A Shared Global Data Ecosystem for Agriculture and the Environment


The executive summary of GODAN’s recent discussion document ‘A Global Data Ecosystem for Agriculture and Food’, (the cover of which manages to somewhat capture the problem with the modern agricultural environment), calls for:

..a common data ecosystem, produced and used by diverse stake-holders, from smallholders to multinational conglomerates, a shared global data space..

The report identified stakeholder engagement, provenance in data sourcing and handling, sharing, and collaborative frameworks as key components in developing a global data ecosystem.

Stakeholder Engagement and Data Integrity

However within the agricultural sector “many groups might not have obvious motivation to participate in data sharing and use…” and that “..in order to get trust-worthy data, there has to be a direct reward to the data supplier.” The authors further state that “a large part of the motivation for data sharing has to do with how widely it will be shared, with whom and under what conditions.

There is, justified or otherwise, suspicion that data may be misappropriated to the provider’s dis-advantage or provide disproportionate advantage to others. The perceived risk of negative unforeseen consequences can outweigh any potential benefits of sharing data, particularly when those benefits can not be so readily quantified or realized in the short term.

Stakeholders may develop a big brother mentality where they respond by withholding data or deliberately providing inaccurate data in the belief they are better served. This problem is amplified in the provenance of agricultural products, which “undergo a chain of transformations and pass through many hands on their way to the final consumer”. One drop in the veracity of data at any point in the chain potentially undermines all the data in that chain. These issues are sadly though not just relevant to small farmers and supply chain operators but are as prevalent and strongly held by many of the big data holders such as trans-national corporations, governments and academic institutions.

Informed Consent

Whilst the integrity of the source and the veracity of the data are important factors in building a global data ecosystem the authors further identified ‘documentation, support and interaction’ as key to fostering trust. Data providers and users need to interact so as to serve each others needs better and ensure that stakeholders feel included not just sampled. Stakeholders need to be confident that there are no negative consequences or disproportionate benefits from sharing data to the whole ecosystem.

Sharing Frameworks

Where the data is held, who maintains it, the veracity, accessibility and availability to the whole ecosystem as well as who pays to deliver those services are issues that also need to be addressed. A global data ecosystem cannot rely on single large repositories to act as data silo’s or individual data providers to maintain data crucial for network function. Data needs to be distributed and maintained across the system to prevent bottle necks and failure points . The concept of the ADS (application database storage) network  which exploits the distributed network concept could potentially offer resolutions to many if not all these issues.

Data Conformity and Convention

Whilst stakeholders need an environment that is transparent, robust and secure, the data, as does all the documentation and support in that environment, needs to conform to certain conventions. The ‘five star open data maturity model (available, structured, non-proprietary format, referenceable and linked)’ lays out a basic checklist but these properties themselves need to further conform to taxonomies and naming conventions (controlled vocabularies) that are inter disciplinary and facilitate data from different sources being easily related. Conventions which must themselves be explained in and applied to any documentation and support.


In order to get trust-worthy data, there has to be a direct reward to the data supplier

For large stakeholders, governments and corporations that reward may come from the need to provide proof in meeting sustainable development goals and climate commitments, but with smaller stakeholders the same incentives may not apply. The question needs to be asked “what’s the data worth?” or more importantly “what is the cost of not having the data?” Can we achieve global sustainability goals and climate objectives without the majority of stakeholders taking part? If we can’t, is it worth weighting benefits in the short term to favour the smaller stakeholders to encourage them? Even weighting that benefit in the form of payment for engaging, and if so can technologies such as blockchain be used to verify data and facilitate those payments? One possible use for such a mechanism would be for the annotation of data such as satellite imagery.

Collaborative Frameworks

The authors draw attention to the fact that sharing data is only the start; “It is one thing to share data, but to achieve the desired gains from a data ecosystem for agriculture, to draw conclusions across the globe to guide decision making, it is necessary to exploit synergy between datasets efficiently.

Such synergies however arise out of a framework that extends beyond purely agricultural data to one that includes all environmental data. It is a framework that similarly needs to be able to seamlessly integrate with more mundane economic, sociopolitical and legal data and frameworks, an integration that will itself give rise to greater synergies between our economic activities and their environmental consequences. Di-Functional Modelling (DFM), what most of this site is dedicated too, is one such framework.

agricultue-zero-emission02Di-Functional Modelling (DFM)

Designed around the concept of soil fertility DFM was created to model the processes and resources that contribute to the sustainable management of an environmental project. In the normal course these would be the soils of an agricultural unit, a group of units or a component in a unit such as a field, forest or grassland.

However DFM is not restricted to modelling soil fertility and can be used to model other mechanisms in the agricultural and wider environment. [Agriculture in a Zero Emissions Society]

DFM is not though a database, blockchain or application but a framework or ‘ecosystem’ within which the inter-dependencies of the whole system can be more easily visualized. DFM can thus assist in the development of databases, blockchains and applications that are inter-operable and can exchange and verify environmental and agricultural data [Data Databases and Distributed Networks].

agricultue-zero-emission-economicDFM similarly models the processes and functions of an agricultural system relative to the whole. A whole that further extends to the interactions and exchanges that occur between natural systems and the socioeconomic systems they support. These sociopolitical, economic and legal system are themselves nested within the model.

These inner mechanisms are connected to the environment by existing supply chain mechanisms, data from which can reveal the true sustainability or carbon footprint of agricultural goods [TRASE]. Further enhancement of these mechanisms with relevant data should make it possible to trace the ingredients of a chocolate bar from field to retail outlet, every step and any within to give a grand total of the true cost of the indulgence in terms of carbon, habitat or social impact. Once calculated the totals could be added to your own personal tally of GHG emissions, habitat loss and social deprivation. [strengthening the food chain with the block chain]


DFM was though conceived for and is best used to help determine localized land use, crop choices and management strategies based on the available resources and the soil, habitat and hydrological properties. It was not envisaged as a top down tool but as a tool to be applied at the farm end; to provide a means to both audit the farm and it’s resources, and structure that audit in a way that facilitates integrating scientific data. By repeating the process on successive farms and linking those farms through a content management system each audit could contribute to a greater one permitting each unit to enhance it’s own data with that of neighbouring farms. Extended over a region and the framework would help to manage and allocate resources, plan crop choices and integrate with the natural environment: A Shared Global Data Ecosystem that mirrors the Shared Global Ecosystem we call home.


Towards a Data Ready Farm




 The Sustainable Farm

The sustainable farm and by extension a sustainable agricultural sector and planet, is one underpinned by knowledge and driven by data. Knowledge and data that can contribute to crop and livestock choices, resource management and ultimately reveal the sustainability, or not, of an enterprise.

The data ready farm is thus aware of it’s own resources, the resources of the surrounding environment and the relationship it has with those resources and the markets it supplies.




