“Of writings and words, I know only the shadow, because my mother never taught me more than to interpret the rippling sand where the traces of all life disappear”, writes Mahmoudan Hawad, a poet from a community of nomads from the African desert called the Tuareg people. His poem speaks of human life as intertwined with a land, constantly negotiating the border between life and death. It speaks of the experience of living with a land and a climate, that is inhospitable to human life in many ways. It speaks of the astonishing ability of these nomads to navigate and maintain human and animal life in the harsh African desert.
Also, in Africa, just south of the Sahara, lies the Sahel. The name for the region has its origins in the Arabic word “sahil”, meaning the “border of the desert”. It is a region of Africa that spans an astonishing 5,900 km from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. As it stretches across the breadth of the African continent. It runs through parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, and Eritrea.
While its origin lies in a language known as the richest in the world, the region itself, is defined by the prolonged droughts caused by the low annual amount of rainfall. The typical visual denominator for the large landmass is the reddish-brown Earth that, in the dry season, will crack under a sun that seems to burn more ferociously with each year that passes. Despite the dry nature of the area, it also includes some eco-regions of savannahs, steppes, and scrublands.
The people of the Sahel region are incredibly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, and the broader economy is thus significantly impacted by the climate. Unpredictable rainfall determines the access to water, and this rainfall refills the lakes and the rivers that irrigate crops. But it rains only for a few months each year. Most of the Sahel people have traditionally lived as semi-nomads, farming and raising livestock on the move and, like the Tuareg nomads, living in a deep and fragile symbiosis with the weather.
Approximately 50 million people in the region are dependent on livestock as a means of livelihood. When an already unpredictable climate becomes even more unpredictable, fluctuating from more prolonged and more intense droughts to severe floods destroying crops, the result is an inevitable displacement of people. We can feel the warming of our planet most intensely in places like the Sahel, and the UN believes that the region could see temperatures rise to 3 to 5 °C warmer than at present by 2050 (2). Currently, we can define an estimated 33 million people in the area as ‘food insecure’. The ever-increasing temperatures in the Sahel will cause changes to the lengths and timings of seasons. This change will impact crop growth — and the already vulnerable peoples in the region — even further.
Rights and climate activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, bears witness to this climate change that she and her peoples have lived with, generation after generation. And her own life, her feet, her body are marked by the ongoing climate changes. She and her community continuously have to uproot, moving further and further from barren to more relatively farmable land to maintain the only way of life that most community members know.
Ibrahim explains, “Migration has now become an inevitable method of adaptation for us … As a means of survival for us and our animals, we are forced to continuously migrate despite all the risks involved”. Despite the knowledge of and resilience to the harsh climate and inhospitable landscape passed down to her and her people, ancestor to ancestor, the worsening environmental conditions make this inherent nomadic way of life increasingly impossible. Ibrahim explains, “This is our form of adaptation. We have always mastered it, but if nothing is done to ensure the safety of our space and activities, we risk, one day, being forced to abandon our way of life and join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the city.”
It is now commonly acknowledged that drought — including the prolonged dry seasons witnessed in the Sahel — is caused by human-induced climate change. As we witness a steep rise in CO₂ levels, we are as a world also seeing a steep increase in migration. Some of the main contributors to people’s displacement are environmental disasters, such as rising sea levels, flooding, hurricanes, typhoons, and droughts caused by our rapidly changing climate.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim defines herself and the Mbororo community as “direct victims of climate change”. For their survival and the survival of the livestock in their care, the Mbororo community relies entirely on natural resources. Lake Chad is a vital water source for the Mbororos and countless other communities from Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. However, the body of water is now drying up and was since the 1960s reduced by 90% in size (3). In her April 22nd, 2016, address, as selected representative of civil society at the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, Ibrahim declared that “Climate change is adding poverty to poverty every day, forcing many to leave home for a better future.”
CO₂ emissions in developing countries
In many ways, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim embodies the millions of climate refugees in the world — she has become a voice for the millions of voiceless people forced to flee — but her story also speaks of the many complexities and nuances of the rising CO₂ crisis. While selected to represent civil society in Paris, she is also a woman from a developing world witnessing economic growth, seeing the effects of climate change, and witnessing a rise in CO₂ levels.
This rise is directly associated with a tendency seen in the developing countries where we, as mentioned, are witnessing population growth alongside economic growth. An increasing economy follows further development and the desire to, quite understandably, strive for similar living standards and material wealth as those acquired in the developed world.
