Projects for the Planet
This week we celebrate Earth Day, which means cherishing our planet and also taking stock of our battle against climate change. It remains a formidable challenge.
One could say we’re never really doing enough. One of the biggest issues is—and this is something which I feel quite sad saying, really—is that we actually know what the main issue is, and that’s our carbon footprint. So, we can do all we can to try and stop overfishing, which is great, and we can reduce pollution, which is fantastic. But if we’re not tackling this bigger problem, then we’re never really going to actually see the reefs we either see in photos or see in pictures or people have seen in the past.
The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.
This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.
As project teams around the world race to deal with a new life-and-death threat, it’s understandable that our attention may wane temporarily from the existential threats that already existed, such as climate change. In fact, as we slam the brakes on global human activity, greenhouse gas emissions are down and air quality is up. But those trends are temporary, of course, and the fight to curb carbon emissions will continue long after we’ve finally wrestled COVID-19 under control.
PMI’s Signposts Report for 2020 includes climate change among the global business trends driving The Project Economy. Yet while the threat is serious, project leaders and teams are in a prime position to make a difference.
Take the massive Tengger Desert Solar Park in China, for example, which is part of the government’s strategy to turn the world’s largest carbon-emitting country into one that will use 20 percent clean energy by 2030. That made PMI’s list of the Most Influential Projects of the last half-century. Project teams are also making traditional power sources more eco-friendly: There are two dozen large-scale carbon-capture and storage facilities either online or under construction worldwide right now, with dozens more in development.
One of the most effective, up-and-coming technologies for reducing carbon dioxide levels can’t really be called a technology at all. I’m talking about trees. Reforestation is a powerful, beautiful and relatively cost-efficient means of reducing greenhouse gas levels, not to mention its positive effects on our biosphere. I wrote about reforestation projects for PM Network’s special climate change issue. And one of the teams that stood out to me was Forest Carbon, which is in the midst of a big reforestation project in Indonesia. The company’s director of growth, Devan Wardwell, had a lot more to say than I could fit into the article, so I wanted to invite him to join us on Projectified® to talk about why it’s so challenging to regrow depleted forests.
When people think of reforestation—the uninitiated, anyway—it can seem simple. Like, how hard can it be to plant a tree? But your project demonstrates pretty clearly that it’s plenty hard. So for starters, could you describe some of the work that has to be done before you can even begin planting, like addressing the quality of the soil in which you plant those trees?
You know, I think the issue of peatlands in Southeast Asia and in Indonesia, in particular, is kind of one of the key areas of the climate change fight that I would like to draw more attention to. And it’s kind of an, a bit of an unknown factor in terms of the overall sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
And a lot of the greenhouse gas emissions that come from peat are accelerated and exacerbated by fire. In 2019 we had fires in Indonesia that had double the carbon emissions of the fires in the Amazon. There was more than 5,000 unique fire incidences that were spread across the area. The estimates from the World Bank are that that cost 5.2 billion dollars in economic losses. Almost a million hectares were affected with burning or loss of assets or natural areas.
Indonesia has about 13 million hectares of peatland. It’s one of the largest deposits of peat in the entire world. And as much as 20 to 25 percent of that is unmanaged. And so when you have a company that comes in and develops these peatland areas, the canals dry out the peat and make them more prone to fire. And so what we do with our company, and this is our technical specialty and where we sit in the market and among conservation and restoration companies, is our specialty is restoring these peatland areas that have been degraded either by fire or canal construction for commodity production.
So these peat areas are essentially swamps to begin with. And when the water is drained out of them, then they become an area that can be cultivated or farmed. And so we want to return it to its initial hydrological state.
I think I’ve heard somewhere it’s 30 years to bring plantings itself to a mature forest. So there’s a huge time horizon, right? To seeing this project to completion?
Yeah. You know, the great thing about it though is that we pay for kind of high-end satellite data. And so you can see year over year the regrowth in the project. And so we are just looking at 2018 compared to 2019, and the amount of green that’s returning to these areas that have been affected by the fire that started before our project, it’s just incredible, and it’s really heartening to see. And I think one of the unique things about our project is that it’s not actually just a replanting scheme. And what we’re doing is creating the natural ecological conditions for nature to do the job itself.
And so this is called assisted regeneration, which is a common strategy for peatlands. In some scientific journals has been proven to be more effective than just straight planting of trees. Because we want the area to return to its natural wild state rather than kind of coming in and planting a monoculture of species. And so that strategy of restoration is really based off of the idea that nature can do the work itself in terms of regenerating if we give it enough time and we create the proper starting conditions.
And so our strategy is to come in and invest a lot of money upfront in restoring the area to its original hydrological state as much as possible, and then we leave it to regrow over time while minimizing the threats to it by protecting the borders of the site.
How do you track the entirety of the parcel? Yours is big enough on its own, and then you start scaling this out or saying that the ambition is maybe to control larger and larger sections of land. It seems like you’d need NASA satellites to make that work, right? How do you do it?