Local Knowledge: A Land Use Inventory

Whilst technology has a significant role to play, the data ready farm begins with knowledge of itself, the land use (woodland, cultivated, grassland), the inherent properties (soil and water resources), as well as the livestock and crops that depend on those resources. It is a simple inventory at the local scale; one which requires no equipment to perform.

Land Use                       Woodland, Cultivated, Grassland
Inherent Properties    Soil Texture and Water Resources
Land Dependants        Livestock and Crop Choices

The inventory should distinguish land use according to basic habitat criteria: woodland, grassland and cultivated. As this is a farm the cultivated habitats further differentiate into arable (short rotation), permanent (orchards, vineyards, etc) or heterogeneous (covered crops, flowers, etc). The woodlands and grasslands similarly differentiate but at this point only grasslands land connected with farming, pasture and rough grazing, need to be differentiated. The boundaries between and within the habitats, along with any hedgerows, fences or banks on those boundaries, and the position of any wells, standing or running water within them should also be recorded and mapped. Even if the farm appears homogeneous, has only one land use, crop or livestock, it is still likely made up of several parcels of land with varying properties; properties that are not easily visible in themselves but can be revealed by the recording and analysis of simple data, such as soil texture.

hand textural chart by S Nortcliff and JS Lang from Rowell (1994)

hand textural chart by S Nortcliff and JS Lang from Rowell (1994)

Soil Texture

Soil texture, a property that arises out of the relative proportions of sand silt and clay strongly influences the hydrological and nutrient characteristics of the soil. Variations in soil texture across a field or farm can thus reveal changes in the hydrology or nutrient status of the soil.

Soil texture can be measured by taking a small sample of soil from just below the surface (10cm). Moistened with water or spit the sample is then moulded with the hands into a ball. The ball is then deformed and it’s malleability noted and checked against a chart. The sample is usually taken along a ‘W’ transect positioned across the face of a field and the data bulked to provide a single textural class for that field/plot. All that now remains is to quantify the livestock and crop choices that depend on the land; at this point it is jut to list the type, number and location of stock and crops. This basic reconnaissance map, which needs no equipment to create, can be drawn onto a piece of paper to identify the land use, crop choices, soil texture, location of water and number of livestock.


A Local Inventory in a Global Context

With remote sensing and mobile technology the inventory and soil data could be annotated directly onto a map from the field. Coupled with Geo-statistical strategies this could be further developed to create complex contour maps of textural variation across the agricultural landscapes. With additional external scientific, environmental and economic data this local inventory could be qualified relative to a global economy


data-ready-farm-02science-dataScientific Data

Into this inventory scientific data relevant to the sustainable management of resources and the husbandry of crops and livestock can be appended.

Meteorology           Quarterly precipitation figures.
Crop Data                Nutrition, culture, pest and disease, 
Livestock Data       Nutrition, stocking numbers, general husbandry.
Soil Mineral data   345 nutrient model



Environmental Data

data-ready-farm-02environmentsIntegration of environmental data can help the farm be sympathetic to the needs of the natural environment and the species that inhabit it. Aware of the environments and species around it the data ready farm can identify synergies and conflicts and then use that data to find resolutions to conservation, pollution and emissions issues.

Conserve habitats and species
Prevent pollution from soil erosion and nutrient leaching
Reduce emissions from livestock and management practices



Market Data

To meet global sustainability goals the data ready farm must link and integrate with the ‘wider’ economic, sociopolitical and legal frameworks. Data from supply chain mechanisms, political policies, and legal and administrative bodies must integrate seamlessly with data from the agricultural and natural environments to meet SDG’s and climate change objectives.

Supply Chains               TRASE and the blockchain
Legal Frameworks       COP22 Objective
Political policy              Paris Agreement

A Local Data Hub

A farm that is aware of itself, the environment and the markets it supplies has the means to measure it’s sustainability relative to the environment and the markets. However a farm integrated with neighbouring farms can improve it’s sustainability. A locally connected farm has greater resilience and can better manage and share resources, integrate crop and livestock choices, and supply markets more efficiently. A local data hub can connect remote farmers and help to build trust and educate in using and sharing data.

Applications and Databases

To move beyond a simply inventory and into a sustainable data driven future requires the development of applications and databases that compliment the framework. Some such as TRASE already exist but local databases and applications to share data within a comprehensive and structured framework still needs development. [Data Databases and Distributed Networks]

Agriculture in a Zero Emission Society

Whilst renewable energy will play a significant role in replacing fossil fuels it cannot replace them entirely. To achieve a zero emissions future the World needs to reduce and be more efficient in the way it uses all energy. Similarly heavy industry such as steel cannot run on renewable energy and whilst carbon capture technology could remove and store CO2, it’s not a solution to all our fossil fuel emissions.

Where fossil fuels cannot be replaced by renewable energy or the CO2 captured and stored, offsets, (mitigation strategies to sequester carbon equivalent to the emissions) could be utilized so that the net effect is zero. Since all the reforestation and afforestation strategies are needed to capture historical CO2 emissions [cant see the woods for the trees ], offset for future fossil fuel burning must look to exploit other measures to sequester carbon, most of which lie within land use and agricultural practices.

Note: The figures below are all approximations that have been derived from easily available data on the internet; data which is itself little more than guess work. The purpose is therefore not to provide quantitative analysis but a qualitative summary; to encapsulate the scale of the problem we face and the potential of a given action to contribute to the solution. Only then we can truly quantify a system.

Soils as Carbon Sinks

Compost, green manure, bio-chars and zero till have all been widely suggested as means for agriculture to mitigate CO2 into soils. Whilst changes in land use and management result in changes in the soils carbon content, climate, soil texture, hydrology and depth are also significant factors in a soils capacity to sequester carbon. Tillage, particularly excessive tillage causes soils to lose carbon and as a general rule the less disturbance a soil has the greater the capacity to store carbon. Thus the greatest natural stores of soil carbon are to be found in the undisturbed soils of forests and grassland, whereas the lowest content is to be found on cultivated. It is within the cultivated soils, 1.5billion ha (11% of the Earths surface) that the capacity to act as carbon sinks chiefly lies.


Compost has a number of significant benefits when used in agriculture [compost science] and can indirectly lower emissions by improving soil structure and reducing tractor fuel consumption, and by improving nutrient cycling and reducing fertiliser inputs. However as a means to sequester carbon it’s benefits may be minimal.

Microbial action on the compost, action that is responsible for improving the soil structure and the nutrient cycling is similarly using the compost as an energy source and is respiring in the process. The natural process by which microbes breaks down the organic matter, releasing the nutrients also releases the carbon as CO2 back into the atmosphere. The process follows a first order kinetics curve where 50% remains after three years, 25% after six, 12% after twelve 6% after twenty five and 3% after fifty years. Whilst crude approximations the general rule for compost added at regular intervals (1-3 years) is that it achieves a net balance of soil organic carbon after 50 years. Further additions simply maintain that level.