The challenge this growth of economy and population poses is reflected in CO₂ emissions. If we go by the statistics on CO₂, the developing world is responsible for 63% of current carbon emissions from 2019. The Sahel and other African regions are emitting 4%, Asia excluding China and India is emitting 20%, South America accounting for 3%, India for 7%, other small developing countries account for an additional 2%, and China is emitting 27% percent of the worldwide total of CO₂ (4).
These percentages point to the great challenge of fighting rising CO₂ levels and fossil fuel emissions. As much as the E.U. and U.S. have relative climate action plans, none would drive the change required if the developing world does not follow suit. We already know that China has so far only pledged to stop increasing its emissions by 2030, and most other developing nations have no plans in place that will help prevent the steep and continuous rise of CO₂ emissions either.
But we know that statistics don’t give voice to the voiceless; they don’t tell the stories behind the numbers; and they don’t necessarily provide an accurate account, or at least insight, into the complex web of CO₂ emissions. For instance, as examined previously in Chapter Seven, China, the largest emitter, consumed only 90% of all emissions produced in the country. Producing goods exported to mainly the E.U. and the U.S. emitted the remaining 10%. So, the numbers can be incredibly misleading.
In other words, behind the statistics lies a great depth and complexity. Let’s not forget that the fossil fuels that emit CO₂ are products of history and that, similarly, while the developing countries may emit most CO₂ today, the path that took them there was also paved by history. And the driver for this trajectory to increasing emissions in the developing world is the developed world. The very reason we are here today, hovering around the 420 ppm of CO₂ in the atmosphere, is to be found in the past. Over the last 125 years, where the developed world has been emitting the CO₂ that fueled our journey into a present where we have arrived at a position of wealth, power, and high living standards. The developing world is only following suit, asking for their share of the “modern life”. So, aligning CO₂ levels, emissions, and responsibility must balance the past, present, and future using different accounting methods.
To contextualize this, let’s examine the different ways in which we can apportion CO₂ emissions. The most common and straightforward way to compare CO₂ emissions is to add up all fossil fuels burnt by a nation and convert this into CO₂. However, we can paint a more meaningful picture by calculating emissions per capita to account for the variation in size and population. When we do that, we see a shift in the positioning of China, moving from 1st to 49th position, while Qatar shifts from 40th to 1st place in top emitters. And as examined in Chapter Seven, if we were to measure emissions in terms of exported and imported CO₂, rather than emissions, an entirely different picture would emerge. We would see Sweden take the first place on the list (5).
Since CO₂ remains in the atmosphere for millennia, the inclusion of historical emissions seems just as important as current emissions. With this in mind, a picture presents itself that tells a more accurate story of a developed world. In historical terms the developed world is, in fact, the very cause behind the CO₂ crisis. This question of historical responsibility, combined with the fact that developing countries are understandably striving for the same opportunities that the developed nations have acquired, illustrates just how complex a mesh we are trying to unpick.
Compounding the historical and economic forces makes a global climate deal a tense and complex process. The developing world is most profoundly experiencing climate change. In other words, developing nations are paying the price for the actions that brought the developed world to where it is now — while these nations at the same time are being asked to reduce emissions, thus halting or slowing down their development. Much like sequestration and emission of CO₂, the balance and share of carbon emissions between the developed and the developing world doesn’t seem quite right.
And at the heart of these problems, in the eye of the storm, on flooded plains, or a seemingly endless drought — are, of course, human beings. Individuals, families, and communities displaced or facing displacement by climate change.
Apart from the uninhabited Arctic, Africa, the South Pacific, The Caribbean, the Philippines, South-, and Southeast-Asia are the most affected places. Here, climate change is forcing millions to migrate both inside their countries and internationally.
Climate change and immigration from such regions go hand in hand. They are intrinsically linked and remain some of the most divisive and pressing agendas in the political landscape. The developed world is resisting the rising influx of immigrants. Still, the developed world has a significant historical part to play in the displacement of these peoples.
Only a shared global shift in climate policies and solutions will prevent the ongoing global diaspora we are witnessing. After all, we live on the same Earth, inextricably linked despite how different we may perceive one another.
