Soon to be published in the June/July issue of North Simcoe Community News.

grass3opt

I used to be convinced that overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels was our only chance for survival. Now I’m not so sure.

Jim Hansen, recently retired head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a renowned climate scientist, is credited with determining that CO2 levels in the atmosphere need to be no higher than 350 ppm to avoid disaster. We are currently over 400 ppm and rising.

The only solution, it seemed, was to find a technical solution to our energy dilemma: we need cheap, plentiful energy to maintain our complex societies, but if we plan to be around for generations to come, we also must drastically cut our carbon emissions.

But what if there was a low cost way to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil, while restoring vulnerable ecosystems and enhancing our food productivity?

Allan Savory, a leading authority on the world’s grasslands, says that we can reverse climate change by fighting desertification. The Savory Institute and its sister organization, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, are using his holistic management approach, (which involves understanding natural systems and using them to manage resources) to restore vast areas of grasslands on five continents. His work won him the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Award for ‘the organization working to solve the world’s most pressing problems.’

According to Allan, about two-thirds of Earth’s landmass is experiencing some degree of desertification. (Canada is officially listed as an “affected nation” by the United Nations because 60% of our croplands and 80% of our rangelands are in dry-land areas.) If we don’t solve this crisis (and the related problems of bio-diversity loss, climate change and social upheaval) our future looks dim.

Allan’s solution is remarkably logical. In these areas that experience months of humidity followed by months of dryness, the soil and vegetation evolved along with enormous herds of grazing animals and ferocious pack hunting predators. During wet months, grasses and other vegetation grow thickly to completely cover the soil. Massive herds of grazing animals help the grass to decay biologically before the next wet season. Because they dung and urinate over their own food, they have to keep moving, leaving areas covered in mulch ready to soak up water and plants primed to grow again. The predators keep the herds bunched together in massive numbers.

When you remove the huge bunched and moving herds of grazing animals the tall grasses decay through the slow process of oxidation, grass is smothered and killed, woody vegetation takes over, ground is laid bare, water runs off or evaporates and the soil releases vast amounts of carbon.

To enable re-growth of vegetation, the standard practice is to burn the dried grass. New plants can then grow, but you still have the problem of bare ground and massive carbon emissions. Burning one hectare of grasslands produces the same amount of pollution as 6,000 cars. In Africa, over one billion hectares are burned each year. Clearly, this practice has to stop.

Allan calculates that desertification is a major contributor to climate change (maybe even more than fossil fuels). If we were to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels without addressing desertification, climate change will still proceed. But if we were to restore half of the Earth’s grasslands, we would take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, returning atmospheric CO2 to pre-industrial levels.

We are presented with a low-cost solution of working with nature to solve the world’s most desperate problems. What we need now is for all government leaders to engage in discussing and supporting holistic management projects to address desertification. Canada, especially, needs to be part of this collaboration. We are a nation at risk, and our wellbeing is extremely reliant on the fossil fuel industry.

I was disappointed to learn this year that Canada was the only country to withdraw from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, apparently to save $300,000 per year, less than what it will cost to feed the pandas in Toronto. Are you satisfied with this decision? If not, make sure to let your MP know.

See Allan Savory’s riveting Ted Talk video at: http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html.)

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