For an agricultural mineral soil SOC cannot be raised above 10%, but with the current global average likely being as low as 4% there lies a potential to increase soil carbon through compost additions. As a tool to sequester carbon, compost could potentially sink 135 billion tons of carbon over a 50 year period and raise mean SOC levels to 10%. Equivalent to 2.7 billion tons of carbon a year. It would though require 135 billion tons of compost; equivalent to 19 tons per person. It is therefore an unrealistic figure and would likely still be being ambitious with a target of 7.2 billion tons (one ton for each of us). As a target it would similarly offset less than ½ billion tons of Carbon emissions a year. So whilst compost is an important component in achieving sustainability in agriculture and can indirectly reduce farm emissions it is not a means to directly offset fossil fuel emissions from other industries.

Chars (Biochar and Charcoal)

Unlike compost, chars (biochar and charcoal)  can be made from any carbon containing material including animal carcasses and plastics. Produced by pyrolysis (heating the material in a reduced oxygen environment) the carbon is converted to a more inert mineral like substrate that does not particularly interact with the soil matrix. Behaving more like aggregate(stone) Chars are highly resistant to microbial action and can remain unchanged for a 100 years or more. Chars do not in themselves contain or contribute any nutrients but with properties similar to vermiculite chars can improve soil structure, influence nutrient cycling, soil acidity and soil hydrology. Chars can likely be added to match or exceed the soils natural carbon balance without affecting the soils ability to function and may actually improve it. This gives a theoretical offset value of at least 100 billion tons of carbon as char into the worlds cultivated soils.

Chars could also be incorporated into soil prior to afforested. With the World needing to create at least 10 million ha of new woodland every year for the next 30 years as much as 7 billion tons, a quarter of a billion a year of carbon as chars could be added to soils prior to planting woodland.

Precisely where the World gets 100 billion tons plus of char from without chopping down a rain forest is another matter but as a one time means to sequester carbon and offset emissions whilst we build the renewable replacements, Chars offer great potential. However put into context 100 billion tons of carbon is the amount of emissions produced from fossil fuels over the last three years; so we need to hurry up with building the replacements.

Green Manure

More a mechanism for improving soil structure and reducing nutrient losses through better cycling green manuring adds some carbon to the soil. However the carbon is not resistant and is subsequently liberated through microbial action. As with the fuel savings and nutrient cycling of compost, green manures provide similar benefits which ultimately reduce the gross CO2 emissions of a farm unit but does not in itself sequester significant amounts of carbon.

Zero Till

As much a political argument as an environmental, zero till as a management strategy can sequester carbon. However its a strategy that cannot be used in conjunction with compost and green manures and so relies on higher fertiliser and herbicide use. This results in increased N2O emissions which largely cancel out the benefits of the carbon sequestered. So whilst there may be other benefits to zero till, such as fuel savings there is likely very little gain from the carbon sequestrated.

Wetland Restoration and Creation

Wetlands cover 6% of the world’s surface, approximately 700 million ha. Half of these wetlands are peat bogs and peat lands that have twice the carbon sequestration potential of forests. During the 20th Century the World has lost over 64%of it’s wetlands, some 1200 million ha, an area larger than Canada and 5 times the area of tropical rain forest deforestation over the same period.

Restoring these wetlands could prove easier and sequester twice the carbon that would be sequestered by afforesting the same area. With Europe having lost 66% of it’s wetlands over the last 100 years and the USA 53% since the 1600 there lies the potential to sequester several hundred million tons of carbon in restoring North America and Europe’s wetlands. The global potential could well be in excess of 2000 million tons of carbon. It is worth bearing in mind that the conditions which led to the formation of fossil fuels in the first place, particularly coal, was a planet dominated by swamp forests. The carbon we have released over the last 100 years was originally captured and stored by the wetlands of the carboniferous period.

In addition to restoration creating new bogs, swamps salt marshes and coastal lagoons could further sequester large amounts of carbon, create habitat and provide coastal and flood protection from future sea level rises.

Biomass and Bio-gas

Biomass be it wood, straw or cow dung when burned produces GHG emissions. Those emissions may not be from fossil fuels but they are emissions non the less. Whilst research suggest that over the long term biomass results in net zero emissions, in the short term they may actually add to the problem.
Biomass fuels are also controversial since they require re-purposing of crops and cropland to grow the biomass. For every ha of biomass grown a ha of food land is not. Furthermore biomass used for fuel is biomass that cannot be used for char manufacture and as chars offer some offset value any diversion of biomass to energy production impacts on that potential.

Biogas, where manures and other organic wastes are used in anaerobic digesters to produce methane has the potential to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels but not GHG emissions. Biogas does not reduce emissions, it replaces fossil fuels with methane, it similarly relies on passive uptake to offset those emissions and thus maintains the net emissions total. Unless carbon capture technology is subsequently applied this gives only an efficiency gain, one that to make the manure ‘mineable’ requires animals to be intensively reared in sheds.

Bio-diesel: Tree Bourne Oil Seed

Bio-diesel can be made from any oil bearing seed including crop plants such as sunflower or maize or from high oil bearing non-edible species such as Jatropha. However as with biomass the re-purposing of crops and lands to produce bio-diesel is controversial. Jatropha, and other shrub and tree bourne oil seeds (TBO’s) could however be grown as hedgerow without compromising crop lands.

Grown as hedgerow TBO’s would further provide carbon sequestration, erosion protection and habitat creation whilst having minimal impact on the lands ability to produce crops. This is not so much an offset but a true net zero emission replacement for fossil-fuels: the oil being a commercial component in a hedge that sequesters carbon, prevents soil erosion and provides habitat.

Such a system could even grow bio-diesel for another industry such as International shipping which emits 0.6 billion tonnes of CO2 (1.74% of global emissions) per year from burning 0.2 billion tonnes of heavy fuel oil [fossil fuels result in 3.15 times CO2 when burned]  Switching to or blending bio-diesel with heavy fuel oil would directly reduce fossil fuel emissions.

However to grow sufficient Jatropha to supply the current international shipping with 0.2 billion tonnes of bio-diesel would require 35 million ha of land (2.3% of cultivated land), an area the size of Germany.

International aviation, which similarly contributes 0.5 billion tons of CO2 using a slightly more refined fuel (kerosene) than Heavy Fuel oil could also potentially switch to bio-diesel. Aviation fuel (kerosene) has a lower wax content to prevent it solidifying at altitude (low temperature) whereas organic oils tend to solidify. If a bio diesel that can remain liquid at low temperatures could be found it potentially replace aviation fuel but as with shipping it would require an area of land covering 28 million ha, 1.8% of cultivated land, to grow it.

To grow a replacement fuel for shipping and aviation an area the size of Germany and Poland combined would be required. However as hedgerow in the tropics TBO’s could contribute to reducing shipping’s consumption of fossil fuels by as much as 10%, the other 90% will have to rely on renewable energy.  New Golden Age for Sailing Ships?


