Of rapid desertification and greening

Collage of two images from promotional video of EWF

Collage of two images from promotional video of EWF

In a previous post I was puzzled why a journalist blamed “climate change” as the cause of “rapid” desertification, while the region is greening for at least two decades. To recapitulate, in the evening news there was the story of a company that plants trees in Burkina Faso in order to fight against desertification and give more resources to the people living there (like make products that can be sold at the local market). As I said then, I have nothing against that. On the contrary, I applaud such an effort.

I did have a problem with the statement from the reporter that “because of climate change, the Sahara is dangerously advancing in the Sahel region, also in Burkina Faso”. This was a strange statement knowing that the area of the Sahel, in which Burkina Faso is situated, is “greening” in the last decades. It is probably a cycle that is repeating itself for many centuries or even millenia. In the 1970s – 1980s there were severe droughts, which were followed by a period with more rains and subsequently more vegetation. In such a light, a statement that the desert is dangerously advancing is puzzling to say the least. My initial guess was that the reporter didn’t know about that cycle and didn’t investigate it further.

In the meanwhile I found out that this statement was not from the rich imagination of the journalist, but actually came from the company itself. They made a promotional video in which they made similar statements. Looking at the video it seems the journalist was supplied with a frame work and could even use some stills from the video to make his report more entertaining. Both benefit: the company had free publicity in prime time, the journalist an easy report with lots of drama.

The video starts with a desolate flute melody and this introduction:

We all know that the desert grows in Africa. And that the people and animals must struggle every day to survive in the Sahel. Through climate change, forests disappear and fertile soils dry out.

Now I got an even bigger question. Okay, I could imagine an alarmist journalist not doing his home work, but here we have a company that should have some background of the situation; if there is anybody that should know somewhat of the Sahel, it should be them and yet this is the way they report to the public!?!?

But when I later read this article in MO, I suddenly understood why they were hammering so much on the expansion of the desert in stead of the reality of it “greening” in the last decades (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

Sels [chairman of the company] describes these results as his pet subject. “We try to strive for a win-win situation, also for the investors,” says the the inhabitant of Boechout [a Belgian village near Antwerp]. Because forests and roots absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the Entrepreneurs Without Frontiers-projects offer companies the chance of reducing their CO2 footprint. By realizing the reduction of CO2 at a location other than the place of emission, they can make themselves carbon neutral.

‘Initially it was difficult, but since 2010 it came full circle and we have more appeal to companies that are interested in the climate story. They ask for information about the C02 reductions and we match our projects with green certificates and Voluntary Emission Reductions certificates.’

Sels want to encourage those companies being corporate social responsible. “First, we want to encourage people to emit as little as possible. The other emissions, that can not be resolved because of technical shortcomings, can be compensated by us. I understand not everyone is familiar with this. They want a green image, but not unworldly. They want to do it in a sexy, entrepreneurial way.

In addition to the carbon trading scheme, they receive several subsidies from Belgian communities.

Then I realized why they are so consistently frame it like that. Their business model depends on the assumption that they CREATE a NEW source of CO2 absorption, a source that was not there before. That is the condition to be able to issue those green certificates. Framing desertification as a cyclical event is not in their best interest. On the contrary, it would limit their ability to ask money from gullible companies that want to have a “sexy” way of paying off their climate guilt.

There is definitely money to be made in the climate business, but thinking about desertification as a cyclical process is not going to get you there.

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