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If climate is location specific, our solutions should be too

In the UAE, palm tree waste streams are being used to fertilise land in a de-desertification process which reduces emissions, brings food miles down and increases domestic security. As Alastair Collier explains, often our best hopes for slowing the environmental crisis are specific to place.

desert during daytime

No single solution to the climate crisis exists. As a complex, multilayered challenge, it must be addressed with a wide array of measures and tech. At A Healthier Earth, we believe the key is to take a geocentric approach that works in harmony with the planet’s natural cycles and systems.

In this context, the best solutions are local, because they’re tailored to the physical, social and cultural characteristics of each place, considering the specific challenges of a location and applying bespoke solutions to tackle them. At the same time, such solutions must contribute to wider environmental objectives – like the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

By considering both local issues and the bigger picture in tandem, we are more likely to achieve meaningful transformation at scale in the short time we have left. This is because such measures, by their very nature, tackle multiple issues: the greatest problems on-the-ground and wider challenges too. This also means that they will appeal to a broader set of audiences, with differing priorities. Winning hearts and minds in this way is key to the rapid systemic change required.

Multipronged, geocentric solutions require a whole systems approach, considering not just the climate solution itself, but what can be done in each step up and down from the core technology to drive maximum benefits for a region. For example, this might require understanding the impacts and opportunities for the raw materials being input, as well as finding valuable, locally relevant use-cases for the outputs.

The United Arab Emirates is a perfect example of where solutions specific to that region are key to helping the country mitigate the effects of climate change. An arid land with vast sandy deserts, the UAE imports 85% of its food, giving it an outsized carbon footprint. What’s more, this situation leaves the country vulnerable to external market and supply issues. Food security is the key consideration to approach when looking at an integrated climate change solution for the UAE.

Unfortunately for the UAE, as the climate emergency escalates, things are set to only get worse. Global food systems will increasingly struggle to cope with rising temperatures and extreme weather events, resulting in produce shortages and supply chains difficulties. For countries that can’t grow their own food, this prospect is alarming.

However, the UAE is also known for its amazing palm trees, which are considered one of its national treasures. Largely date palms, they produce around 500,000 tons of agricultural waste each year, mainly in the form of wood scraps. As things stand, this waste is largely burnt or dumped in landfill. In a country with a harsh climate and few natural resources, this makes no sense.

green coconut tree leaf at daytime

At A Healthier Earth, we’re currently working on a de-desertification project, making use of this palm tree waste by turning it into biochar – a carbon-rich substance that can be added to soils to improve both their fertility and ability to catch and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Biochar is made when organic materials are heated in a process called ‘pyrolysis’, which locks away its carbon in a stable form and prevents it from returning to the atmosphere. It’s a natural means of carbon capture that’s recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as having the potential to reduce global warming. To maximise its positive impacts, biochar needs to be part of a circular economy, created from local, pre-existing waste products and used to deliver a range of benefits – usually in the realms of agriculture and forestry, but its applications are rapidly expanding into areas including construction and renewable energy.

Our project has been designed to offer a series of interlinked benefits. By adding biochar made from palm tree waste with organic compost to local sandy soils, we can create value from a major waste stream in the UAE to tackle the country’s food security issues whilst also addressing an emissions challenge. The biochar boosts soils ability to retain nutrients and water, creating healthy, stable soils in the desert and increasing local agricultural productivity without proportionately driving up water consumption. For example, every hectare of reclaimed desert has the capacity to produce up to five tonnes of wheat.

Simultaneously, the creation of these healthy soils itself directly sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, locking it in and storing it, creating domestic carbon removal. The result: as a nation, the UAE will be less reliant on food imports. From a wider perspective, pressures on global food systems will decrease.

When it comes to solutions to the climate emergency, one size does not fit all. All over the world, we must deploy a range of geocentric solutions that work on both a micro and macro level. In practice, this means addressing local problems that relate to specific geographies, terrains and weather systems with bespoke measures that also help meet overarching environmental goals. The answer is local solutions to global problems.

Alastair Collier is Chief R&D Officer at A Healthier Earth.

More features: 

How to spot climate misinformation and disinformation, and counter both

The Englishwoman who bought a mountain and planted 250,000 trees

Sustainable supermarket choices: Easter, electrified deliveries, and food banks

Images: Mark Kuiper (top) / Pawel Czerwinski (bottom)


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