Harvesting trees to achieve twin Goal of climate amelioration
The article illustrates how we join the fight in climate action which is at the core of our principles.
Climate change is one of the hardest accepted realities in today’s world. In 1987 when the Bruntland Commission filed the report our common future it laid the foundation for sustainable development. It is not an isolated or only report that has signified the importance of sustainability but it laid the foundation of a structured principle. Through the 1980s climate change was more of an intellectual talk but unprecedented events recorded over the next decades that are related to the changes caused by erratic climatic patterns changed our perception of climate change. Climate change was now no longer a distant reality but its influence was a part of our daily life.
Climate change is the long term change in the climate patterns mainly caused by global warming. The phenomenon of rise in global average temperature due release of green house gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide, methane, HFCs etc is known as global warming. Global warming causes the air and the water cycle to be changed in unknown ways causing changes in precipitation, formation of storms, and uneven weather conditions. Meteorologist and data scientist around the world are trying to model data to predict and understand such events but limited by our understanding of flow of air currents coupled with erratic patterns created by climate change makes it a daunting task.
Before moving ahead let us try to understand how exactly climate change impacts our daily life. In the twenty first century climate change is the single most important factor that impacts our life and if not dealt with adequate action, it will bring mankind to an existential crisis. As the global temperature rises there are hotter and longer summer months. Places like Tokyo have experienced heat waves from June through August 2022 which can be attributed to climate change. India has recorded some of the highest early and late summer temperatures i.e. highest temperatures ever recorder in the month of February, March, September, and October. The longer and hotter summers have increased the need for coolers and freezers which is going to increase our electricity bills. The change in climate conditions also have given rise to disease carriers like pests, mosquitoes etc. specially in tropical countries like India. This poses a serious health threat. The unseasonal heavy showers and storms damages crops lowering food production. With similar events reciprocating around the world, this will cause global food shortages. The recent push for cultivation of millets by the central government is an attempt to counter the lower production of staple crops in India. We need to understand that the climate change is coupled with huge soil and water pollution which is lowering our cultivable land and a ever growing population to feed. This will push the low earning people to hunger and even trigger famines. Changes in seasonal patterns will cause unwanted natural events like unseasonal floods or droughts which will make agriculture evn tougher. European floods in 2021 and frequent forest fires in California are results of such changes in climatic patterns. This is just tip of the ice berg. The initial change caused by the change in climate adds to the subsequent change making the next impact even more severe. The case of dying Dead Sea in Israel can be a good topic of study to understand this process.
It is not possible to stop the release of GHG into the atmosphere but in small amounts, it is harmless as small amounts of it are absorbed back by the earth’s vegetation. But human activities have raised it beyond the level where it is gone in excess of the capabilities of absorbing back by the vegetation. Since the commencement of industrial revolution there has been an unprecedented rise in the release of GHG into the atmosphere. Bill gates in his book titled how to avoid a climate disaster mentioned that a total of 51 billion tons of GHG is emitted every year. Though almost all human activities are contributor to the GHG but some of the activities are significant contributors of the GHG emission. Two major contributors to the emission of GHG are industrial production processes that contribute about 31% and production of energy that contributes about 27% of the GHG. Among the production processes 10% of the total GHG emissions come from production of steel and cement.
Minimizing the GHG emission due to the production of energy has received significant attention and sincere efforts are being made to produce energy from clean sources. With the growth of urban infrastructure the demand for steel and cement is every increasing specially in fast developing countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa etc. Now let us understand the basic chemistry of steel and cement. Making 1 ton of steel produces about 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide. Coal is mixed with carbon which produces carbon dioxide. Steel can be completely recycled which has a lower footprint as compared to the production of virgin steel however the recycling still needs virgin steel to be produced until all the steel that the world needs is been produced. The CO2 footprint of these two methods is 1.987 and 0.357 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of steel produced respectively. Limestone is burned to produce calcium oxide used for the production of cement and carbon dioxide which is a major GHG. For every ton of cement an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide is produced.