CO₂ capture and use
This inarguable connection between us is also evident when it comes to global emissions of CO₂. If we surveyed a global time-lap map of CO₂ levels, it would show the gradual increase of carbon in the atmosphere through color gradings. The map would indicate areas with denser CO₂ levels globally and show how these levels distribute around the globe over a year. This redistribution of CO₂ concentrations is, in fact, the exact behavior of gasses that we may recall from Chapter Six. Dalton’s law of partial pressure, which accounts for how gases move independently of one another, gradually evening out around the globe. So, a global solution to carbon reduction is necessary: we walk on the same Earth, and equally, only a joint effort will get us to where we need to go (6).
What this intrinsic connection between peoples, nations, and the developed and developing world, and the CO₂ moving around our shared atmosphere also means, is that if we were to capture CO₂ from this very atmosphere, the geographical location wouldn’t matter either. Eventually, the pressure of carbon would even out globally.
And carbon capture is, in fact, in its very early stages. We stand at the frontier of a venture, which could have a profound impact if we develop the right technology and ensure that it becomes a profitable solution. Because implementing a “carbon capture and use” structure — a financial incentive and use of the captured carbon could also address several other global issues. But before we move into the untrodden territory that is the future, let’s pause at the frontier to survey the land and understand a bit more about carbon capture itself.
Carbon capture is in its infancy. At present, carbon filters and nanomaterials are still at research stages, and many developers shroud their progress in secrecy. But there are some companies out there with up and running businesses, such as the Finnish Soletair (7). Soletair combines two key components, captured carbon and hydrogen, through catalytic synthesis into hydrocarbons, from which we can produce fuel and plastic. So, business and business models are starting to shape the carbon capture landscape.
However, the process itself requires a vast amount of energy, which is one of the challenges the venture faces. And the million-dollar question, of course, is, does it have the potential to become part of the solution, or is it, in reality, a “pie in the rising CO₂ sky”?
One potential route to transform the carbon capture “pie in the sky” into a reality could be found on the ground, or more accurately, in the place where we began our narrative — the scorching and barren Sahel region. Because as poor in water and vegetation as the region is most of the year, as rich it is too in another vital energy source, namely sunlight. The Sahel has a high Direct Normal Irradiance. The definition of DNI is “the solar radiation received per unit area, by a surface always held perpendicular (or normal) to the rays that come in a straight line from the direction of the sun at its current position in the sky”. The high DNI, alongside its low population density and relatively cheap land, makes the area ideal for solar power. Research points to the fact that 10.000 km2 in the African desert or Sub-Saharan regions could feed the world’s entire energy requirements via solar energy — while also being the cheapest form of electricity due to the geographical setup and climate (8).
This “picture-perfect”’ scenario, isn’t of course, perfect. At least there are concerns by some scientists that extensive solar power in the African desert or Sub-Saharan regions can affect the climate. The basis for these concerns is that solar panels only convert 15% of absorbed sunlight into energy and that the remaining energy returns to the environment in the form of heat. They worry that the remitted heat could redistribute via airflow into the atmosphere and potentially affect the regional and global climate (9).
A chance for developing countries
Again, we need to acknowledge the concerns and that there is not one right answer. We need to pay attention to the many voices and perspectives that all the alternatives to fossil fuel present and closely examine their risks and benefits, accepting that the risk-free solution may not exist. However, what remains clear is that solar power in the Sahel could be a mind-boggling energy resource. And this brings us back to the migration issue that is a part of the complete climate picture.
In Chapter Six’s “rule of three” that we focused on, we know that apart from air, water is the first thing required for survival. It is also an element that is becoming more and more scarce as a source due to climate change. In the Sahel, we know that the lack of precipitation is driving Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, and many others towards the cities, other regions, other countries, and other continents. But it is, in fact, across the entire world that scarcity of water is a growing problem.
The U.S. is currently facing massive water crisis in regions like California. China, parts of the EU, and many other places are also facing this crisis. Unless we find a solution to the lack of accessible drinking water, the migration crisis will continue to grow.
Desalination of water will surely be a part of our future solution for water supply. It is, however, also a process that requires a tremendous amount of energy (10).
The potential “gold mine” of solar power, along with the high amounts of energy required for desalination of water and carbon capture, points us towards something exciting. Combining solar power in the Sahel with carbon capture and algae, we are looking at an equation of almost unimaginable value for the climate and the humans living on Earth.
