Tag Archives: climate change

Models for integrated resource assessment: biases and uncertainties

What are the most appropriate ways of understanding changes in natural resource change in rural areas, particularly in the context of climate change? How can we make use of data that is patchy and uncertain? How can models help decision-making about future management?

These questions are at the heart of three recently published journal articles on Zimbabwe. The three papers focus respectively on climate impacts on livestock feed (in Nkayi), land use intensity patterns (in Wedza) and the prevalence of grass fires (in Mazowe). What connects them is the use of remotely-sensed data on land use with an integrated modelling approach, aimed at policy prescriptions for resource management.

This style of research on natural resource use has become more and more common in recent years, as increasingly detailed data derived from satellite systems has become freely available. Integrated assessment models, modelling everything from climate impacts to crop production to land-use to water scarcity, can be linked to geo-referenced spatial data and parameterised with field-based data collection.

As a style of inquiry, integrated modelling approaches have a number of advantages. Diverse data sources can be combined, and predictions made around key policy issues. But there are also problems – and, in different ways, these three papers illuminate some of them.

Five problems with integrated resource assessment modelling

First, models are always framed by assumptions around problems and solutions. Each of these studies adopts a particular stance, resulting in recommendations for interventions to address the highlighted problem. So, climate change results in feed gaps for livestock, which can be solved by ‘climate smart’ adaptation measures in Nkayi. High land use intensity – excessive extraction of primary production – means that ‘hot spots’ of land degradation ‘externalities’ can be identified for intervention measures in Wedza. Increasing fire frequencies are assumed to be universally a bad thing, not a necessary consequence land clearance or a reflection of natural cycles in savannah dynamics, as fuel load builds up. Instead, recommendations, including the deployment of fire teams, creating fire-breaks and developing monitoring systems, are put forward for Mazowe.

Second, the uncertainties embedded in complex models are legion, meaning that any predictions have to be heavily qualified. These papers all acknowledge important uncertainties. In the assessment of land use intensity against a baseline of net primary production in Wedza, these arise, for example, from problems of estimating primary production in the baseline case, especially below-ground. Linking biomass harvesting to specific areas when livestock move is also recognised as a source of uncertainty. In the analysis of climate impacts on fodder management options in Nkayi, the uncertainties surrounding climate predictions across scenarios is acknowledged, and the model in turn is developed with parameters that are constrained within a ‘reasonable range of uncertainty’. Yet, by the end of the papers, important uncertainties are seemingly put aside in the desire to reach a definitive conclusion for the way forward. The apparent need for prediction, directions for ‘decision-making’ and control-oriented intervention are all-consuming.

Third, the style of argument too often leads to a closing down of discussion of more diverse options. All three papers are structured in the standard way of scientific papers, with propositions tested according to a set of methods, leading to results and conclusions. In the methods section, the qualifications, imperfections and uncertainties are duly noted. But, by the time the results are presented, around a particular quantitative model, such difficult issues are quietly put to the background. By the time of the conclusions, they have all but disappeared, and much stronger causal, predictive statements offer a definitive way forward, frequently hinted at by the original framing. For example, a model of land use intensity Wedza, focused on the extraction of net primary productivity, inevitably side-steps questions of how landscapes are understood, and how future resource use is seen by different groups of people. The social and political dynamics of change are not part of the storyline, despite the attempt to link resource use with different wealth groups.

Fourth, models are only models – simplified ways of thinking about the world – and they certainly can be helpful in thinking through options. But sometimes the assumptions just don’t make sense. Models to have any purchase need some ground-truthing, and some stress-testing with reality. The paper on grass fires shows clearly that there are no statistically significant differences across tenure types in fire frequency and extent. In other words, land reform farmers cannot be blamed, but without field based data, the paper is unable to explain the patterns, and instead uses a model that extrapolates future patterns from the past. In respect of fire, this is rather unlikely – fires due to land clearing will decline as farms and fields are established, while hunting will decline as game animal populations are eliminated. As a result, the regression-based models become detached from likely future realities. Instead, the regressions play a political role: by extrapolating increases in fires, they justify a set of externally-defined interventions.

