Desert plantations: carbon farming for the future

A desert plantation in Egypt using the Jatropha trees for carbon farming.

photo provided

A desert plantation in Egypt using the Jatropha trees for carbon farming.

Clayton Hedges, Memorial Staff Writer

One of the most prevalent and polarizing topics currently in American politics can easily be summed up in two, equally polarizing words: climate change. 

The idea that human industry and advancement are the main if not sole reason that the Earth’s climate is changing and warming up is heralded by some and deplored by others.

For those against climate change, they often cite the fact that the Earth has gone through many hot and cold cycles, as their main defense; while those who support the idea of global warming view fossil fuels and carbon emissions from human industry as a source of climate change. The truth, however, cannot be completely discerned yet it likely lies in the combination of both trains of thought. 

This being said, there is a perpetual problem with the amount of pollution being created by human industries regardless of the impact this has on temperature; it has been destroying natural environments as well as creating inhumane living conditions due to smog in dense cities. 

While there are many potential solutions to this issue, the most enticing and viable seems to be that of desert plantations. This is based on the knowledge that certain plants like the jatropha curcas tree are able to collect and absorb abnormally large amounts of carbon to use for photosynthesis. 

A portion of these plants thrive in the desert, making it easier to plant a large portion of them in areas where human development does not occur. 

According to Earth System Dynamics, if the Jatropha tree, a hardy plant indigenous to Mexican and Middle Eastern desserts, was planted on three percent of the Sahara the amount of carbon consumed would be equivalent to three years worth of carbon emissions from automobiles in Germany. 

The only foreseeable issue with this is the lack of water in deserts. This could be solved through the use of desalination plants, but the process of desalination is not completely green as these plants create brine (salt waste product). Yet there are certain elements in brine such as uranium that can lead to a profit; collecting the sea waste instead of pumping it back in the ocean could lead to a form of revenue.

Which brings up the next point, how is this going to be funded? The best way to pay for such a large operation would be to go through the United Nations and have them start collecting fines from countries that go over their carbon emission quotas. 

As it stands only three to four countries stay under their quotas in the UN. This would give both incentives to reduce emissions as well as provide money to pursue this endeavor. 

Still, many propose the idea of using the desert plantations as a way to produce biofuels. However, there should be a pause when considering this, as it has been proven that ethanol and biodiesel are less efficient fuel sources than natural gas and oil which burns about two times cleaner. 

This means that the amount of carbon released by biofuels in one tank of ethanol-based gas is equal to the amount of carbon released in two tanks of oil-based gas. If this was to occur with the jatropha trees then the plants would not be able to mature enough to be as effective as possible for carbon consumption; on top of this, the process for biofuels does not have a net carbon production of zero, as nitrogen-based fertilizers, which destroy fertile soil, are used for the current plants that biofuels are based on.

Yet the need for some other sort of revenue still remains, bringing the focus back to brine. The uranium and other minerals found in the desalination by-product could be sold to produce cash revenue. This could possibly help the UN bring in some private corporations to help in the process, potentially creating a green business endeavor. 

Desert plantations may be a path towards a brighter, greener future. The need to help the natural environment is greater than it has ever been as the industry expands and deforestation continues. 

Although there might be other routes to achieve a more green Earth, the monetary benefits paired with the fact that these plantations occur in areas where human civilization does not reach would allow them to stay untouched.


Contact Clayton Hedges at: [email protected]