The question we try to answer here is how we can potentially lower the 10% of the emission caused by steel and cement production to net zero i.e. emission of GHG equals absorption. The two goals that we try to achieve are how to lower the emission to net zero level and reverse the level of existing GHG in atmosphere to zero. We need to have a concerted effort with multiple stakeholders playing their parts. The most natural option for reducing GHG is by planting trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide the dominant GHG by the process of photosynthesis. In this part of the article we are going to analyze if planting trees can revert the presence and future release of GHG.
Let us start with a few numbers. Our first target is to absorb the carbon dioxide produced. A tree absorbs anywhere between 10 and 40kg of CO2 per year on average, depending on a whole host of factors. For example when there is more incident sunlight and there is more water the photosynthetic activity increases increasing the carbon absorption. Our aim is not to calculate the exact numbers but to average out as a percentage of the emission. Let’s start by trying to understand a scenario when we plant a huge area. For example, say we plant the area equivalent to an area of India which is 32,87,263 square kilometers. It will absorb about 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide which is about 31 percent of the total absorption we target. There are certain caveats to this model. Firstly, the availability of such a huge geographical area is difficult. Hypothetically even if we plant an extensive area there will be a change in the weather around the planted area. Well, it's hard to predict the exact conditions but we can say that the temperature in the extensive planted area will reduce which will cause a low-pressure area that might cause excessive rain and storm when it comes in contact with high-pressure currents around the periphery of the area. There will be extensive impact on the air current which might have long-reaching consequences. The second model involves the planting of trees in an unstructured fashion. For example, many plantation drives are conducted on environment day. This kind of plantation is not significant to make the desired impact. Say even if 10,000 trees are planted it has an annual absorption of 2,00,000 kgs which is not making any significant contribution. The survival rate of the plantation drives is very low owing to the low maintenance. Plantation needs to be planned with selected species so that we can maximize the absorption capabilities. If we try to compare the absorption rate of a fast-growing and with a tree that matures in a few decades it is hard to say exactly which would have a better absorption rate per annum unless it is genetically modified to do so. But there are other advantages when we use fast-growing trees in terms of the economics of the model. It can be grown in association with farmers giving them returns in short period of time.
Tropical climate which has comparatively high rainfall and adequate sunshine has a faster rate of growth as compared to temperate zone. This region also has most of the 30% of the natural forest cover of the earth. Assam lies just above the tropical region. The tea plantation of Assam provides the required cultivable land for agroforestry. States like UP are planting poplar trees for the plywood industry. The fast-growing trees incentivize the farmers with a return in a short period of about 5-6 years. The developments in genetic engineering will have a huge role to play in the modification and selection of target species. Let us look at a few numbers on how GHG absorption can be influenced. The calculations are kept simple as possible. First, as we do the calculation we assume that 4 trees can be planted at 4 square meters. If we consider 10% of the agricultural area in India planted with fast-growing trees it will have an absorption capacity of 6 billion tons which is 11% of the total GHG emitted per annum. Considering 2% of the land area it is a very high rate of absorption. It is interesting to note that in addition to the carbon offset so created the wood stock can be used to augment the steel and cement used in construction lowering the carbon footprint. Wood volume from a tree with 12 feet in height and 9 inches in girth diameter is 5.2 CFT. If we convert it to a 1 inch thickness wood board the approximate area is about 6 square meters. A steel sheet of 1 mm thickness and the same area would weigh 47 kg. With the growth plantation as projected a total of 1637,950,000 tons of wood material is available. If we have a 60% utilization ratio it is above 982 million tons equivalent of material is available. This model is the best chance of fighting climate change and creating materials that doesn’t bring us to the same fight decades after we have used it. The model involves many technical challenges on utilization and achieving the plantation goals with economics which is the core area of business work at Bah Bet.
There is one and only one planet sustaining life at least for now so, whatever we do we have to do it in a way that it retains so. Nature creates its balance and it might take a shake to rebalance it and make it life-sustaining again just that mankind might not be a part of that ecosystem anymore.