Permanent Monitoring Panel on Desertification - Report
Given to Seminar on Planetary Emergencies
Problem: The issue of desertification has been debated for a generation. There is little disagreement that there has been an environmental decline in much of the worlds drylands particularly in Africa. However, there has been contentious debate about:
Although global conferences have addressed desertification specifically, or as part of a broader set of global concerns that resulted in an international convention, little substantive action has taken place. For the past decade, the desertification "debate" has remained largely a series of academic skirmishes. The reasons for the marginalization of the desertification topic have been economic. Most development in dryland areas has intentionally focused on irrigation where very high returns on investment potentially could be achieved. As investment opportunities, rainfed agriculture or livestock grazing are not competitive and they have received only sporadic attention usually in the aftermath of disaster. Thus, until quite recently, development efforts have touched only a small fraction of the total dryland area of the globe.
New Opportunities: The prospect of global warming through the accumulation of "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere will likely exacerbate desertification and the degradation of arid lands. Decreasing the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases has dominated recent environmental debate - most notably CO2 emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels and land use changes (i.e., deforestation; conversion of grasslands to crops). As a result, world attention has focused on limiting CO2 emissions and ultimately reducing total atmospheric CO2. This concern culminated in the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (1997) that establishes limits on total net CO2 emissions by industrialized countries (i.e., "Annex 1 countries). By establishing these limits, CO2 may be emitted so long as it is offset, or sequestered, through some other process. The imposition of limits also helps to establish a basis by which carbon might be traded as a commodity.
The most obvious way to sequester carbon is to increase standing above-ground biomass (e.g., trees). However, global stocks of CO2 in the soil are two times larger than that in plant biomass but have become depleted through a variety of management practices (e.g., conversions to agriculture and urbanization; overgrazing). Thus, storing carbon in the soil (as living root biomass, soil flora and fauna, and accumulated soil organic matter) offers more substantial prospects for sustained sequestration.
Under "Kyoto," those who emit CO2 (e.g., coal-fired electric power plants) would compensate to adopt alternative tillage practices, or land managers to plant and/or maintain natural vegetation that would sequester carbon in an amount that would offset their emissions using some mechanism of trade or bilateral development. This could substantially help reduce atmospheric CO2, and would also help to distribute more equitably the costs and benefits of a growing world economy between developing and developed countries. In addition to economic benefits, sequestration of carbon in soils in the form of organic matter also would have direct environmental benefits by restoring lost soil productivity, conserving soil and water resources, and preserving biological diversity. Finally, soil carbon sequestration will allow developing countries to become active and meaningful participants in the global struggle to address climate change.
Among all types of land, degraded (desertified) drylands offer considerable opportunity for carbon sequestration: (1) they are extensive; (2) they offer low opportunity costs; and, (3) they are occupied by the most economically and politically disadvantaged populations on Earth. For combating desertification, carbon sequestration may offer a missing economic engine that would allow farmers and herders to benefit from the global economy, enhance their livelihood, and improve their local environment. It thus offers a unique opportunity to address directly two international conventions the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. It is also contributes to a third the Convention on Biological Diversity by enhancing local habitat and biological productivity and thus reducing pressure on adjacent endangered habitats.
Issues: Two international workshops within the past year have helped focus attention on soil carbon sequestration as a vehicle for development. In these, the potential of soil carbon sequestration was specifically identified as a potential tool for combating desertification and enhancing agricultural sustainability. Discussions during these workshops revealed that the potential of this tool is limited by at least three issues.
Limits of the convention. The Kyoto Protocol focuses on forest ecosystems as the primary vehicle for terrestrial carbon sequestration and does not explicitly recognize carbon that might be stored in soils in other ecosystems.
Limits of awareness. There is a general awareness and understanding of the objectives of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. However, the potential synergism of soil carbon sequestration as a mechanism for addressing them both simultaneously is largely unrecognized particularly among those countries that might benefit most (i.e., the countries of the arid and semiarid zone).