We have a project dashboard that essentially combines all of our sensors together with the satellite data that we subscribe to. And so we’re just now buying higher-resolution and more frequently updated satellite data to be able to monitor the project site. And that’s incredibly useful in terms of monitoring land-cover change over time. And so, when you look and see that our business model is based off of the production of carbon offsets, we have to prove and we have to go through an external audit to essentially demonstrate that our project interventions are working and they’re meeting the standards of the methodology that we use.
And so satellite is incredibly useful to verify, not only from a visual sense that our project is actually achieving our regeneration goals. It’s also able to help us map out where are the key areas of remaining standing forest that we want to go in and try to enrich through replanting.
So we do have a small nursery program, and we are growing seedlings, and we do go out and we replant key areas to link them to the wider ecological assets in the landscape. So we have two national parks that are nearby us, and through replanting, we hope to create a biodiversity corridor between our project and those national parks for wildlife. And then we also hope to kind of assist the main area of trees that is remaining in our site, which is a given habitat.
We want to grow that over time, and so we’re replanting. And so satellite data helps us select those areas. And so we combine the satellite data with on-the-ground sensors. We’ve essentially developed these proprietary water table sensors, and we also use camera traps to monitor wildlife. We’re also looking into bioacoustics sensors, which are essentially a network of microphones that allow you to track humans or wildlife and their movement around the project concession. And all that wraps up into our project dashboard where we can see water table levels, fire hot spots, our camera trap data sensors, and it allows the project management team to make data-driven decisions, where a few years ago we would kind of just be using more old-fashioned techniques.
How do you articulate your value proposition? Specifically, how do you kind of weigh out the carbon credit aspects with the other, the conservation benefits to forests and land and animals, etc.?
Yeah. So for us, carbon offsets are the business model by which we fund our project results. And I think that if carbon credits were to go away, we’d essentially find another way to support our conservation and restoration efforts that was commercially viable.
But for the time being, carbon offsets and the methodologies that support their verification are some of the leading methods to verify the results have been achieved on the ground. And so we use that as a business model to demonstrate our value as a conservation project to our potential clients.
And so, from a commercial aspect, one of the most successful strategies that we’ve had has been to go in and map out the different corporations that are sourcing commodities from the wider landscape where our project is.
Essentially we have corporations that will source palm oil or pulp and paper from the areas that are surrounding our project site. And so we’ve had a lot of success in sales by going to those companies and asking them to be more accountable in terms of their supply chain and giving them an opportunity to support our project as part of their sustainable sourcing strategy.
If the ravaging of distant forests is hard for most of us to envision or connect to our day-to-day, then the fate of oceanic habitats is even more opaque—yet just as relevant and similarly endangered. Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Michael Sweet, PhD, a researcher at the University of Derby in Derby, England, and one of the officers of the International Coral Reef Society.
We hear a lot about protecting the oceans, but why are coral reefs specifically so important?
So coral reefs are often called the rainforest of the sea. And this is because they’re particularly diverse. They house upwards of 25 percent of all marine life, and that’s despite only spanning about not 0.1 percent of the world’s ocean. Taken together, coral reefs are estimated to give a global value and economic value of about 6 trillion pounds each year. And that’s usually associated with the income around fishing and tourism industries. But they also offer an immense amount of coastal protection.
So in total, about 500-odd million people worldwide depend on reefs, and this is for food, jobs and, as I mentioned, coastal defense. These coral reefs are very effective barriers and can reduce wave energy by upwards of 97 percent. And so that’s a really important aspect when you think about things like tsunamis and stuff.
What are some of the projects you’re leading to restore some of these ecosystems?
Yeah, so we tackle restoration in a variety of ways. Not all of them are actually directly associated with corals themselves but preserving all the organisms associated with reefs in the ecosystems. So, one of the projects we’re particularly fond of is linked to turtles. So, most people would associate the turtles with reefs. And we’re also part of a charity called the Olive Ridley Project, and this tackles the issue around something called abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, most notably called ghost gear. So this is fishing gear which is lost as the name suggests and is floating around and still fishing and still entangling organisms, and particularly turtles as one of the megafaunas gets entangled in this way.
So, the charity in this instance works in the Maldives. And this spans also across the whole Indian Ocean. So we work in India, Pakistan, Oman, Kenya, places like that. And the research addresses the root cause of the ghost gear. So we’re trying to figure out where these ghost gears are coming from. But we also work with local people and try and mitigate the issue around this plastic pollution.
We also have a more direct aspect of the research we undertake. And this is traditional reef restoration projects. And in particular, one of our new projects is located on the island of Guam, which is a U.S. colony. This is where you outplant, particularly acroporids. So acroporid corals are a particular type of coral, which are one of the major reef buildings in the Indian Pacific. That’s a physical restoration project. But we’re also exploring something called human-assisted evolution in countries like Palau. So human-assisted evolution is tackling one of the issues around obviously climate change and the impact climate change is having on reefs, which is causing a general decline around the world.
