very well. However, there are obviously many hurdles. Quantifying the specific carbon sequestration of soils is still being figured out, not to mention the fact that there is no true global carbon credit trading market to speak of. Verification and oversight is crucial, as other carbon offsetting schemes have seen, to ensure accuracy and integrity.
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a video that bears many similarities to what I have proposed here, and demonstrates the multitude of benefits that can be had when we work with nature and the needs of local communities.
Willie Smits began by trying to save orangutangs in Borneo, and ended up restoring the rainforest, bringing back the rain, improving the lives of 3,000 villagers, thus protecting organgutangs.