Climate change: the mission to combat desertification

Published on Sunday, 17 June 2018

“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.