Limits of experience. The mechanisms by which these conventions might be made to work are not yet well defined. At a national or regional level, there is the challenge of shaping existing governmental institutions to respond to the new demands of implementing projects to satisfy the conventions. At the local level, there are the challenges of:
2. PROPOSED ACTIVITIES
The Desertification PMP proposes to initiate a multi-pronged initiative to explore more fully and demonstrate, we hope the degree to which three planetary emergencies (desertification, climate change, biological diversity) can be addressed synergistically.
2.1 Erice Declaration on Carbon Sequestration in Soils
In response to issue 1 above, the first involves a campaign to recognize soil carbon within the Kyoto Protocol. This will begin with a statement prepared by the World Federation of Scientists. Subsequently, it will be pursued by explaining to a broader audience (ultimately policy makers) the significance of this oversight through routine publications and briefings (where possible), and pursuit of the following two activities.
2.2 International Workshop on Soil Carbon Sequestration for Desertification Control
In response to issue 2, we propose to hold a workshop in Erice in early March, 2000. The purposes will be:
Participants would include:
The four-day workshop will have four parts:
Soil carbon sequestration (day 1).
National action programs (day 2).
Working group discussions (day 3).
Reports (day 4).
In response to issue 3, the workshop is intended to serve as a sound base upon which substantive programs can be built within Africa and other parts of the semiarid zone. At present, projects are anticipated in at least one region of Africa (sponsored by the United States), and one country in Africa (sponsored by Sweden).
2.3 World Laboratory Fellow in Desertification Control
As noted above, the U.S. Geological Survey EROS Data Center has an active program in soil carbon sequestration in development. To build capacity in Africa and possible lay the foundation for a project in Africa (see 2.2 ), a staff member of Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE Senegal) will be detailed to USGS/EROS Data Center. The purpose will be to provide training in: (1) remote sensing; (2) GIS data base development; and (3) carbon sequestration for desertification control.
2.4 Desertification in the Mediterranean Basin
Desertification also affects the Mediterranean Basin. The Italian government has recently released a national report on desertification. It claims that upwards of 40 percent of the country exhibits problems that might be attributed to desertification.
2.4.1 Desertification Demonstration Project
The data sets that might be employed include systematic observations (e.g., weather records), historical ground and aerial photography, historical satellite images, archival records (e.g., agricultural production; crop or forest surveys), historical narratives (e.g., newspaper reports; personal journals; published descriptions of specific sites), and personal interviews (e.g., land managers, residents, government officials).
Monitoring would be based on the baseline assessment, with the intent of identifying where changes from those "initial" conditions occur and determining their causes. The effort would be based on an analysis of the most current data within the sets described above. However, satellite data (and aerial photography where available) would be the primary monitoring tool, supplemented by systematic observations, archival records, and interviews.
Control/intervention would focus on those areas in which land management practices had been successful in retaining or restoring productive capacity. The purpose would be to develop an understanding of: (1) the physical and biological processes involved, as well as; (2) the physical, biological, economic, and policy preconditions that allowed the management practice to succeed. This would permit the identification of suitable interventions and the areas that would be most favorable in which to implement them.
2.4.2 Capacity Building for Wildfire Potential Monitoring
1. "Land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities" (United Nations Environment Program, 1992). Here we largely exclude irrigated areas and focus on those drylands characterized by land uses such as livestock grazing and marginal rainfed agriculture. (Back to text)
4. "Carbon Sequestration in Soils: Science,
Monitoring and Beyond," organized by Batelle Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory, held in St. Michaels, Maryland in December, 1998.
5. Lal, R., H.M. Hassan, and J. Dumanski. 1999, "Desertification control to sequester C and mitigate the greenhouse effect," in, Carbon Sequestration in Soils: Science, Monitoring, and Beyond, N.J. Rosenberg, R.C. Izaurralde, and E.L. Malone, eds. Batelle Press. Columbus and Richland (pp. 83-152). (Back to text)