With all reforestation and afforestation projects for the next 100 years set aside to capture historical carbon, only chars and wetland restoration remain as strategies that offer any significant opportunities for carbon offsets on agricultural land. Whilst only bio diesel, derived from non crop plants on non crop land, can be considered a renewable bio-fuel with the potential to replace some fossil fuel use. Biomass production, it’s larger more comprehensive cousin competes with both food and forest crops for land and with Chars for raw material. We cannot both burn our waste wood and char it. Similarly whilst bio-gas makes an efficient use of methane emissions it converts those emissions to CO2. So whilst biogas extracts some energy from GHG’s on route to the atmosphere it is not an offset nor a replacement but just a slower path to the same climate catastrophe.

The use of compost, green manures and reduced or conservation tillage practices whilst in themselves do not sequester significant quantities of long term carbon, when part of a comprehensive management strategy such practices can have positive impacts on fuel consumption and fertilizer use and thus reduce the overall carbon footprint.

Agricultural Emissions

ghg-emissions-by-sectorAgriculture is itself a major source of GHG emissions and whilst forestry is the largest contributor, land, crop, livestock and management practices all contribute to GHG emissions. These too need to be mitigated and offset.

Agricultural machinery, processing and transportation of goods are all major contributors to the carbon footprint of an agricultural enterprise and it’s produce. The emissions from a farm are though complex, some such as fuel and fertilizer use can be aggregated and crude approximations on how the emissions distribute according to crop and land can be made.

However the mechanisms by which emissions specifically accumulate onto goods within the farm and as those goods pass through subsequent supply chains is not transparent. So whilst figures may be accurate at the national and international level they may not reflect what is actually happening within different units. This has the consequence of shifting responsibility onto the whole industry, masking the extent higher emitters contribute and failing to acknowledge the efforts of low.
dfm-where-the-data-comes-fromSo whilst it is possible to calculate global fossil fuel production, and to approximate the net emissions resulting from those fuels by country and per capita [the global carbon footprint]; and to further break this down by industry, it is difficult to extract meaningful information to differentiate between high and low emitters within those industries. What is therefore needed is a mechanism, a framework that allows all the data to be quantified to reflect the true carbon footprint of any enterprise or goods at any scale and relevant to the whole. A framework such as DFM.


The Global Carbon Footprint

Fossil Fuels 

Since 1751 approximately 392 billion metric tonnes of carbon have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production. Half of these fossil-fuel CO2 emissions have occurred since the mid 1980s.[Carbon dioxide information analysis centre]

carbon-footprint-globeIt’s widely reported that the World emitted another 38.2 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2015, an 8% increase on 2014’s 35.6 billion tonnes, raising the global average of CO2 from fossil fuel burning to 5.3 tonnes per person and adding another 10% to the 392 billion tonnes released over the last 200 years.

In 2014 the top five CO2 emitting nations, responsible for 2/3rds of all fossil fuel carbon emissions, were China (10.5bt), USA (5.3bt), European Union (3.4bt), India (2.3bt) and Russia (1.7bt).

Whilst five of the biggest emitters relative to population were Gulf states: Qatar (39.13t), Kuwait (28.33t), United Arab Emirates (21.3t) Oman (18.92t) and Saudi Arabia (16.8t).

Australia (17.3t), The USA (16.5t) and Canada (15.9t) came next whilst Kazakhstan (14.2t) and Russia (12.4t) came 9th and 10th in per capita emissions.

China in 20th (7.6t) whilst the European Union, which came 23rd (6.7t) carried some big emitters such as the Netherlands (9.4t), Germany (9.3t), Belgium (8.7t) and Poland (7.8t). Only Spain and France’s emissions matched the global average of 5 ton. India, the 4th largest emitter by country, produced only 1.8t per head putting it in 42nd place, 5th from bottom and beaten only by Indonesia, Philippines, Pakistan and Nigeria. [wikipedia]


So whilst the industrialised nations are the principal emitters of CO2 from fossil fuels, the residents of the Gulf states have a bigger carbon footprint than any other geographical region. Qataris in particular have 2½ times the carbon footprint of American’s and 43 times that of Pakistanis.

Land Use and Managementgreenhouse-gas-dfm

Land use changes, in particular deforestation, where 2/3rd’s occurs to supply just five global commodities [cant see the woods for the trees], contributes a further 6.5 billion tonnes (11%) to global GHG emissions. Methane from livestock contributes a further 16% whilst Nitrous Oxide from fertilizer use contributes another 6%. [EPA]

So whilst fossil fuel burning (65%) remains the main contributor to GHG emissions, land use changes and management practices are responsible for 33% of global GHG emissions. When added together, fossil fuels and land use GHG emissions raise the average global carbon footprint to 7 ton per person per year.

The Paris Agreement: 20/20 vision

If global emissions continue to increase at 7% per year, as developing nations catch up on the industrialized; then by 2020, when most nations expect to start implementing the Paris agreement, global emissions will be at 65 billion tons a year and global per capita footprints at 8.5t per person. We will have added another 250 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere pushing the planet towards if not over the long term temperature goal of Article 2:

holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,

Article 4 of the Paris agreement states that “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” However even if the World went on to reduce it’s net emissions to zero by 2050, it will have added a further 900 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere in the process: sufficient to double atmospheric concentrations and cause a mean global temperature rise of 3-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Such a scenario would lead to accelerated melting of the Worlds glaciers and cause a global sea level rise in the tens of metres. It is similarly, based on the evidence to date, the most likely scenario.

To avoid catastrophic climate change the World must significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels with immediate effect. It must develop and deploy, on a grand scale, alternative renewable solutions (wind, solar, water, biomass) and it must actively restore the tropical forests lost since 1990. It must further increase global forest extent by at least another 10% and it must continue to do so for the rest of this century and beyond.

It must do this because it did not act to arrest the problem 30 years ago and if it waits another 30 it will be too late.. Admittedly climate was not on the international agenda but deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction were [Our Common Future 1987]. Despite the warnings of the Bruntland report and the the subsequent 1992 Rio Declaration from Earth Summit I, over a third of global deforestation has occurred during this period and the World is on the brink of the biggest extinction event since the dinosaurs. What to do?

A 75% reduction in fossil fuel use

If we cut our current fossil fuel emissions (38.2 billion tons CO2) to reach a net emissions target of 10 billion tons CO2 by 2030: a global carbon footprint of < 1.5t per capita. This would result in the emission of 200 billion tons of CO2, and we might meet the Paris agreement threshold of 2 degrees C. If we take till 2040 to reach the baseline of 10 billion tons then 350 billion tons of CO2 emissions will result and we will likely miss the 2 degree threshold. Wait till 2050 however and 500 billion tons of CO2 emissions will occur, we will not be able to keep global mean temperate increase below 2 degrees C and in all probability it will have already reached and exceeded that by 2050. We will still need strategies to mitigate the 10 billion tons we produce as a base line as well as the 400 billion historical emissions but the longer we delay, the more difficult and painful it will become.


