Three Environmental Problems: Deforestation, Degradation, Desertification

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Climate change. In the last few years, this topic has pushed its way to the mainstream of both political and scientific discussions. Opposing cases have been made from suggesting it doesn’t exist to the world will end if it’s not fixed right now. With persuasive arguments on each side and scientific data that seems to validate both cases, it is hard to deem which side holds the correct view. But whether someone believes in climate change or doesn’t people can all agree rising temperatures are not an ideal pattern wanted for the future. So, if there is a way to slow it down or reverse it, why wouldn’t people want to put in the effort to make a change? Does the defeat of one environmental issue mean there are sub-issues that need to be taken care of first?

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Now there have been many methods proposed on how to reverse climate change, from easy changes on a small scale to large, usually unachievable, solutions. The most publicized fix for climate change has been for humans to reduce their carbon footprint, with the leading solution being to switch to renewable energy. While on paper this plan sounds perfect, there are too many factors that make it unlikely to work. Such as, global cooperation, capital for infrastructure, and renewable energy that can meet the current and future demands of society. That being said, the near future doesn’t see fossil fuel use coming to an end.

So, is there another way people can help the planet? A way that is reasonably achievable? Yes! It comes in the form of exactly what needs to decrease in the atmosphere, CARBON. Plants are the next big solution in this battle. Trees to be specific. Forests of trees are known to be carbon sinks that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has been proposed by scientists that by increasing the number of trees around the world that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be significantly decreased over time. Tree planting campaigns have become more widespread with the current most published one being teamtrees.org whose goal is to plant 20 million trees by the beginning of 2020. They, in association with the Arbor Day Foundation, pledge to plant one tree for every dollar donated. This is great right? Well yes, planting trees is more affordable than other solutions for climate change and planting methods have entered the 21st century with quadcopter drones doing the work. So, what could be the sub environmental issues that trouble tree planting that could potentially solve the main environmental issue everyone is discussing?

There are three that come to mind; deforestation, degradation, and desertification. The three D’s. While planting trees is a great solution it will be for not if policies aren’t made to protect them from being carelessly overused, the soil they grow in is not life sustainable, and copious amounts of land are left unused.

What causes these environmental problems? What should be done to fix them so that the trees planted can turn into the much-needed forests for the earth? Lets first get into the causes of the three D’s. For starters, the order in which they have been listed is the typical pattern of how land slowly becomes unusable and unable to hold onto plant life. Deforestation is the beginning. Humans have been cutting down trees for as long as we’ve had the ability to do so. Trees are the backbone of the majority of structures created, they provided fuel for warmth before better technology came along, and they are used to create so many things used every day in society both past and present. Without wood, life wouldn’t be too grand. But one of the main reasons deforestation began was because space was needed for agriculture and animal grazing. To make room for food, trees had to be cut down. Forests had to be cleared for space. And people have not stopped cutting down trees since, whether it be for agriculture use or urbanization.

Next is degradation, specifically soil degradation. This has to do with bad agricultural practices, overgrazing by animals, and unfavorable weather. Once the trees are gone land can be used to grow more food for the ever-expanding population on earth. But if the land isn’t treated with respect it will eventually take away its life-sustaining power. Farmers with bad agricultural practices can cause soils to lose their fertility in multiple ways. Not replenishing the nutrients in soils used to grow crops will eventually lead to the soil being unable to grow anything. Constantly tilling the soil makes it more prone to erosion by wind and water. Not assessing the quality of the soil over time can lead to soil that is too acidic, alkaline, salty, or drenched in chemicals which in turn slow or stop anything from growing. With soil degradation soil is also less likely to hold onto water making it even harder for things to grow. Another cause of degradation is overgrazing by animals, mainly livestock. Livestock that is poorly managed and stays in one place for too long will eventually eat away all the vegetation around them. With the constant trampling of one location, the soil will eventually become prone to erosion and will slowly become less likely to grow new vegetation. It has been also been studied that overgrazing is typically the biggest cause of soil degradation. Final with these bad practices, bad weather like drought and flooding with runoff will only exacerbate the degradation to soil.

Lastly is desertification, something that humans have been fighting against since the ability to grow food. It can occur from current deserts consuming the dry land that surrounds it or from damaged land that has continual soil erosion and can’t hold onto water anymore. Whichever way it occurs desertification is the final stage. If soil is eroded constantly by wind due to lack of vegetation to slow it down or water because of the land flooding due to lack of water retention, then vegetation will have a near-impossible time growing back. It will rarely hold onto the nutrients and water plants need to grow and the increased heat from the lack of cooling plants could provide will also lead many deserts to become too hot for many plants to grow. The desert will continue the cycle of fewer plants creating more desert until eventually, it becomes just sand and nothing else.

Now back to the main issue. With these three environmental problems happening all over the world, how will planting trees help us combat climate change? If trees will continue to be excessively cut down or burned down, will there be a net positive of trees on the earth after or will it just be replacing them at the same rate they are lost? If a great deal of valuable land is used for other purposes and the soil that is available is damaged, how will trees be able to grow without constant care until they can grow on their own? Lastly, the world has many deserts which if made fertile again would be prime land for growing new forests to help reduce the carbon dioxide in the air. Wouldn’t it be smart to focus on reversing desertification then?

