Global warming or climate change is threatening the fate of oases in the Sahara Desert as affected by the noticeable advancing sands along the edges of all habitable spaces in the MENA region. With almost 90 per cent of its lands being arid and/or semi-arid, the region’s countries must be following the 14th edition of the COP on the fight against desertification. This being held in New Delhi, India, from 2 September through to 13 September, the UN urges soil organic carbon conservation to fight desertification whereby UNCCD’s member countries must proactively prevent land degradation reports Ranjit Devraj in this article below.
According to the UNCCD, 70 per cent of the world’s forests are now threatened by conversion to cropland and urbanisation — processes that greatly deplete SOC, a measurable component of soil organic matter and key to soil productivity. Particularly at risk are tropical forests, which declined at the rate of 5.5 million hectares annually between 2010 and 2015.
“This report will help member countries of the Convention identify sustainable land management technologies that are context-specific and also help estimate and monitor SOC for achieving land degradation neutrality and other sustainable development goals (SDGs),” Barron Joseph Orr, lead scientist for the UNCCD, tells SciDev.Net.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots”
Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People
“Because of its multifunctional roles and its sensitivity to land management, SOC is one of the three main global indicators of land degradation neutrality, the other two being land cover and land productivity,” says Ermias Aynekulu, an author of the report. “SOC, made up largely of decomposing animal and plant matter, is key to drought resistance, soil stability and organic crop production.”
The report proposes to encourage parties to the UNCCD to employ sustainable land management technologies to maintain or increase SOC, align SOC monitoring with national land degradation neutrality monitoring and share the guidance offered with farmers and other land managers.
According to the report, the management of SOC to support land degradation neutrality achievement will be most effective if it promotes the following: gender equality and inclusive development, empowerment of women to invest in natural resources, and capacity building of local institutions.
Emphasis is laid on an accurate assessment of SOC since national capacities to measure and monitor are highly variable. It proposes that efforts be made to enhance the capacity of countries for spatio-temporal measurement and modelling of SOC to address data gaps and limitations in tools and models currently being used.
A spatio-temporal study carried out by EnvirometriX Ltd, Wageningen, the Netherlands, indicates that the greatest loss of SOC over the 2000–2015 period took place in the northern hemisphere followed by Brazil, Central Africa and Indonesia, where large swathes of natural forests have been converted to croplands.
A science policy brief accompanying the report offers ‘decision trees’ to guide efforts to predict change in SOC under different land management practices. It also seeks to support decision-makers to pursue the right interventions in the “right locations at the right time and at the right scale” with the overall goal of land degradation neutrality achievement.
According to Marioldy Sanchez Santivañez, an observer to the UNCCD science-policy interface and forest evaluator for AIDER, a Peruvian NGO, developing and reinforcing capacities for soil sampling and implementing measurement and monitoring, as outlined in the report, “has the potential to contribute greatly to restoring soil carbon in many of the world’s land-degraded areas”.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based NGO, says that retaining SOC is vital for South Asia, a peninsula which is estimated to lose 80 per cent of the rainfall it receives to the sea, leaching away valuable organic carbon and contributing greatly to desertification. “This is an area that [needs] urgent attention since more than 30 per cent of the landmass is now degraded.”
The Indian sub-continent is particularly vulnerable. A study published in May by Science Direct said at least a third of the area around 18 river basins of the Indian sub-continent have become vulnerable to ‘vegetation droughts’, indicating drastic loss of soil moisture.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots,” Thakkar tells SciDev.Net. “All that remains is for the governments to pick up the detailed guidelines and decision trees in the report and follow them.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.
In its new special report on climate change and land, the IPCC calls for more effective and sustainable land management, and more sustainable food consumption. But who is the onus on to go vegetarian, or look after land better? You, me, the “global elite”? The world’s poorest people, or perhaps the many millions of newly-wealthy Chinese or Indians? Or maybe our governments?
The answer depends on how you interpret the report, which can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a moral call for individual consumers and food suppliers to become more sustainable. On the other, it is a call for governments to promote sustainable food consumption and production choices.
