Climate change: the mission to combat desertification

Climate change: the mission to combat desertification

Find out more about the importance of climate change research and renewable energy in the fight against desertification with professor Filippo Giorgi of the ICTP

With their eyes pointing skywards to look for clues in the clouds, the sun and the wind, some people hope for calm, others for rain. Once upon a time it was the sailors and farmers who would scan the horizon so as to predict storms or fine weather and the change in the seasons.

Today complex physical-mathematical models, supported by digitalisation and the power of superfast computer calculations, help us to outline, in rapid time, medium- and long-term scenarios concerning the effects of climate change on society, the economy and the production of energy.

In order to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by research and technology in this field, at the beginning of 2018 our Group signed an agreement with the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy and its team of physicists and climatologists led by Professor Filippo Giorgi.

The partnership is key to the orientation of our long-term growth strategy and serves as a tool that will help us to raise awareness amongst a growing number of people, beginning with our stakeholders, of the necessity to lead the energy transition towards electrification and production from renewable sources. The mission involves science, finance, industry and education, in order to combat the consequences of climate change that include the progressive desertification of the land.

In 1995, one year after the signing in Paris of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 17 June was chosen as the World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD).  


Climate change: what’s the forecast?

Climate change is an undeniable scientific fact, the perception of which, however, remains largely unclear in public opinion. This may well be due in part to the widespread confusion between the concepts of “the weather forecast” and “climatic scenarios.”

“It is now well known that it is physically impossible to predict how the weather will develop more than 10 days ahead. This is because the climatic-atmospheric system is not linear, while small perturbations can also modify the forecast. It is therefore reasonable to ask the question: if it isn’t possible to predict the weather in 10 days’ time, how can we hope to predict the climate 30, 40 or even 100 years from now? In reality, we are talking about two very different things.” This is the explanation offered by Professor Filippo Giorgi, one of the world’s leading climate experts, whom we met at the ICTP offices, located in the heart of the Miramare Castle Park in Trieste. This port and frontier city, which is both multicultural and Middle European, was chosen in 1964 by Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam to host his fellow physicists and other scientists. Today the Institute is a centre of excellence equipped with cutting-edge technology and a crossroads for young scholars from every corner of the world. It is also home to the SciFabLab, a scientific laboratory open to both the general public and to schools and a place where visitors can reach out and touch some of the wonders of physics, thanks to environmental simulators and mathematical models created using 3D printers.

“The physicists study the climate through analytical models and statistical data relating to atmospheric phenomena over long periods of time and elaborate scenarios concerning how the climate could change compared with the increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere”
Filippo Giorgi, Head of Earth System Physics, ICTP

Climate research has highlighted how the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has caused an anomalous acceleration in the increase in temperature compared with natural weather cycles: these see the alternation over tens of millions of years of glacial periods that experience temperatures 5-6 degrees lower than current levels, and interglacial periods that are more temperate. The phenomenon that scientists are recognising today is a disruption to normal climatic behaviour caused by the increase in greenhouse gases that, in less than a century, has pushed average global temperatures up by more than one degree. This is a period of time that is miniscule compared with the natural progress of temperature rises throughout the geological eras.

The climatic models serve to measure the effects of this sudden acceleration, through the elaboration of diverse scenarios on the possible effects of climate change. One scenario takes into account the commitments made in the Paris Agreement in 2015, which established the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming within two degrees of pre-industrial levels. Other scenarios include “business as usual,” i.e. with unchanged levels of CO2 emissions. These estimate an increase in global temperature in the coming decades of between 4 and 5 degrees compared with current levels.

“If the business as usual scenario takes place, the risk is a return to the same climatic conditions present during the age of the dinosaurs: a much hotter climate with extremely high levels of CO2,” warns Giorgi. “Today we are putting back into the atmosphere that which nature has removed over millions of years.”


From the melting of the ice caps to desertification

Our planet is facing three main dangers caused by climate change: the first is the melting of the ice caps, the world’s main reserve of freshwater and an indispensable resource for life. The second, which is directly connected to the first, is the rising sea levels: some scenarios indicate an increase of up to one metre over the coming century, which would mean that cities like Venice, countries like Bangladesh and metropolitan areas like Shanghai or New York would be submerged beneath the waves. The third is the occurrence of increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events, such as sudden and intense rainfall, as well as periods of drought.

Desertification, the advance of the arid lands and the increase in dryland areas, is one of the prime consequences of climate change. The underground water sources are in decline and the planet is experiencing more frequent droughts, which are lasting longer and longer. According to data from UNCCD, each year we are losing 75 billion tonnes of fertile land due to human activity, while drought is desertifying around 12 million hectares: an area capable of producing 20 million tonnes of grain. Desertification and the degradation of land each year is responsible for an estimated $42 billion losses in terms of economic growth. Arid lands today make up 40% of our planet and directly concern more than 100 of the world’s countries, in which around 2.3 billion people live.

In the vulnerable areas of the planet, the effects of global warming are multiplied. Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, pointed out in a recent article how climate change is also responsible for causing conflicts and the phenomenon of mass migration, due to famine and the declining productivity of the land. Land is, however, a value to be safeguarded, protected and invested in. And this is the message chosen to celebrate the World Day to Combat Desertification 2018, “Land has true value. Invest in it.”


Combat desertification: the tree of life

The land that has been made arid by exploitation by man or by the climate can, however, become fertile once again. Innovation, research and the efforts of international institutions like the African Union, UNCCD, FAO, the World Bank and the European Union, have made possible the rebirth of the land in Africa: a great wall of trees planted in desertified areas between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa has made these lands productive once more, reducing the aridity of the soil and colouring the desert green. The communities that live in vulnerable territories must seize this opportunity, explains Barbut. For this reason the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund (LDN Fund) was set up last year to combine public and private resources. The aim of the Fund is to finance sustainable projects for managing the territory, land conservation and the recuperation of degraded land, all over the world.


Physics and the role of renewables

The Climate Change and Resilience project, at the heart of the two-year agreement signed between our company and the ICTP team, aims to gather information and outline possible scenarios by taking into consideration climatic parameters such as extreme weather events, rises in the temperature of the air and sea, quantities of annual rainfall and the frequency of periods of drought. Researchers from the Institute will develop a series of simulations of climatic scenarios in order to enable our company to carry out analysis of the resilience of our assets and our business in the medium to long term (2020-2050).

The scenarios will be elaborated on a regional scale, with a specific focus on areas of interest to our Group, in particular Italy, Spain and South America.

The project is the result of our company’s participation in the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). This is led by former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, and was promoted in 2015 by the Financial Stability Board (FSB), at the behest of the Governors of the Central Banks and Finance Ministries of the G20 countries. The aim is to define a clear communication of the financial impacts linked to the climate risk in order to direct investments to support a strategy of long-term sustainable growth.

Increasing investment to make energy production more efficient, focusing on renewables and the digitalisation of the networks, is the equivalent of planting trees in arid land to combat desertification. A key phase in the decarbonisation of the energy mix and in making production more sustainable on an environmental, social and economic level.