A new generation of apps is needed to change the course of history

By 16 October, 2018 News

Humanity currently faces a crossroads[1]. 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[2] 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[3].

Imagine the following:

  • A rural farmer plants several hundred tree saplings in a degraded watershed.
  • The farmer tends the saplings and takes regular photographs[4] 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[5], 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[6].
  • 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[7] willing to plant and tend their trees[8]. 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[9];
  • keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by locking up vast quantities of carbon in forests[10] 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[11], 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[12]. 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[13], champions to work out how to prevent the app from being exploited by criminal networks[14], and champions to ensure the app steers the planet on an appropriate ecological trajectory[15] based on the best available scientific evidence[16].

If you are potentially such a champion or you know of such champions, please email us at info@c4es.co.za. 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[17], economic forces[18] and political systems[19] 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.

Anthony Mills
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[20]. Compared with the degraded thicket, the restored thicket: i) has ~100 tonnes more carbon stored in plants and soils[21]; ii) is ~10 times more productive in terms of farming livestock or game; iii) has water infiltration rates several times greater[22]; 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).

Footnotes

[1] see the latest IPCC special report http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
[2] for example, the internal combustion engine and the burning of coal to produce electricity.
[3] Another way in which artificial intelligence can lead us away from excessive warming is by transforming the transport sector globally. See, for example, the article ‘Why you have (probably) already bought your last car’ by Justin Rowlatt at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45786690
[4] Photos would be taken using a smartphone which has the app installed. The app would need to designed in such a way that rural farmers could easily pick up the skills to use it.
[5] Apps, such as TrestimaTM, show that this is eminently achievable. TrestimaTM uses photographs to calculate the amount of timber available for harvesting in forested landscapes. See https://www.trestima.com/en
[6] NGOs like WWF are already employing advanced technologies to track how natural resources are being used and to promote the most appropriate actions on the ground. See for example http://www.wwf.org.au/news/news/2018/how-blockchain-and-a-smartphone-can-stamp-out-illegal-fishing-and-slavery-in-the-tuna-industry#gs.LFCdCUw.
[7] The willingness of rural farmers will be dependent on systems being in place to pay for their efforts. Such systems are not available to >99% of rural people globally. In a few places across the planet, payments are being made to communities and/or landowners for managing ecosystems for benefits such as water generation or carbon storage. But these examples are few and far between, and typically involve large institutions and companies, which result in considerable transaction costs. The world’s current restoration efforts are a ‘drop in the ocean’ relative to what is required. The proposed app would enable restoration of ecosystems to take place on a vast scale across the planet.
[8] The ecosystem restoration would not be restricted to planting of trees. It could include managing grasslands or agricultural fields to increase storage of soil carbon, to improve water infiltration rates, and to boost productivity of crop or livestock farming systems.
[9] The restoration activities for each ecosystem would need to be carefully tailored to ensure that the appropriate plant species are introduced. The app would, for example, need to guide farmers on what species to plant in different landscapes.
[10] This is not without its challenges. Hundreds of billions of trees will need to be planted, and the area of land required will be between 3.2 million km2 (approximately the size of India) to 9.7 million km2 (approximately the size of Canada). https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/11/16/greenhouse-gases-must-be-scrubbed-from-the-air
[11] to geotag plants
[12] There are numerous scientists currently highlighting the opportunities that technology provides for managing the planet’s ecological problems. Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist, Lucas Joppa, for example, notes “…history will judge the success of the Information Age by our ability to deploy its resulting technology in stewardship of the planet. It’s a big challenge, but an even bigger opportunity”. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08675-7.
[13]   Lessons learned will need to be taken into account from environmental projects that are already using remote sensing and aerial photography for reducing the costs of monitoring changes in land practices such as tree planting. See for example: http://www.f3-life.com/ and https://www.gatesnotes.com/Development/FarmBeats
[14] Fraud to be countered would include altering of images and geotags. Corruption to be countered would include, for example, the illegal control of land to plant trees.
[15] Each site will need an appropriate mix of plant species to maximise the benefits from an ecological and social perspective. In some cases there will be trade-offs between benefits such as carbon, water, wildlife habitat and food production. These trade-offs will require careful assessment and management by land owners and local authorities. Given the complexity of ecosystems and socio-economic systems, restoration of ecosystems on a vast scale will require substantial innovation from inter alia ecologists, botanists, horticulturalists, social scientists, zoologists and economists across the world. Proposed approaches to such innovation are described in the following paper: https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/6/11/4328/html.
[16] Multi-disciplinary collaboration will be essential. Ecologists, investors, climate change experts, social scientists, app developers, soil scientists, bankers and telecommunications experts will all need to work together for years in a close-knit team.
[17] The lack of internet connectivity in some rural areas and the coarse resolution of GPS functionality on smartphones are two such barriers that would need innovative fixes.
[18] The cost of data and money transfer are examples of economic barrier to overcome. Telecommunication companies and banks would need to be persuaded to waive fees on data and funds, respectively, transferred via the app.
[19] The app would need to be integrated into the institutional arrangements in each landscape, including, for example, local land-use planning processes and legislative frameworks.
[20] The South African government has funded the restoration of more than ten thousand hectares of degraded thicket over the period 2004-2016. In total more than 20 million cuttings of spekboom (Portulacaria afra) have been planted, including within a large experiment of 330 quarter-hectare plots. It has been impractical to regularly monitor the success of restoration across the ten thousand hectares and the 330 plots because the restoration sites are spread out over more than 1000 kilometres. Recent technological advances are now, however, making regular monitoring possible. The new Thicket Inspector tool has, for example been specially created using Earth Engine Apps for this purpose (see https://zandersamuel.users.earthengine.app/view/c4-thicket-inspector). The tool uses satellite imagery to analyse, at regular intervals since 2005, the difference in vegetation cover between each experiment plot and adjacent degraded land. Instead of relying on costly field surveys, landowners could use this tool for demonstrating to funders how successful their restoration interventions have been over time
[21] Mills, A.J., Cowling, R.M., Fey, M.V., Kerley, G.I.H., Donaldson, J.S., Lechmere‐Oertel, R.G., Sigwela, A.M., Skowno, A.L. and Rundel, P., 2005. Effects of goat pastoralism on ecosystem carbon storage in semiarid thicket, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Austral ecology, 30(7), pp.797-804. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1442-9993.2005.01523.x
[22] Mills, A. and Fey, M., 2004. Transformation of thicket to savanna reduces soil quality in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Plant and Soil265(1-2), pp.153-163. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11104-005-0534-2.