This is not an either/or situation – the report should be read in both ways but with recommendations for different population groups. To wit, whether someone is individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations depends on the extent to which they are subject to one or more of three forms of inequality.
1. Not everyone can afford to eat veggie or local
First and foremost, massive global wealth inequality affects the extent to which individuals and communities are able (or, rather, should be expected) to implement the recommendations of the IPCC report. It’s a lot easier to go vegetarian when you have the money to eat what you like. In the Global South, many have not benefited from industrialisation, while remaining in even more need of implementing measures to counter climate risks. Even in the more affluent countries of the Global North, many people live in abject poverty and have to make tough choices as how to spend their limited resources.
This highlights the need to make sustainable food accessible and not just available. The authors of the IPCC report acknowledge as much, emphasising how rising costs may lead to undernourishment as people turn to cheaper replacements, such as fast food. This is why sustainable food must be promoted alongside poverty alleviation. In the Global South, green growth must be priority as long as it includes local stakeholders, who are often experts on sustainable land management.
2. Some people emit more than others
Carbon footprint is highly correlated with inequality. As a 2015-report by Oxfam showed, the top 10% of income-earners, mainly living in affluent countries, are responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half are only responsible for 10%. Even within affluent countries, there is a big divide between rich and poor. In other words global warming is not driven equally by everyone, but rather is highly correlated with income.
Of course, this does not mean that we should encourage unsustainable living in less developed countries. Rather, we should recognise that the consumption and production patterns of the world’s worst-off are not necessarily unsustainable. Although the world’s high and upper-middle income countries are home to about half the population, they are responsible for 86% of emissions. In comparison, Africa is home to 16% of the world’s population, yet only emits 4% of the global total. Meanwhile the very poorest countries – 9% of the global population, or 700 million people – emit just 0.5%. (Tellingly, the average per capita emissions of North Americans is more than 17 times that of the average African.)
Consequently, it would be possible to add several billion people in low-income countries, where population growth is already the highest, without massively changing global emissions, while adding just one billion individuals in high-income countries would increase global emissions by one-third. As the income of less-affluent populations grows, however, it does become necessary to encourage more sustainable practices.
3. People are not equally vulnerable
But less-affluent people in the Global North aren’t entirely off the hook. While inequality of income and carbon footprint does mean they are absolved of some responsibility to act more sustainably, this group still benefits from better infrastructure and more equitable institutions which should shelter them from the worst impacts of climate change. Conversely, inhabitants of low and middle-income countries, especially those in fragile environments like rainforests, mountains or coastal regions, are particularly vulnerable.
So while taking action to mitigate climate change is necessary, we cannot lose sight of the fact that many communities require financial and institutional support to adapt to existing changes to their local environment as well as to build resilience to near-certain climate risks in the future. While most people in the Western world are still only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, they must continue to commit resources to those most vulnerable and worse-off communities, who are often invisible to them.
In sum, whether someone can be held individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations crucially depends on whether they are able to do so without risking their life, livelihood, or well-being. Because inequalities in income, emissions, and vulnerability to climate change are still widespread, the report must first and foremost be read as a call for governments to make sustainable consumption and production options accessible. Addressing climate change and food security must go hand in hand with addressing global and local socioeconomic inequalities.
The word “climate” makes most of us look up to the sky – however, the IPCC’s new special report on climate change and land should make us all look under our feet. This is how Anna Krzywoszynska, Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield introduced her article published on The Conversation of last week before adding that ‘Land, the report shows, is intimately linked to the climate. Changes in land use result in changes to the climate and vice versa. In other words, what we do to our soils, we do to our climate – and ourselves.’ So, keeping Global Warming to well below 2°C is the hurdle that all humans need to get over in order to achieve the Paris Agreement requirements.
Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2C can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its latest report.
“Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land-climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors – 53 per cent – are from developing countries,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC.
This report shows that better land management can contribute to tackling climate change, but is not the only solution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2C, if not 1.5C.