Today, ocean-based algae contribute to about 45% to 50% of the total carbon dioxide absorbed by the Earth’s biosphere. As discussed in the previous chapter, algae, or cyanobacteria, surpass most other plants in their ability to flourish in extreme environments. They do not require arable land and can survive, even thrive, in places where other plants cannot live, such as saline-alkaline water, land, and wastewater. Their simple cellular structure and potential for enormous exponential growth mean, that they have a CO₂ fixation efficiency of 10–50% higher than terrestrial plants.
We have the power to increase this absorption even further. Algae float to the top of the water and stop capturing CO₂ when too many of them are present. The phenomenon of algae blooms that we witness in, for instance, the Baltic.
However, if we used the depth of the water and the energy created by solar power to pump air (which of course contains CO₂) into the water, we have a fascinating scenario. The vast amounts of energy from the solar power in the Sahel would allow us to continuously pump air into the water. This pumping, in turn, means that we would both be exposing the algae to more sun and more CO₂ in the water. Doing so in climate conditions of high temperatures would increase the algae growth. At the same time, adding nutrients would stimulate further growth. When harvesting the algae as they peak in exponential growth, we promote an increase in CO₂ capture while farming algae, that we can convert into the many valuable products we examined in chapter nine.
Our story of rising CO₂ levels goes hand in hand with climate disasters, displacement, and migration of peoples. The common denominators in the lives of refugees are danger and hardship — no one wants to become a refugee. But people need water, food, work, safety, education, infrastructure, and energy — a future to stay in their homes. The lack of a future is the reason people flee and migrate. Carbon-capturing algae could solve a climate crisis and the forces behind the migration crisis it is also causing.
Imagine if we could use solar power in the Sahel for energy; imagine if we used this energy for algae production and carbon capture and desalination of water. In short, we would be bringing a solution to several aspects of the migration problem. Firstly, a self-supply of energy; Secondly, available drinking water and irrigation of water for crops; Third, production of biofuel and biomaterial; and last, as a result, a continuous supply of material for export and the ability to generate income.
The picture we are painting is, of course, simplified and not without its challenges. Still, all scenarios presented here are possible ventures and viable solutions. The solutions would mean transforming a region like the Sahel from arid land to land from which we can harness great resources. An area presently struggling for survival, water, and income, essentially struggling for a future. This area could become a region with a bright future via solar power, algae farming, carbon capture, and biomass production.
Solar power, carbon capture through algae, and the production of biomass have enormous financial potential. We know from the Baltic that algae thrive in warm conditions, and algae and algal bloom are most recurrent in the warm summer season. Hence, a region like the Sahel — and most warm climates — provide the ideal conditions for optimal algal farming — and, crucially, carbon capture. And as discussed, the viability of carbon capture goes hand in hand with the notion of “use” and not merely “storage”; In this pairing lies the financial gain that is imperative to long-term solutions.
Unimaginable potential in algae
Algae are living organisms, which means that once added to soil, these break up easily and release their nutrients into the ground. This quality makes it ideal for use as a fertilizer and can become an essential export for regions like the Sahel (11). Secondly, as we have examined previously in this book, biomass can be converted into biofuel — again, a vital product for export (12). Further, algae’s gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties — due to their chemical composition and content of bioactive substances — means that they are already a prevalent ingredient in food production. We use Algae as additives in a great variety of products, from pasta, flour, and bread, to steaks, sausages, fish and cheese, cream, and milk (13). And finally, algae can also, as previously examined, be used as biomass for the production of plastic (14). Utilizing the biomass in this capacity will reduce fossil fuel emissions; it requires less energy in production stages, is less toxic than standard plastics, and is relatively biodegradable. And in our continuous and growing consumer societies, we know that plastic — or hopefully bioplastic — is here to stay.
We have the potential — do we have the will?
Should we decide to go down the solar-powered algae farming and carbon capture route, such a venture’s application and export possibilities are vast. There would be financial gain and a positive impact on human life — not only in terms of reducing climate change, but by empowering struggling regions and peoples economically, and alongside this, some of the causes for migration and displacement of millions of people.
What is certain is that action is required, for the future is uncertain. At present we are moving towards unprecedented CO₂ levels experienced in the time human beings have evolved and inhabited this Earth. Yet while we set the course that has brought us to this point in time, we can, with the application of technology, policies, shared determination, and dedication, also change course: allowing peoples to stay in the land they know and love, and to continue to breathe the same air, at hopefully similar CO₂ levels, as our ancestors.
This is the tenth and final chapter of my book “Atmosphere, CO₂ on my mind”. You can find more information and references on my website.