Turning Soil-based Carbon Sequestration a Reality in MENA
Decision-makers in MENA have long understood that the region is on the frontlines of climate change and vulnerable to associated consequences.
Lately, in the wake of the UN’s revelation of “global boiling” and in view of the upcoming UAE-hosted COP28, the need for effective climate actions and sustainability transitions has gathered a sense of urgency. Under that scenario, a time-honoured “negative emissions” solution that merits renewed attention is soil carbon sequestration.
Soil is a mixture of inorganic matter, organic matter, water, and air. The organic constituent is mostly broken-down plant matter.
As plants store carbon in life, they can continue to do so as organic matter in the soil for a long time. Scientists believe soils can sequester over a billion additional tonnes of carbon each year(1) — the impact needed to stay on track to ambitious targets such as the UAE’s Net-zero 2050.
In MENA, a successful soil carbon sequestration will hinge on two aspects: Creating conditions for soils to sequester more carbon and ensuring the stored carbon isn’t emitted back through erosion, degradation, and excessive tillage.
Facilitating conditions for soil carbon sequestration in MENA
Typically, soil carbon sequestration is done by increasing the input of plant matter into soils. That approach involves planting trees, increasing greenery, and undertaking afforestation in barren lands. In cultivated lands, perennial crops or crop rotation with “cover crops” such as clovers and peas is recommended.
Perennial crops can help the soil store more carbon through deep roots and organic matter. In crop rotation, the harvest can be followed by tilling the cover crops into the soil to enrich its organic matter.
Crop perenniality is advisable due to its implications for soil conservation and biodiversity. The conversion of barren lands into perennial vegetation through innovative models such as permaculture and food forests can help both flora and fauna thrive while contributing to food security — a priority for MENA.
Considering deserts account for nearly 80% of countries like the UAE, the opportunity for regenerative farming is immense, especially with the participation of both the public and private sectors.
That begs the question: How can afforestation and regenerative farming be pursued under predominantly desert conditions like arid/semi-arid climate, high soil salinity, evaporation, and seepage?
Conventional farming techniques entail high resource input and irrigation, undermining their sustainability. On-the-ground interventions like Breathable Sand find application here.
Featured in FAO’s special report(2) on practical solutions for salt-affected soils and the 'Green Technology Book - 2022'(3) released on the back of COP27, Breathable Sand is an air-permeable and water-retentive medium that can lead to optimal plant growth with up to 80% less irrigation, on average.
Breathable Sand also has the potential for rewetting organic soil, which is crucial for ensuring the captured carbon isn't omitted back to the environment.
Formed under waterlogged conditions, organic soil suppresses the decomposition and builds up deep layers of plant matter. Global warming has changed the water balance in organic soil, increasing the rate of decomposition and carbon release. Water-retentive mediums like Breathable Sand can mitigate that problem considerably.
Breathable Sand is the cornerstone of Dake Rechsand’s ambitious Verra-listed carbon sequestration project of planting 11 million trees in arid regions across MENA.
Using the CDM methodology and other cutting-edge technologies to quantify the impact and select the appropriate plant species, the first-of-its-kind project aims to make measurable contributions to the region’s sustainability and net-zero targets.
It draws inspiration from the UAE’s National Carbon Sequestration Project aimed at planting 100 million mangroves across the country by 2030.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) investments provide generous returns
In MENA, negative emissions or CCS solutions must be viewed through the lens of existing challenges such as food and water scarcity. A potential solution must also tick the social, economic, and environmental boxes of sustainability to be deemed worthy of implementation.
Such an integrated approach will ensure that a solution for soil carbon sequestration will not have unintended consequences for water or food systems.
For example, Breathable Sand facilitates conditions for carbon sequestration while reducing water consumption significantly, thus qualifying as an actionable solution. When implemented in regenerative farming models like permaculture and food forests, it can also help reduce the region’s dependence on imports for food requirements.
While CCS solutions do not yield instant results, they pay generous dividends in the long run. In addition to sequestration, they will cumulatively make positive contributions to MENA’s food and water security.
Leading private sector companies are now inclined toward CCS investments to gain strategic exposure to carbon markets. The onus is on policymakers to facilitate favourable conditions by incentivizing their participation. The marriage of concerted efforts and actionable solutions could turn the vision of large-scale soil carbon sequestration a reality in MENA.