Let’s restore and develop degraded land in arid regions—and meet the sustainable development goals at the same time!
by Christian Berg
Christian Berg is Professor for Sustainability and Global Change at Clausthal University of Technology, Germany. He is also a board member of the German Chapter of the Club of Rome. In October his idea ‘Desert2Eden’ will be discussed at the Global Economic Symposium, which is organized by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
This week, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 (25-27 September, 2015) in New York City, more than 150 world leaders are expected to adopt an ambitious new sustainable development agenda [PDF].
“Yes we can,” Barack Obama said, and his vision of a better future helped him become President of the United States.
“Yes there is” should be our motto for a sustainable future because there are ways to achieve it. They are among the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will be passed at the UN Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals
Seventeen goals — pretty ambitious. And even more so because they are not only related, they sometimes compete with each other. So where to start? Focus on the basic needs of human existence: food, water, and energy. If we secure these three factors, then we can achieve the other SDGs.
Arable land is declining, median crop yields are set to fall by two percent every ten years throughout the century, and groundwater level is sinking. But there are also regions where abundant land, energy, and water lie unused: deserts. Enter Desert2Eden (D2E).
D2E’s vision is to repair damaged ecosystems, leveraging deserts for renewable energy production. There are nearly five billion acres of land with the potential for rehabilitation and forest restoration. Why not recover them for biomass production?
There are impressive examples of such restoration projects. The Loess Plateau in China, has been ecologically rehabilitated. Among the results, farmers’ incomes doubled, employment diversified, and more than two million people were lifted out of poverty. In Israel, soil erosion during flash floods was shown to be 90 percent lower for land under sustainable land management than on farms using conventional agricultural practices. In Niger, land productivity improved and the water table rose by more than 45 feet after degraded land was rehabilitated over a 15 years, using water harvesting techniques.
Within just a few years, grass, rooted plants, and even trees can restore ecosystems in desert areas. This transformation results in soil protection, improved water cycles, increased biodiversity, economic development and employment opportunities, biomass production and carbon sequestration. Soil is Earth’s largest controllable, and therefore improvable, carbon sink, larger than forests.
The benefits of restoring terrestrial ecosystems
The restoration and subsequent sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems is an SDG (SDG 15), but it will also help to combat poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2), contribute to healthy lives (SDG 3), promote sustainable economic growth (SDG 8), reduce inequality (SDG 10), foster sustainable production patterns (SDG 12), and help fight climate change (SDG 13). Restoration requires water initially in order for plants to grow, making it a water issue.
Land restoration is not possible everywhere, at least not short-term. Accordingly, restoration measures should be combined with using plentiful solar radiation typically found in arid regions. In just six hours, Earth’s deserts receive the same amount of energy as humanity consumes in an entire year. This insight is the driving force behind the DESERTEC Foundation.
Sustainable energy supplies and green development
The technologies are available. Large concentrated solar power (CSP) plants are operating in California, Spain, and Morocco. This energy supply can act as a catalyst for green development processes. In many coastal regions an abundance of renewable energy could mitigate water issues. Potable water is becoming increasingly scarce. Saudi Arabia uses 1.5 million barrels of oil a day just for desalination—60 percent of Germany’s entire daily oil consumption. Desalination would have a much smaller carbon footprint if renewable energy were used. Water, in turn, is needed for restoration of degraded land. And availability of water is ultimately an energy issue.
Established industries, such as cement, could be greened, using solar energy. Entire new industries may evolve. Renewable hydrocarbons could be produced and exported by tanker and pipeline, providing valuable foreign currency. Renewable power generation has significant job creation potential. Education systems to train technicians and engineers will be required, along with infrastructure development for roads, wires, and pipes for electricity and water. The energy issue is therefore an infrastructure issue.
The provision of a sustainable energy supply is a SDG 7. Combined with desalination, this would also contribute to water availability (SDG 6). Finally, infrastructure development and sustainable industrialization are addressed by SDG 9 and have the potential to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development (SDG 17).
This will take considerable effort. Multiple challenges must be met – political, financial, technological, legislative, cultural, or psychological. However, the challenges resulting from inaction would not be appreciably smaller. If successfully implemented, this vision has the potential to address 12 out of 17 SDGs.
Reducing migration pressure
D2E could also mitigate migration pressure. Fences and military action are neither effective nor humane ways to reduce migration flows from developing countries, but the prospect of a brighter economic future for the millions of young people in arid regions might be.
These are ambitious goals. But yes, there are ways to achieve them. Let’s tackle this head on.