If needing to reverse the environmental issues caused by the three D’s is first on the list so more trees can be planted and survive just so climate change could be reversed, were should fixing the problem begin?

Let’s start with deforestation again. If planting trees is chosen as the best way to fight climate change because of its lower cost, seeming global cooperation, and countless added benefits, what needs to be done to make sure a net positive impact is being made in the increase of trees? Policies need to be made and rules need to be enforced and upheld by every participant. Policies can include protected forests that are to be left untouched with heavy penalties or jail time for those who go against the policy. Laws can be put in place such as for every tree cut down the company responsible is to plant, or give funds to an organization to plant, two trees for every one that is cut down. Though policies and laws like these already exist they need to be better enforced if a change is wanted. Without cooperation on deforestation rules, planting trees might have no added benefit.

So, if step one, ending deforestation, is accomplished its time to move to step two. Creating better agricultural practices, finding ways to minimize the space need for agriculture, and fixing the degradation of damaged soil. Stopping or at least slowing bad practices is simple, teach. By spreading information and making sure that good practices are taught effectively and with retention, the bad practices that destroy soils can be reduced by a measurable amount. Now when it comes to minimizing space for crop growing it sounds like a joke. But this is not implying that every crop can be grown in less space. This is about taking smaller crops like herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, etc. and using hydroponics to create growing sites that can be tall instead of wide. Hydroponics has been shown and proven to work excellent if not sometimes better than plants grown in soil. While the materials to build a hydroponic system may be costly it can be much cheaper than buying the amount of land needed to grow the same volume of crops. One other benefit of hydroponics is that with artificial light they can be used indoors which allows many people who might not have space to be able to grow their own herbs or vegetables, now be to have their own mini garden. Finally, to reverse soil degradation there are many options that can be used depending on the type of degradation. For example, if the soil is too acidic neutralize it with limestone or plant acidic soil loving plants. The same goes for alkaline soil but use sulfur instead. If the soil is lacking nutrients make sure crops are being rotated (different crops each season) so that one nutrient isn’t constantly being drained from the soil. Nitrogen-fixing plants can also be used to replenish nitrogen levels in the soil because they pull nitrogen from the air and deposit it back into the ground. When it comes to stopping soil erosion whether in a farming situation or empty landpl not being used there are two main ways that can help stop erosion. One, don’t over till the land making the soil fine and prone to blowing away, and two plant cover crops, grasses, or any plants with an extensive root system that will grab onto the topsoil and keep it for eroding. Lastly, erosion due to overgrazing can be negated by practicing better management on how long the herd can stay in one place at a time.

Finally, it as been pondered and experimented for centuries on finding out if there is a way that desertification could be reversed. In China, they have been testing and are observing data on an experiment that places straw, bamboo, tall grass, or sandbags in the shape of a large square outline with other square outlines that create a checkerboard-like pattern across the desert. So far, the results have been promising and it has been found that the square barriers that are in place help to keep the wind from eroding the sand and carrying it off elsewhere. Because the sand has been able to stay in place it has been observed that clay and silt particles have increased in that sand making it more soil-like. While this technique looks very promising at reversing desertification, there are two other ways that have been created to change sand into soil, and without the wait. Scientists at Chongqing Jiaotong University have created a sodium carboxymethyl cellulose paste that they have found when combined with the soil of a dry arid area, has the potential to hold onto water and even nutrients. Another company, created by Norwegian scientist Kristian Morten Olesen, patented a technology they call Liquid NanoClay. Their process uses nanoparticles of natural clay mixed with water to create a solution that when sprayed on sand will bind to the sand particle, naturally changing its structure to one that is better at binding water to itself and hold onto that water longer. They claim that they can pump their solution through irrigation channels and sprinkler systems and that the process only takes 7 hours and would penetrate a meter deep into the sand. They are noted saying that the treatment cost of one hectare of desert land would cost between $1,800 to $9,500 USD. While this price isn’t a deal for individual consumers it is an okay price that governments may wish to in junction with other techniques, use to stop and reverse the desertification of certain parts of the earth. While bringing the green back to a desert sound enticing, there might be a case for one specific desert that it should be left alone. This desert is the Sahara Desert. It has been studied that 22,000 tons of sand from the Sahara travels over the Atlantic Ocean and deposits itself in the Amazon Rainforest every year. This is important because the sand from the Sahara is rich in phosphorus which fertilizes the soils of the Amazon. So, could there be other deserts completing important roles like this? More studies will be needed on the topic.

In conclusion, fixing the environmental problem that is climate change with trees as the main plan can be tricky but can be heavily fruitful at the same time. Planting trees may sound like an easy task but what smaller issues might affect that plan and what other changes could increase its effectiveness? The three smaller environmental issues discussed in this paper show that smaller issues not thought about can cause issues or decrease the effectiveness of the bigger plan.

29 April 2022

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