$300 billion is pocket change? It is if you think on a global scale. It’s what the governments of the world spend on the military defense every 2 months. Barron J. Orr, lead scientist for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, says that paltry sum of money would be enough to delay the worst effects of an overheating planet for up to 20 years — time that could be used to find more permanent solutions to global heating so we and our heirs can continue to enjoy living on Earth.
“We have lost the biological function of soils. We have got to reverse that,” Orr tells Bloomberg News. “If we do it, we are turning the land into the big part of the solution for climate change.” Rene Castro Salazar, an assistant director general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tells Time that almost half of the 5 billion acres of land around the world that have been degraded by misuse, overgrazing, deforestation, and other human factors could be restored at a cost of $300 billion. At least a third of the world’s land has been degraded to some extent, directly affecting the lives of 2 billion people, says Eduardo Mansur, director of the land and water division at the FAO.
Assuming that happened, the restored soil could capture enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to keep average global temperatures from spiraling out of control. It’s not a permanent cure — more like a surgical dressing that protects the body and gives a wound time to heal.
All We Need Is The Political Will
“With political will and investment of about $300 billion, it is doable,” Castro Salazar says. We would be “using the least-cost options we have, while waiting for the technologies in energy and transportation to mature and be fully available in the market. It will stabilize the atmospheric changes — the fight against climate change — for 15-20 years. We very much need that.” Boy howdy, do we ever.
“The idea is to put more carbon into the soil,” says Orr. “That’s not going to be a simple thing because of the natural conditions. But keeping the carbon in the soil and getting that natural vegetation, grazing land etc. thriving again — that’s the key.”
Decades of poor agricultural practices in both rich and poor nations have resulted in misuse, either from using the wrong products, using too much fertilizer, or in some areas using too little so that the soil loses its nutrients. The key to returning arid lands to vegetation is the proper use of fertilizer. “Fertilizers are essential for increasing productivity. Good fertilizer in the right quantity is very good for the soil,” he says. The problem isn’t so much about reclaiming deserts as it is restoring wasteland that was productive before human intervention.
“The problem unfortunately is big and it is growing,” Mansur says. “The main cause of emissions from agriculture is poor land management. But the solutions are known — sustainable land management, sustainable water management, sustainable soil management. Don’t mix desertification with desert. ” He adds, “A desert is an ecosystem. There are deserts on the planet that have to be preserved.”
Satellite Imaging & Big Data
The UN team used satellite imaging and other data to identify the degraded land that could be realistically restored. In many cases, the revitalized areas could benefit the local community and host country through increased food supply, tourism, and other commercial uses.
Castro Salazar says dozens of countries are fighting back with programs designed to reverse the loss of farmland and at least 20 nations have major efforts underway to replant lost forests. “All these countries were able to keep producing the food they needed and growing the forest cover,” he says. “The myth was that in order to increase your productivity and your food sovereignty and security you needed to slash or burn the forest. We documented that it’s not true.”
Hunger Vs. Ideology
We often lose sight of how the collapse of agrarian economies can cause political upheaval. Hungry people don’t care much about ideology, they just want to be able to feed their families. If that means emigrating to other countries where food is available, so be it. Food migrants are not all drug dealers, rapists, and terrorists. They just want to be able to eat and feed their families. One of the immediate benefits of reclaiming land that has gone to waste is increasing local food supplies, which will reduce the pressure to migrate.
There are ideas floating around to address the challenges posed by a warming planet that could cost trillions of dollars, many of them untested and unproven. If a mere $300 billion could buy the global community much needed time to find permanent solutions, that seems like a pretty wise course of action to take.
Of course, sequestering carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere is only part of the solution. Preventing more carbon emissions from finding their way into the air is equally important. “Keep It In The Ground” is still the best long term strategy. The plan the UN scientists propose could buy us the time we need to transition to a fully zero carbon global economy.