And what happens is they do something called bleach, which is where they lose their symbiotic algae. And here, the corals are in a health-compromised state, and they start to quite often become diseased, or they can just skip the disease process and just die quite quickly. And it’s linked to increases in sea surface temperature. So what we can do with human-assisted evolution is we can put corals under a sort of stress test and understand which corals are susceptible or which are a little bit more resistant to either bleaching and/or disease. And then we can breed from these guys.
So, some of the work we do a bit closer to home in the U.K. is linked into that aspect as well. So, we tackle ex situ spawning of corals. And we actually developed a bespoke aquarium, which allows you to control the exact time of day and the exact day of the year a coral colony can spawn. So, this has now been scaled up. So a lot of the work we do is sort of conceptional and gives people the ideas to take forward into the bigger scale because we are U.K. coral biologists, which in itself is a little strange in some instances.
But this technology is now been scaled up by Florida Aquarium. And what they’ve done is they’ve used it on a massive scale to spawn hundreds of thousands of baby recruits which can now be outplanted again in a physical restoration effort into the reefs around Florida and into the greater Caribbean.
What’s the difference between a successful coral rehabilitation effort and one that’s more likely to fail?
So, I don’t really like to use the word fail per se. But you’re right in the fact that many restoration projects actually do fail, unfortunately. So, you get a large number of coral rehab efforts, and quite a large number of them actually rely on something called asexual fragmentation. So this is in contrast to sexual reproduction. So asexual fragmentation is another method that corals utilize to actually propagate the reefs in their natural manner. And this is just breaking up and fragmenting, as the name suggests, of a single colony. And then those little fragments will sometimes survive and produce a colony of their own.
That’s great, and that’s a very quick and easy way to grow corals. The slight issue with this is that they’re all from the same genetic stock. So, one colony will produce hundreds of fragments maybe, but they will all be the same genetic stock.
If you do this on a large scale, which many reef restoration projects do, the amount of genetic stock you’re putting back out onto the reef is going to be really low. And if a disease outbreak comes in, which quite often occurs incidentally in nature, then you run the very high risk of that disease wiping out that genetic stock. And because you’ve only got a very low gene library in these reef environments, that it can actually completely devastate the reef you’ve just spent years, often decades, forming. So it can be really upsetting, and I’m actually sad to say that I’ve witnessed this as well in certain instances. There’s very little that you can actually do to help that.
One of the main issues along those lines is around that. But also, one of the big reasons why quite a lot of rehabilitation projects fail is the reason why rehab and restoration projects fail no matter which ecosystem you’re exploring, is because we quite often fail to actually tackle the root cause of the problem in the first place. So, for example, if you had a boat grounding on your reef, then that’s perfectly fine because you know that that caused the destruction to your reef. You can shore up the reef structure. You can restore reefs using asexual or sexual fragmentation techniques. And you can build up a reef to a similar sort of level as what occurred before the boat actually ground on that reef.
If it’s due to pollution, land runoff, overfishing, again, if you tackle those issues on a more local, regional or national scale, then again, you can see the reefs bounce back with either little or sometimes no management. However, one of the biggest problems and the major cause for reef decline on the global level is rising sea surface temperatures. And this is the result of climate change and our CO2 footprint. So if we’re not going to tackle that, then unfortunately, most restoration efforts, including the more high-spec ones like the ones based around human-assisted evolution or assisted gene flow, are also likely to not yield too much results.
So what’s it like working on projects that can be affected by the choices of billions of other people on the planet?
Well, I think I have one of the best and also worst jobs in the world. The best job is that I get to work in an area which I love and I’m very passionate about. I also hold the belief that we can still do something about it if we do something about it now.
The worst side of things is that as the years go by, we seem to not be doing enough, and therefore it gets very depressing to see reefs getting hit and hit and hit by different things and starting to decline. So, I’ve been now in the field for long enough to start seeing whole reef systems shift and change before my eyes, going back to the same reefs and the same countries. And this is very sad and a very depressing side of things. It’s hard for me to see it.
It doesn’t affect me so much as far as my way of life per se because I come home and I carry on as normal and I teach the classes and I tell people about this, and we talk about the destruction. But sadly, in the U.K., we don’t see that. And I think this is one of the biggest problems is that, although there’s a huge number of people who are directly reliant on reefs to live and to survive, there is also a huge number of people who are not, and they struggle to see that connection. But I can guarantee you, as soon as reefs go, everybody in this world will see and feel the impact.
It takes several years for major renewable energy and carbon-capture projects to move from concept to completion. It takes multiple decades to regrow a forest. These long-term projects depend on continual attention and support, and over the course of those many years, there are bound to be any number of trends, crises and competing priorities that threaten to derail the long-term vision. Part of the power of Earth Day is that it draws our attention back to those priorities.
We should, of course, be flexible and adaptable and ready to redirect resources to address urgent needs—our current moment is a fine example of that. But just because climate change is more of a slow burn, to use an especially unsettling metaphor, that doesn’t mean we can afford to lose focus.
Thanks to the determination of project teams around the world, the work goes on. Because in this case, the good fight continues with no end in sight.
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