Humanity currently faces a crossroads. In one direction, our planet warms beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the other direction, our politicians, economists and scientists collaborate and innovate intensely to avert the warming.
If we allow the warming to happen, the scientific community warns that the following awaits us:
- death of most coral reefs across the world;
- droughts that cause hundreds of millions of people to become refugees;
- flooding that devastates cities and vast tracts of farmland; and
- the demise of countless species of fish, birds, reptiles, insects and mammals.
Technology has led us to the crossroads. Can it now lead us in the direction away from excessive warming? I can envisage a new generation of smartphone apps which use artificial intelligence to put us on the appropriate track.
Imagine the following:
- A rural farmer plants several hundred tree saplings in a degraded watershed.
- The farmer tends the saplings and takes regular photographs of them as they mature into trees.
- The app analyses the photographs, as well as satellite images, and calculates how much extra water is flowing out of the watershed as a result of the presence of the trees.
- A downstream water user, such as a municipality or factory, pays the farmer via the app for the extra water.
- The buyers of the water use the app to track how well the trees are growing and how much water is being generated through time.
Now imagine the app also calculating how much carbon the trees are capturing, how much fruit is being produced, how much fodder could be harvested from the trees, how much soil is being conserved, how much honey is being produced by bees visiting the trees, how much income the trees are generating for the farmer, and how many reptiles, birds, insects and mammals the trees are supporting.
It’s easy to envisage a municipality paying the farmer for water, but who would pay for other benefits provided by the tree, such as stored carbon, fruit, and habitats for wildlife? There are numerous possibilities.
- A large corporate in a nearby city may want to offset its carbon emissions by restoring the forest in the degraded watershed and uplifting local rural farming communities in the process.
- A local NGO that focuses on children’s health may want to pay for fruit production because children routinely walk through the restored forest on their way to school and harvest fruit along the way.
- A hydropower operator may want to pay for protection of soil because the silt that erodes into rivers damages its turbines.
- Local commercial farmers may want to pay for the planting of trees favoured by bees to boost the pollination of their crops.
- International NGOs that focus on wildlife conservation may want to pay for the maintenance of the trees so that they provide habitat for endangered wildlife.
- A local or international philanthropist wanting to restore degraded ecosystems as well as increase income streams for poor rural communities would be yet another buyer of benefits provided by the trees.
Buyers are unlikely to be a limiting factor and neither are rural farmers willing to plant and tend their trees. It’s consequently conceivable that such an app could connect billions of people, generate billions of dollars for local communities and put the planet on a new trajectory for humanity as well as fish, birds, reptiles, insects and other mammals. The trajectory would be one of:
- restoring the world’s degraded ecosystems;
- keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by locking up vast quantities of carbon in forests and soils;
- improving soil quality and farm productivity;
- generating billions of litres of extra water through watershed restoration; and
- lifting poor rural communities out of poverty.
In short, it would transform the planet and change the course of history.
Our scientific understanding of how ecosystems function, how water flows through watersheds, how forests affect water flow and how soils can lock up carbon is undoubtedly up to the challenge of developing such an app. Similarly, the technology and data currently available such as GPS on phones, image recognition software, mobile money transfer systems, machine learning, cloud computing and high-resolution satellite images could surely be connected and tailored to support the app. What is needed are champions. Champions to provide the funding to develop the app, champions to garner political will, champions to spearhead the technological wizardry underpinning the app, champions to work out how to prevent the app from being exploited by criminal networks, and champions to ensure the app steers the planet on an appropriate ecological trajectory based on the best available scientific evidence.
If you are potentially such a champion or you know of such champions, please email us at email@example.com. We would like to start the process of convening the champions to make this app a reality.
The development of the app will not be without its challenges. Barriers relating to technology, economic forces and political systems may ultimately prove to be insurmountable. There is, however, one certainty in amongst the complexity and that is that our children and grandchildren would not forgive us if we didn’t try our best to navigate through, over or around such barriers.
Founder and CEO of C4 EcoSolutions
The above photograph shows a fence-line in a degraded watershed in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. On the right of the fence is degraded thicket vegetation. On the left is restored thicket. Compared with the degraded thicket, the restored thicket: i) has ~100 tonnes more carbon stored in plants and soils; ii) is ~10 times more productive in terms of farming livestock or game; iii) has water infiltration rates several times greater; iv) has soil temperatures several times cooler; and v) is home to many more indigenous plants, reptiles, birds, insects and mammals. The widespread degradation of thicket, as a result of injudicious goat farming, in the Eastern Cape is easily viewed from Google Earth. Click on the following links for examples of other fence-line contrasts: Steytlerville; Kirkwood; and Glenconnor. The restored thicket site shown in the photograph is also easily viewed from Google Earth (see Krompoort).