In 2015, governments backed the Paris Agreement goal of strengthening the global response to climate change by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C.
Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively.
Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation. Desirable outcomes will depend on locally appropriate policies and governance systems.
Climate Change and Land finds that the world is best placed to tackle climate change when there is an overall focus on sustainability. “Land plays an important role in the climate system,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.
“Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry,” he said.
The report shows how managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change, said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II.
“Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required. Also for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity,” he added.
Desertification and land degradation
When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This exacerbates climate change, while climate change, in turn, exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.
“The choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
“In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible,” he said.
Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. Drylands and areas that experience desertification are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including drought, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure.
The report sets out options to tackle land degradation and prevent or adapt to further climate change. It also examines potential impacts from different levels of global warming. “New knowledge shows an increase in risks from dryland water scarcity, fire damage, permafrost degradation and food system instability, even for global warming of around 1.5C,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I.
“Very high risks related to permafrost degradation and food system instability are identified at 2°C of global warming,” she said.
The Rockfeller Foundation supported Cities‘ Ruth Michaelson wrote from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Tue 6 Aug 2019 the following article that elaborates on water increasing scarcity in Saudi Arabia and how despite that, life carries on somehow unaffected.
As Riyadh continues to build skyscrapers at a dizzying rate, an invisible emergency threatens the desert kingdom’s existence
Bottles of water twirl on the conveyor belts of the Berain water factory in Riyadh, as a puddle of water collects on the concrete floor. In a second warehouse, tanks emit a low hum as water brought in from precious underground aquifers passes through a six-stage purification process before bottling.
“In Saudi Arabia, there are only two sources of water: the sea and deep wells,” says Ahmed Safar Al Asmari, who manages one of Berain’s two factories in Riyadh. “We’re in the central region, so there are only deep wells here.”
Most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers and predictions suggest these may not last more than 25 years: UN
Perhaps not surprising for someone who makes a living selling water, Asmari professes to be untroubled about the future of Saudi Arabia’s water supply. “Studies show water in some reserves can stand consumption for another 150 years,” he says. “In Saudi Arabia, we have many reserves – we have no problems in this area.”
His confident predictions are out of sync with the facts. One Saudi groundwater expert at King Faisal University predicted in 2016 that the kingdom only had another 13 years’ worth of groundwater reserves left.
“Groundwater resources of Saudi Arabia are being depleted at a very fast rate,” declared the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as far back as 2008. “Most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers, and some predictions suggest that these resources may not last more than about 25 years.”
In a country that rarely sees rain, the habit of draining groundwater, like the Berain factory does, could prove perilous: groundwater makes up an estimated 98% of naturally occurring fresh water in Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, oil may have built the modern Saudi state, but a lack of water could destroy it if drastic solutions aren’t found soon.
The emergency seems invisible in Riyadh, which is undergoing a construction boom as more buildings creep upwards to join a collection of towering skyscrapers.
It’s the desert. Obviously, water is a natural constraint by Dr Rebecca Keller
Although everyone knows this city in the desert owes its existence to the discovery of oil in 1938, fewer realise water was just as important. Decades of efforts to make the desert bloom to feed the city’s population have resulted in agricultural projects to grow water-intensive crops such as wheat, on farmland meted out to figures favoured by the royal family.
While many questions the accuracy of the kingdom’s optimistic estimates of its own oil reserves, the looming threat of a lack of water could prove to be an even bigger problem. Saudi Arabia consumes double the world average of water per person, 263 litres per capita each day and rising, amid a changing climate that will strain water reserves.
In March, the Kingdom launched the Qatrah programme to demand citizens drastically cut their water use. Its aim is to ration water to 200 litres per person per day by 2020 and 150 litres by 2030.
It has also tried to reform the water-hungry agriculture industry, reducing government incentives for cereal production. The overall amount of irrigated farmland still hasn’t declined, though, as producers switch to more profitable crops that still require large amounts of water. Almarai, a major food producer, has begun buying up deserted land in the US, on plots near Los Angeles and in Arizona, and in Argentina, in order to grow water-rich alfalfa to feed its dairy cows.