Deforestation and Agriculture

The EPA estimate that one third of GHG emissions originate from agriculture; 6 billion tons as CO2 (11% GHG emission), whilst methane from livestock production contributes another 16%(UNFAO estimate 14.5%) and Nitrous Oxide from fertilizer use 6%. In total Agriculture contributes the equivalent of 18 billion tons of CO2 per year to GHG emissions.post-paris-co2

The largest single cause of CO2 emissions is tropical forest deforestation. The UNFAO estimates that in the last 27 years 1.29 million km2 of forest, an area equivalent to France, Spain and Portugal combined, has been lost. Much of this forest has been felled to grow soybean, palm oil and beef to supply global markets.

An end to deforestation would thus dramatically reduce the CO2 contribution of Agriculture bringing it down to or even below a billion tons per year. A 50% reduction in the beef and dairy industries would similarly reduce  agricultural GHG emissions by another 8%.

Together with reducing Fossil fuel emissions to 10 billion tons these measures would bring global GHG emissions to under 25 billion tons. We would still be adding to atmospheric concentrations of GHG’s, but at half the rate we are now, so still sufficient to maintain our course towards a climate catastrophe. A catastrophe we cannot avoid until we reduce our net emissions to zero and take steps to recapture and store the 400 billion tons of historical carbon emissions.

Reforestation and Afforestation

To recover the 129 million hectares of forest lost since 1990 in the same number of years would require planting a new forest the size of Switzerland every year for the next thirty. A forest that would, in 100 years, recapture most of the carbon emission from the original deforestation (200 billion tons).

Afforestation, the creation of new forests on agricultural and other land would also capture some of the carbon emissions derived from the burning of fossil fuels during the same period. However as afforestation is not as effective as reforestation a plantation of 260 million hectares, the size of the Kazakhstan, would be requires to capture the same 200 billion tons of CO2.

Over a 100 year period these two forests projects, which collectively would cover an area the size of India and Pakistan, would recapture the 400 billion tons of historical CO2 emissions. world-map

However even with these massive mitigation projects in place, a 75% reduction in fossil fuel emissions and a 50% reduction in methane emissions (an outcome that requires 50% of the World that is not vegetarian to become so) by 2030, the World will still go on to produce 1.5 trillion tons of GHG emissions during the 21st Century.

This is the reality of our 21st Century Global Carbon Footprint.

Climate Catastrophe Time Line

2030…. The World has cut its fossil-fuel emissions by 75% to 10 billion tons a year. Similarly 50% of the World’s meat eaters have become vegetarian and we have stopped all deforestation and bought all commercial forests into zero carbon management: our emissions are down to 20 billion tons a year…

forests-carbon01We will have reforested enough of the tropics to cover Portugal and the Spanish region of Galicia  and similarly planted new forests across the World’s other regions which would collectively cover Germany. However none are established sufficiently to make any significant contribution to mitigation, so the global temperature is still rising and we are, despite these efforts, 50% worse off than when we started: we now have 600 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere to deal with and are adding another 20 billion every year.



2040…  The tropical forests  have expanded and now cover the plains of Spain whilst the new forests has grown to cover an area encompassing Germany and Poland. The good news is the earlier forests are now capturing carbon: perhaps 10%, so 4 billion tons of the 40 billion they will eventually capture. The bad news is global emissions now top 800 billion tons.



2050… Despite having now reforested the tropics with sufficient wood to cover Portugal and Spain, we are but halfway there, there is still the equivalent of France to plant before we recover what was lost in the last two decades of the 20th century. Similarly the new forests now cover an area that swallows the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Austria. As with the tropical forest we are still not there, there is still Belarus, Ukraine and Romania to plant.

If our fossil fuel emissions are still at 10 billion tons a year then another 100 billion tons of CO2 will have been added to the 800 billion already in the atmosphere. If meat eaters are still insisting they would rather eat their bacon than save it, then they will have similarly added another 100 billion tons in the form of methane. On the plus side the first of the forests will likely have captured 25% (10 billion tons) of their carbon potential and the second 10% ( 4 billion tons), so our efforts may have been sufficient to keep the total global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation below the one trillion tons mark but by 2099 another 500 billion tons of GHG’s will have been added to the atmosphere.


 The End of the Fossil Fuel age

However; if  on reaching 2030 the World has achieved a 75% reduction in fossil fuel emissions,  adopts a zero emissions target for the next ten years, and similarly a vegetarian diet, then by 2040 the fossil fuel age will come to an end leaving a 700 billion ton carbon footprint on the atmosphere. As long as the World continues with the reforestation and afforestation programs then by the end of the 21st century this could be down to 400 billion tons.. but then pigs might fly

Cant See the Woods for the Trees

Can’t See The Woods For The Trees

If my internet connection is working then I listen, most days, to Radio 4. I start at 5:45am with Farming Today and then stream through until the shipping forecast. So when I awoke on the 7th December I was surprised to hear the program open with fears that England was suffering from deforestation.

The Deforestation of England

woodland-trustThe Woodland Trust, and Confor, the confederation of forest industries, a UK trade organisation,  argued that England, which has just “10% forest cover compared to the 38% average for Europe,” is suffering from deforestation. The government, which is committed to planting 11 million trees over the next forty five years, planted only 700 ha of the 5000ha needed to meet that target in 2015. The Woodland Trust, who are themselves planning on planting 64 million trees over the next ten years, argue more needs to be done to protect ancient woodland and hedgerows “which are being lost to roads, quarries and housing”. There is currently no national logging of this loss with the trust relying on a network of volunteers to spot negative impacts at the local planning level. The trust argues that these woodlands and hedgerows need to be buffered, extended and connected to other woodland through gaping and hedgerow maintenance if the government is to meet it’s own targets.

Protecting Forests Through Global Supply Chains

traseAS I am in Morocco and it is just a bus and a train ride down from the mountains, so not a big load onto my carbon footprint, I made a brief visit to the COP22 in Marrakesh last month. I went primarily to attend the climate law and governance day but I also attended the launch of TRASE ( Transparency for Sustainable Economies) a new online open-access tool that uses publicly available data to unravel supply chains and reveal the origin of commodities such as soybean, beef, palm oil and timber.



One of the ten most important agricultural crops soybean production reached 336 million tons in 2015 making it the 7th most important crop globally. The USA, the largest single producer, was responsible for 118 million tons (35%) whilst South America (Brazil, 102 million tons, Argentina, 57 million tons and Paraguay, 10 million) was responsible for 169 million tons (50%) of global soybean production. With Canada’s contribution (2%) the America’s are responsible for 87% of the Worlds soybean production; much of it however on deforested land. The TRASE platform addresses this through the “use of trade and customs data to identify the producers, traders and transporters involved in the flow of globally-traded commodities” to bring transparency to the global supply chain so that business can identify commodities originating from deforested land.

