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.