The Saudi Arabian National Transformation Plan, also known as Vision 2020 – a subset of the Vision 2030 initiative intended to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil – aims to reduce the amount of water pulled from underground aquifers for use in agriculture. It seeks to employ 191% of these water resources for farming, down from the current estimates of 416% of water available.
“This means that Saudi Arabia is using more than four times the water that renews on average – and that’s in Vision 2020,” says Dr Rebecca Keller from Stratfor – a private intelligence and geopolitical analysis firm – who says she was shocked after learning about the country’s water use. “Technically they’re using fossil water, which renews at a really, really slow rate. The sheer volume of overuse stood out to me.”
Desalinating sea water has long been seen as a silver bullet against the growing threat of water shortages across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia leads the world in the volume of desalinated water it produces and now operates 31 desalination plants. Desalinated water, as distinct from naturally occurring fresh water, makes up 50% of water consumed in Saudi Arabia. The remaining 50% is pulled from groundwater.
It comes as at a high-energy cost, however. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2016 desalination accounted for 3% of the Middle East’s water supply but 5% of its overall energy cost. Researchers at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah estimate that the demand for desalinated water increases by roughly 14% each year, but add that “desalination is a very costly process and is not sustainable”. Desalination plants also harm the surrounding environment, pumping pollutants into the air and endangering marine ecosystems with their run-off.
A recent push towards using solar power rather than fossil fuels to desalinate means that the first commercial plant is expected to be up and running at 2021 at the earliest, although it reportedly remains behind schedule.
Keller says Saudi Arabia’s evolving use of desalination technology could also alter their relationship with other countries in the region, in particular, Israel. “They’re producing the most cutting-edge technology for desalination, especially at scale,” she said. “As we see [both countries] having more geopolitical things in common in terms of their attitude to Iran, there’s more room for this relationship to grow, and the Saudi water sector is something that could benefit from this cooperation.”
The toughest challenge of all remains switching consumption habits to avoid an impending water emergency. The kingdom is pressing ahead with its Red Sea Project, a tourism haven the size of Belgium that aims to attract a million visitors annually to its unspoiled beaches and 50 new hotels. Such mammoth construction means growing water use, with current estimates that the string of resorts will use 56,000 cubic metres of water per day.
“It’s the desert,” said Keller. “Obviously water is a natural constraint.”
Barcelona just had a week of temperatures above 30℃. It’s a few degrees hotter than the long-term average, but no heatwave. In winter, Spain’s second largest city is typically a mild 15℃ or so. With its climate regulated by warm Mediterranean waters, temperatures rarely drop below freezing.
Is this what the future holds for London? One group of scientists certainly thinks so. In a new study, they have tried to convey the risks of global warming by finding the closest modern-day climates to describe what the future might be like for certain cities. They predict that, for instance, Madrid’s climate in 2050 will be like Marrakech’s climate now, Seattle will resemble San Francisco, Stockholm will feel like Budapest, and that London will become like Barcelona.
It makes sense to focus on cities as they are literally “hot-spots” of climate risk due to their dense populations, concentration of assets and susceptibility to extreme weather. Getting this message across to city managers and vulnerable communities is not always easy.
The researchers gathered data on the background climate of 520 major cities. Nineteen variables, including maximum temperature of the warmest month and precipitation seasonality, were combined using a statistical method that takes account of their relative importance and interrelationships. Equivalent variables for 2050 were obtained from three climate models, which were all programmed to take the optimistic view that emissions will stabilise this century. Present and future city climates were then used to “twin” the most similar metropolises.
Pairing cities in this way is a clever idea. But such like-for-like comparisons are just too simplistic. This is because cities make their own climates according to their unique layouts, building materials, artificial heat sources, amounts of open or green spaces, and types of water feature.