Palm Oil

The situation is mirrored in Indonesian where deforestation for palm oil production has put the orangutan on the critically endangered list. The clearing, draining and setting alight to the peat of the Indonesian swamp forests in preparation for palm oil plantations in 2015 further led to 100,000 deaths across Asia from the thick belching smoke. Releasing over a billion tons of CO2 in the process and pushing Indonesia into 4th place behind the USA, China and India as the Worlds leading greenhouse gas emitter. [Costing the Earth]theforesttrust

The Starling project, a collaborative venture between The Forest Trust, Airbus, and SarVision uses “high-resolution optical satellite and radar imagery to monitor forest cover in real time” and provide the tools “to enable companies to provide evidence of how they are implementing their No Deforestation Commitments.” As with TRASE the Starling project seeks to provide transparency in global supply chains; supply chains in which just four products, beef, palm oil, timber and soybean are responsible for two thirds of global deforestation . In addition to habitat and species loss the deforestation undertaken to grow these crops is responsible for over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


Another major deforestation crop is Cocoa, produced by just six million smallholders worldwide it is a global crop controlled by less than a dozen companies. In West Africa, the source of 68% of the Worlds chocolate and home to four million cocoa farmers, cocoa is the principal cause of deforestation.

Logging and Land Tenure

Subsistence farmers are blamed for much of the remaining deforestation and whilst they undeniably contribute, in a recent report from the Congo researchers identified logging and land tenure rather than farming as the principle cause of deforestation. Tropical forests are the most diverse ecosystems on planet Earth, they store and clean water, influence the climate and act as large reservoirs for carbon that has accumulated over the lifetime of the forest. When the forest is removed that diversity is lost, the ground dries up and the carbon stored in the forest and it’s soils is released. Over 65% of tropical deforestation and 7% of global carbon emissions now result from the cultivation of less than a dozen crops.

A Carbon Neutral Future From Forests?

Old Forests, be they ancient English woodland, Indonesian swamp forests, or Amazonian rain forest are all bigger carbon sinks than what can be captured in new plantations. It’s likely that for every hectare of old forest felled two hectares or more of new forest are needed to offset the carbon released. New forests that similarly don’t have the diversity or provide the habitat of the ones lost.

In a recent Inside Science program it was claimed that to reach a negative carbon balance; where carbon captured as biomass is used to fuel an energy plant, and the CO2 produced is then captured and stored; would require an area of land 1-2 times the size of India (3-6 million km2) to grow the biomass. The idea is somewhat over complicated and risks turning captured carbon into the climate equivalent of nuclear waste as we struggle to store billions of tons of CO2. If instead that energy was produced by other carbon neutral sources (i.e. solar, wind and water) and the biomass grown as both the carbon capturing and carbon storing device, we would not require a network of silo’s storing ‘dry ice’ or it’s equivalent, but the World would still need to plant a forest the size of India to capture and store the carbon the 20th century has released.

Restoration and Regeneration

Whilst stopping deforestation completely would be the best course of action, restoring recently deforested land would result in capturing more carbon than planting a new forest on agricultural or marginal land. The Amazon has lost 20 %, one million km2, over the last 40 years and whilst it is unlikely that all that loss can be recovered, with strategic planting perhaps 20% of what has been lost could be recaptured. If the same strategy could be applied to West Africa, the Congo and Indonesia; perhaps as much as ½ million km2 of tropical forest could be restored within 50 years. It is though just 10% of what is needed. If Europe were to similarly increase it’s forest cover by 10% then that rises to 20% of what is needed but again will take 50 years to reach fruition.


The UK has 450,000km of hedgerow but ,as a consequence of the plough up policy of 1948, has lost 121,000km.  Gap filling the existing and reducing field sizes to recreate the hedgerows lost could increase the UK’s wood cover by as much as 5%; more than meeting the UK governments target of 2% over the next forty five years.

Whilst deforestation and afforestation are the key issues in Africa, South America and Asia, hedgerow planting could similarly contribute the equivalent of a billion km2 or more of new forests in agricultural regions of the tropics. In many instances planting could encourage diversification with trees and shrubs for the production of fruit and nuts, oilseed for bio-fuel production, biomass for energy or trees for soil remediation and erosion prevention. Such diversification provides commercial value and resilience as well as contributing to climate mitigation.

Monitoring Restoration

Whilst projects such as TRASE and Starling are providing the tools for businesses to identify commodities originating from deforested land or to verify no deforestation commitments, there needs to be additional tools to further monitor and measure restoration and afforestation strategies. If deforestation was to end tomorrow, the World would sill need to create 5 million km2 of new forest and woodland if it is to meet its commitment to prevent global temperatures rising above the 2 degrees C threshold agreed in Paris. It is not enough just to arrest the damage, we must repair it too.

However there are no supply chains, no customs or logistics data to mine to see if a forest or a hedgerow has been replanted or is being maintained. Satellite data, a resource the Starling project has utilized to reveal changes in forest canopy in palm oil production could similarly be utilized to monitor afforestation efforts. An approach that applies as much to reafforestation strategies in the UK as it does to the tropics. However monitoring is only half the story and whilst carbon sequestration and habitat creation are important global functions of trees they are not their sole function. Trees are a commodity, we need the wood but they also perform other crucial functions within the local environment, be it improving flood defences, arresting soil erosion, removing air and noise pollution or just providing beauty and enjoyment; trees are an integral part of the human landscape.

Human Beings and Climate Mitigation Strategies

The first principle of the Rio Declaration was that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainability”. [Earth Summit I, 1992 ]. Keeping human beings at that centre should similarly be the first principal of all future environmental and climate mitigation strategies. The people whose lifestyles need to change need to be involved in that change; for whilst human beings are at the centre, they are also the cause, our environmental and climate crisis is a problem of our our making and it is within our own humanity that the solutions similarly lie.

The world has similarly changed considerable since 1992, there was no remote sensing, the internet had not yet gone ‘viral’ and Glastonbury would have been regarded as the centre of the Gig economy. However somethings have not changed; we have continued to lose habitats at an alarming rate and have bought more species to the brink of extinction over the last twenty four years than since the demise of the dinosaurs. If we continue on this trend for another twenty four years there may well be nothing left to save.

The Satellite’s Eye: Remote Sensing

The Forestry Commission’s Corporate plan for England identified it’s priorities for English Woodland as to “protect, improve and expand”. Seeking to “bring two thirds of all woodland under management by 2018” and to create a total of 2600km2 of new woodland by 2060. The plan further commits to provide “support for mechanisms and payments for ecosystem services” and calls for “more trees and woodlands in and around towns and cities.

