Africa’s grasslands could fund a just transition for agriculture

Conversations about a ‘just transition’ in South Africa largely centre on the impact that a slow-down in coal production will have on workers in the country’s coal mining and power plant region. But what of those in the farming sector, where many millions more will have their livelihoods and jobs impacted by a move away from fossil fuel intensive practices? Using the carbon-capture potential of the subcontinent’s vast grasslands may be a way to fund a just transition for the farming sector here. Leonie Joubert reports

South Africa utilizes the potential of grasslands carbon capture (CC BY 2.0, South African Tourism)

With 3.4 billion years’ of experience behind them, plants are the most tried-and-tested technology to mop carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

Of all the plants, trees are the poster child of nature-based solutions to reversing the climate crisis. The bigger they grow, the more they draw carbon pollution from the atmosphere and lock it away in their woody trunks, branches, and roots. This banked-away carbon can stay trapped this way for decades or longer, depending on the type of tree and whether low long it stays standing.

To slow global heating, we need to do more than just stop carbon emissions. We need to mop up the pollution that’s been put into the atmosphere over the past 200 years.

The carbon draw-down potential of trees is fuelling a huge global push to fund reforestation plans around the world. In Africa, the UN-headed Bonn Challenge hopes to restore 100 million hectares across the continent by 2030, partly by restoring ‘deforested or degraded forest landscapes’.

But a group of South African ecologists recently issued a warning about the potential harm this policy could have for Africa. Mass tree-planting may not be appropriate for a continent that is covered so extensively with grasslands and savannas, they say. These habitats are where so much of the continent’s picture-book wildlife lives, and where many farmers graze their livestock.

Central to the problem of reforestation efforts here, they say, is how the UN defines ‘forests’, ‘grasslands’, and ‘savannas’, and what constitutes a ‘degraded’ natural system.

‘Grassland ecosystems are fundamentally misunderstood,’ explains Dr Caroline Lehmann, a specialist in savanna biogeography at the University of Edinburgh in a piece she wrote for The Conversation last year. ‘The (UN) Food and Agricultural Organisation defines any area that’s half a hectare in size with more than 10% tree cover as forest. This assumes that landscapes like an African savanna are degraded because they have fewer trees and so need to be reforested.’

Rather than misdiagnosing grasslands and savannas as ‘degraded’ and then targeting them for tree planting, Lehmann and other local ecologists warn, these African ecosystems should be used in their natural state to mop carbon from the atmosphere.

How grasslands can fund a just agricultural transition

Questions of a ‘just transition’ here in South Africa mostly look at how workers in fossil fuel intensive industries will be hit by decarbonising the economy. But ActionAid – a global civil society organisation with its head office in Johannesburg, South Africa – recently put out an extensive report looking at what the impacts will be for workers in farming and across the food value chain, as efforts escalate to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

When you count all the greenhouse gas emissions produced across the entire food value chain – from farm, to fork, to waste dump – it produces between 20% and 30% of global emissions, according to ActionAid’s Principles for a Just Transition in Agriculture, released in December 2019.

The report gives a thorough overview of what systemic changes need to happen within the farming sector and food supply chain. In brief summary, it calls for: just transition responses to ‘address – and not exacerbate – inequalities’ in the food system; to ‘transform the food system to work for people, nature and the climate’; to ‘ensure inclusiveness and participation’’; and to ‘develop a comprehensive framework’ to plan for, and implement, the systems-level changes needed to decarbonise the entire food system.

Central to this, according to ActionAid, is the need to move away from industrial farming and back towards agro-ecological farming practices.

And this is where just transition opportunities intersect with restoring and conserving Africa’s grasslands.

Grasslands don’t hold as much carbon per hectare as forests do, but because they cover such vast areas of the continent, they can contribute significantly to drawing down atmospheric carbon and locking it out of harm’s away.

An international conservation body is piloting a grasslands rehabilitation project in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, to see what the carbon capture potential is of the area, and how restoration efforts here can receive carbon funding from the global North.

Ecologists are looking at community-managed grazing lands, where farmers are struggling with low productivity, invasive alien tree infestations, and over grazing. Over the course of a two year project, ecologists are collecting soil samples from grazing lands, and matching this with longer-term historic data to get a better idea of what the vegetation and soils should be like in a healthy state. Then they plan to run this data through various computer models which can map the carbon-capture potential of the landscape, and see how changing climatic condition such as altered rainfall or rising temperatures might impact on the health of the grasslands and their future carbon capture potential.

On the basis of this, researchers hope to then work with local farmers to draw up the most appropriate farm management approaches for the region that won’t undermine productivity or their viability as farmers, and restore grasslands to a more healthy state. If they can tap into international carbon funding, it can help pay for some of good land management practices, restoration work, and other activities that could support farmers’ viability.

This, ecologist argue, is a far more appropriate way to capture carbon in many parts of the continent, than planting trees.

Even if mass tree planting across the region would help clean carbon from the atmosphere faster than grasslands, this would be at the cost of the richness of wildlife and the subcontinent’s vast grazing potential. The world would benefit, but at a huge cost for the continent, ecologists warn.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

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