There can be fundamental differences between two cities in these respects. For example, Barcelona has among the highest population densities in Europe, at about 16,000 per square kilometre, more than the 10,000 or so recorded by inner London boroughs. Population density is a useful indicator of both the intensity and level of exposure to the urban heat island – compact cities tend to be hotter cities.
While Barcelona is striving to become a greener city, nearly two-thirds of Greater London is already occupied by gardens, parks and water. Across the city, such spaces provide cool refuges for people and biodiversity. For instance, satellite observations reveal that on a hot summers day Richmond Park – a large space on the western edge of the city known for its deer – can be about 10°C cooler than parts of the more central Southwark, Lambeth and Westminster. Even in these central boroughs, temperatures are chillier along the Thames embankment than just a few hundred metres away. Hence, the multiple micro-climates experienced day-to-day and from place-to-place within a city are not readily characterised by a few summary statistics.
The actual “felt” temperature depends on a host of factors, not least the effect of atmospheric humidity. Conditions can become lethal when dangerous combinations of temperature and humidity are exceeded – something that unfortunately already occurs in cities such as Karachi in Pakistan or Kolkata in India.
Global warming means that 350m more people could be exposed to deadly heat by 2050 – and South Asian mega-cities are in the front-line. However, with 4°C of global warming even New York could become heat stressed. So any assessment of future conditions in global cities should evaluate the combined threat of heat with humidity. According to the Lancet Countdown 2018 Report, threats to human health from heatwaves are becoming more frequent and dangerous.
Despite the above reservations, the new study does alert us to the possibility that over one-fifth of the studied cities could shift to climate conditions hitherto unobserved anywhere on Earth. This applies to cities such as Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Libreville in Gabon and Manaus in Brazil, which are all in the tropics.
Extraordinary temperatures are already being experienced within the homes and workplaces of some low income communities of cities such as Accra, Ghana. Trying to visualise how these places might be further stressed by climate change is an important step towards improving the well-being of some of the world’s most vulnerable urban citizens.
RIBA trustees today formally agreed to join the global declaration of an environment and climate emergency at the triannual meeting of RIBA Council members.
At the meeting, which brings together elected trustees to debate and discuss the biggest issues facing the profession, the Institute also committed to developing the RIBA Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission’s action plan and a pledge to support the government’s 2050 net zero emissions target.
RIBA President, Ben Derbyshire, said:
“The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing our planet and our profession. But to have a significant impact we need to do more than make symbolic statements – we need to turn warm words into impactful actions.
The implementation of a five-year action plan we have committed to today will ensure we are able to benchmark change and evaluate the actions that make most impact.”
The Ethics and Sustainable Development Action Plan will include measurable actions to support a net zero carbon built environment. It will drive change at a national and international level in industry standards and practice; in government and inter-governmental policy and regulation; and in the RIBA’s own carbon footprint.
The RIBA should work to support chartered member practices (in the UK and internationally) enabling them to commit to voluntary reporting of core building performance metrics and to work towards the whole-life net zero carbon standard and standard Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) reporting metrics when the guidance is available.
RIBA Chief Executive, Alan Vallance said:
“With a background in the meteorological sector I have a deep insight into the impact of climate change and the vast and urgent task ahead of us. RIBA Council’s commitment to the climate emergency declaration is an important moment for the institute and the profession – a catalyst for the further action and change that is needed to ensure that architects and the built environment sector are at the forefront of a zero-carbon future.”
Next steps will include the implementation of a five-year detailed action plan to embed sustainable industry standards and practice and use the RIBA’s influence to improve government and inter-government policy and regulation.
Chair of the RIBA’s Sustainable Futures Group, Gary Clark said:
“The RIBA Sustainable Futures Group welcomes the RIBA Council decision to declare a climate emergency. This is an important first step that formally recognises the scale and urgency of climate change and that as architects we have an obligation to demonstrate leadership for a sustainable future. Now the hard work starts – we only have 11 years to agree and implement a net zero carbon trajectory for new and retrofitted buildings, and infrastructure. The RIBA will be guiding the profession but we must all take action to voluntarily reduce operational emissions and embodied carbon significantly beyond regulation.”