In order to meet those targets the commission needs to know the real time state of Woodland across England. As only 57% of England’s woodland is currently sustainably managed and the commission has prioritised bringing only 2/3rd’s under management by 2018, a significant proportion of Woodland will remain without any mechanism to assess threats to it for the foreseeable future. Unprotected it is, as the Woodland Trust identified, “at threat of being lost to roads, quarries and housing” as well as to the disease and climate threats the Forestry Commission prioritise in their plan. With no mechanism in place to record these losses the trust has resorted to relying on a network of volunteers to spot negative impacts at the local planning level. However with the advent of satellite imagery and the internet the ability to log and record existing woodland remotely and to similarly record any impending changes to it now exists.

All land use management strategies, at both the planning and monitoring stages rely on maps. Maps that can be greatly enhanced with the use of satellite imagery. In some instances, as with the Starling project those images are used to identify deforestation and species changes in tropical forests; it is a specific task that can and is performed by machine learning, but in many others, particularly mapping trees in complex environments such as cities and towns, the process still requires human intervention.

Crowd Sourcing The Map: A Place To Plant Your Tree

AfSIS (African Soil Information Service) and their partner QED  have been using satellite imagery to map land use in Africa for the last year. The process relies on volunteers, ‘citizen scientists’ to annotate images to identify buildings, cultivated land and forestry in a 250m2 grid. The same method could be used for England, if not the whole of the UK, to map the current state of woodland and land use in general [Mapping UK Habitats] Done correctly such a map could not only identify existing woodland by when interpolated with other data such as soil maps, hydrological or species distribution could identify where the benefits of planting new woodland and restoration of existing woodland can be best realized. The same map could also be used to monitor the health and, with weather maps, predict the movements of threats to woodland from pests or diseases.

A single map into which all environmental data can be interpolated so as to give a complete and accurate reflection of the state of the environment at any scale and to any stakeholder who needs it. [DFM]

Such a map would be the means to calculate the quantitative and qualitative benefits and cost of a given action to the environment. To build such a map at a working resolution requires a large network of volunteers, the same network that will later be required to monitor and update the map. It may be possible to develop machine learning but in the interim, and to give the machines something to learn from, the map requires human input. That input similarly performs another crucial function; it engages the very people it needs to change.

Citizen scientists have and continue to contribute to many existing mapping projects but in reality relying on volunteers to create and maintain critical environmental maps in order to meet our climate objectives is perhaps a policy that is as likely to succeed as relying on governments to voluntarily abide to environmental agreements. It is doomed to failure for there are not enough volunteers to provide the level of coverage needed to map and then monitor global land use and climate mitigation strategies to the extent required to achieve COP22 objectives.

The Gig Economy: A Tree Hugger’s Paradise?

Paying stakeholders to both maintain and monitor climate mitigation strategies is likely the only viable way of bringing about the level of change and monitoring that is required to meet our climate objectives. If we are to plant a forest the size of India we will need a lot of spades to do so; In this respect the gig economy may well come to the rescue for we do not have a lot of time in which to raise the number of tree huggers needed to map, plant and monitor the planet’s forests and woodland. In England an army will be needed to both identify and plant the 13000km2 of land required for the 64 million trees the Woodland trust aim to plant. Five times more ambitious than the Forestry Commission, if successful it is a plan that would double the UK’s woodland cover but it is similarly a plan that will need a radical new approach to be successful.

Carbonizing the Blockchain

The block chain and the concept of smart contracts makes paying a large number of citizen scientist to analysis and annotate satellite imagery possible. It further offers the potential to automate payments to farmers and landowners for carbon mitigation efforts. Using smart contracts carbon credits could be earned by farmers and landowners using quantifiable metrics that provided payments over an extended period; a trickle system that ensured trees and plantations are not only planted but maintained to a standard that achieves the environmental and climate objective. A three point verification system between the farmer, the satellite and the gig economy. Such a mechanism is not limited by scale , an individual planting a single tree in a garden or a landowner planting a 1000 ha stand; each would be paid according to the benefits achieved by their efforts.

Developing New Technology 

Whilst much of the technology already exists, the satellite images, the software to annotate those images and the smart contracts to pay the cartographers and monitors: new apps for phones that allow for newly planted trees to be quickly recorded and uploaded along with the gps co-ordinates need to be created. Satellite imagery could then be used to confirm the work and machine learning used to estimate the canopy cover and the amount of carbon sequestered. This could be performed over the lifetime of the tree or stand and used to adjust and refine payments to ensure carbon mitigation strategies are similarly maintained.

The use of new technologies such as blockchain, machine learning and remote sensing offer real opportunity to make climate mitigation strategies a reality that works at the local and global scale. The World though has a tough hill to climb, not only must it plant a forest the size of India but it must similarly cease from decimating the existing forests. It must also find a solution to our addiction to fossil fuels, as we to our consumerism, as it is these habits that are the root cause of our environmental and climate woes. There is though no such thing as a free lunch or a technological fix for greed; each and everyone of us needs to reduce our own personal carbon footprint, our own personal consumption of fossil fuels and forest products: for this is not only the most effective way but similarly essential if we are to mitigate climate change and arrest deforestation.

The Mauritania Forest Road

The Rain in Spain falls mainly ….

It was Easter 2001 and I was returning from Granada on an Easy Jet flight to Gatwick. I had been in Andalucia on a University field course and as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the trip I separated myself from the main group prior to checking in. As a consequence I was at the rear of the flight, far from the party I had travelled with and sat next to an older man who introduced himself as James.


Andalucia as seen from the International Space Station

The plane took off and as it levelled out and banked slowly around to head north it revealed the ground below, acre after acre of white plastic sheeting, the horticultural industry of the Campo de Dalías where the endless Mediterranean sun provides a constant energy source to permit growing salads to the precise timetables of Europe’s supermarkets. What though struggled to keep up was the ground water, with over extraction to feed this industry leading to salination of the aquifer.spain rainfall




Andalucia produces some 30% of Europe’s salad crops but in doing so have started to reverse the hydrological flow resulting in seawater being sucked into the very aquifer they depend on. To make matters worse precipitation rates in Spain have been falling in recent years and whilst the effect on the Albedo of the industry has been to bring about localized cooling it has done so by increasing the intensity of rising thermals. This in turn has potentially impacted on the normal inward progression of rain clouds from the sea to the Sierra Nevada causing them to rise and prematurely shed their loads.

mauritania forest road

Canarii and Perorsi

As the Campo de Dalías went out of view the conversation continued on its environmental theme as James explained that he was living in Tarfaya, a small fishing town at the southern tip of Morocco. He was to return after a brief visit to the UK when he hoped to promote a project; The Mauritania Forest Road. He claimed that the area between Tarfaya and Mauritania had once been forested and that Pliny the Elder had noted in the 1st century AD  that Canarii, the Roman name for the area, was “a woody region abounding in elephants and serpents.” It had not always been a barren desert. We exchanged emails and 18 months later I found myself travelling overland to Tarfaya.

I had by that time lost contact with James but he had not only exchanged his own email but that of Shaibata Mrabihrabou, a resident and president of the friends of Tarfaya, a small self help group. I was at that time in central Portugal, visiting friends and following communication with Shaibata Mrabihrabou decided that with only 5 buses and a boat trip between Quimbra and Tarfaya, I should take the opportunity to visit.


The Friends of Tarfaya

friends of tarfaya

It was early evening when the bus pulled over and the luggage ‘boy’ indicated that this was my stop. I stepped off and stared at the expanse of sand and sea as he retrieved my bag from the luggage compartment. As he passed my rucksack to me I asked “Tarfaya?”


Tarfaya (Aug 2002)

To which he pointed at a small object in the distance. A walled town with a harbour Tarfaya was the closest point on the African continent to the South American, but it was also, at this point in my three day journey, the furthest point from the road. As the bus pulled away I shielded my eyes and waited for the dust to settle before looking up to see that a deserted petrol station had materialized on the opposite side of the road. It was surreal, a lonely building surrounded by rocks and sand illuminated by the setting sun. I stared at it briefly before turning to look at the sea and the sun as it sunk rapidly towards the Atlantic ocean.

Picking up my rucksack I begun walking in the direction I had been pointed in. The sun had almost set by the time I walked into the main high street where I was quickly accosted by a curious local. A small town of a few thousand inhabitants it was not long before I found myself at the home of the man I had come to see, Shaibata Mrabihrabou or Sadat as he preferred to be called. I spent just over a week with Sadat visiting Tarfaya and Laayonne where I made notes before returning back to Europe and whilst I remained in touch, James never resurfaced.

It would be three years though before I would return and then not to work on the forest road project but because I wanted to to write. The desert is an ideal place to isolate oneself away from distractions and whilst I did it rained. In fact it rained so heavily and continuously for the next six weeks that the wadi’s, the ephemeral rivers that barely saw a drop of water in a normal year, burst their banks and washed away the roads. Tarfaya became a lorry park as the south was cut from the north, but cocooned in my own world I barely noticed.

A Green Green Desert

Green Green Sahara

Green  Sahara  (S’mara Jan 2006)

As the water’s receded the once barren desert had filled with shallow ephemeral lakes that attracted passing flamingo’s. The dunes that formed their banks had turned a deep leafy green along with the desert itself which now resembled a prairie. It was as surreal as it was unexpected; an area the size of Texas, the edge of the World’s largest desert was preparing to bloom. I was though myself also preparing to leave so whilst I saw few flowers as I left S’mara, it was, if nothing else, a demonstration of the true potential of what lay hidden within the sand. A potential that needed only fresh water to be realised. It was though the last time I visited Tarfaya and soon after I lost touch with Sadat.

The Solar Village

In the summer of 2008 I began to explore a concept. I had seen a solar farm in India in 2005 that used solar collectors to heat water in order to cook for a hospital. The units were not only simple but extremely small given the number of meals that could be cooked. However using water as the medium to store the heat limited the temperature to 120 degrees C. Any higher and the water would change from a liquid to gas, generate pressure and run the risk of exploding. Similarly only water above a temperature of 60 degrees C was useful as once it dropped below 60 degrees C conditions become suitable for the growth of harmful bacteria. Thus the amount of usable energy that can later be extracted with water as the storage medium is a fraction of the amount of energy that could be collected by the array if another medium was used.

An alternative substrate with a higher boiling point would permit that temperature to rise to 500 degrees or more. This would not only allow for more energy to be captured but at 500 degrees the energy would be sufficient to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. Heat can also be stored and then used to generate electricity during the night. Combined with accommodation the thermal updraft generated by the collector could provide negative pressure to both drive an air conditioning system and to seed the updraft with moisture laden air. Rising and cooling rapidly this moist air should facilitate the formation of  low altitude clouds which both reflect solar radiation and aid localized precipitation.  Self contained and producing more energy than required for the concept itself the surplus electricity could be sold or used to desalinate sea water and that water could be used to re-afforest the desert…

The idea that the West coast of Africa was once wooded and home to elephants and that this could be restored is not as far fetched as it may first seem. The Sahara was not always as large as it is today with large tracts along the mediterranean coast having being heavily wooded and capable of supporting larger populations than it does today. There are various theories as to what caused the decline of the forests and the subsequent expanse of the Sahara but most, and the most probable, involve an axe. It’s who precisely was wielding it that the arguments are usually over.

The Sahara Forest Project

sahara forest project

sahara forest project

With projects in Tunisia, Jordan and Qatar, The Sahara Forest Project, a private limited company sponsored by The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, the EU and others intends to create  “a new environmental solution designed to utilize what we have enough of to produce what we need more of, using deserts, saltwater, sunlight and CO2 to produce food, water and clean energy.


Ouarzazate Solar Power Station

CSP maroc

NOOR CSP Ouarzazate

East of the Atlas mountains set in the Sahara desert is Morocco’s NOOR project: Covering an area of 2500 ha-1 it is home to three of the World’s largest concentrated solar power units in the World. The culmination of six years work the plants, when they all come on line, will be capable of producing 580 MW of electricity, sufficient energy to power a million homes. The Noor facility uses two different arrays but both use a salt solution which can be heated to 400 degrees C. This heat is then used to generate steam to drive a turbine or stored to provide sufficient heat to maintain electricity generation for 8 hours of darkness.


Greening the Desert, with the Sea


Tarfay Sands, where the Desert meets the Sea

The NOOR CSP plant at Ouarzazate demonstrate that it is technically feasible and cost effective to harness solar energy to generate carbon neutral power.  The Sahara Forest Project has further demonstrated that it is possible to use this energy to desalinate water, grow trees, capture CO2 and reverse the effects of climate change. The cost of desalinating sea water with a modern plant is now 3.5kwh m3 of water produced. In Perth Western Australia this out put is achieved largely using renewable energy.

Thus a plant with the same 200MW power output of NOOR III could produce 57 million litres of water a day. Sufficient to irrigate 400 ha of  agricultural land to a depth of 100ml water per week ;the equivalent to a mean annual precipitation of 500mm per year. Whilst insignificant in the 260,000 km2 expanse of desert that is Moroccan Sahara it is sufficient to create a forest oasis of a million or more trees covering an area of 2km2. Stretched out this forest could provide a shaded road from Tarfaya to Layonne  (10% 0f the coast line).

The Mauritania Forest Road 

It’s been fifteen years since I first heard of the Mauritania Forest Road project on an Easyjet flight from Granada; and in that time not a single tree has been planted in it’s name. That however doesn’t mean this project is a failure, on the contrary. It never really started and had it done so, without water it would have failed. The technology and the political will have still yet to be fully realised for such an ambitious concept to stand any chance of success; but as with all our environmental woes it is not an absence of solutions that holds us back, but more our refusal to adopt them.