Finally, the rush to a definitive recommendation for policy too often results in missing out on complex system dynamics, histories and contexts. The paper in this trio on livestock fodder systems, for example, assumes that the ‘feed gap’ will be filled by improved fodder quantity and quality, including the growing of fodder crops and the application of fertiliser to crops to improve stover. And this in dryland Nkayi? Surely not. The paper acknowledges that past attempts at improved fodder management have consistently failed, but does not probe why in the rush to provide an intervention-friendly recommendation aligned with a ‘climate-smart’ intervention narrative.

Styles of science: how to broaden out inquiry and open up debate

All three of these papers make important arguments and present significant data. They all have been peer-reviewed in respectable journals (Agricultural Systems, Ecological Economics and Geocarto International). The data is (mostly) of high quality, the models are consistent (if problematic) and the arguments are clearly made (although open to challenge). But reading these (and these are only exemplars of many, many others, perhaps rather unfairly singled out), the five wider concerns raised above kept coming back.

It makes me uneasy when a style of science closes down debate. Uncertainties are not embraced and alternative interpretations are not given space. An assumption that the end-point must be a science-based ‘smart’ intervention means other possibilities – more social, political for example – are not countenanced. This is less a critique of the particular methods and models, but more the style of policy-oriented science, centred on integrated assessment modelling, now central to a huge industry of ‘global change’ research.

What might an alternative approach look like? Modelling that takes uncertainty seriously would not close down to definitive solutions, but would aim to open debates up. Models that are interrogated with deep, field-based data, thus triangulating between modelling approaches, result in greater robustness and wider interpretation. When reading the papers, I had to ask: are there alternatives to new fodder regimes and crop fertilisation to address the consequences of climate change on livestock production in Nkayi? Of course there are! Does fire management have to be focused always on fire prevention; are fires always bad? Of course not! But such alternatives were not debated.

Suggesting diverse, alternative options for the future – different interpretations and solutions from an open approach to data, evidence and integrated assessment modelling – allows for an engaged, inevitably political debate, about what makes sense for whom. This would make for papers that are less neat, but perhaps ultimately more useful.

This is the fourth of a short series of blogs profiling recent papers on Zimbabwe.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones

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Climate negotiations open in Paris: a perspective from southern Africa

Today COP 21 opens in Paris. Over two weeks a new climate deal will hopefully be agreed. It is a critical juncture for humanity. As high level officials discuss options in these negotiations, many people around the world are already living with climate change and uncertainty.

In Southern Africa, the effects of what is expected to be a massive El Niño event are being felt. El Niño is a natural climatic event when the equatorial waters in the eastern Pacific ocean warm. It occurs every few years, but this one is expected to be the most extreme ever. El Niño disrupts regular weather patterns, increasing the risk of droughts in some areas and heavy rainfall and floods in others. The consequences can be severe food shortages, as well as heightened risk of floods, disease and forest fires.

The UN is offering dire warnings, and contingency and emergency plans are being drawn up. Although El Niño is not due to anthropogenic climate change, climate scientists argue that the effects can be exacerbated. Are we witnessing the future of climate uncertainty under climate change?

There have been a number of El Niño events in southern Africa over the years, upsetting the older pattern of regular cycles of higher and lower rainfall. In the early 1990s, we studied the consequences in our book on dryland agriculture in Zimbabwe. Massive livestock deaths were recorded as grazing ran out, and people were plunged into deep insecurity. The economy lost 8 per cent of GDP, with ramifications across sectors. Our book ‘Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa – Lessons from Zimbabwe’ (sadly out of print, but you can still get it second-hand) was not especially framed by climate change debates, but reading it again now, it is highly relevant. Back then, we were indeed investigating what would now be called ‘climate adaptation’ responses in the context of extreme drought.

In Zimbabwe, the rains are certainly late and the prognosis from the Met Department is not good. The Zimvac assessment, echoed in recent press releases by UN agencies, warn of up to 1.5 million people being food insecure at the end of the season. As commented before, these estimates have to be qualified, but there is little doubt that the situation is severe. As ever, food security numbers are being used as a political football, and a spokesperson for Tendai Biti’s new PDP party, Jacob Mafume, clearly couldn’t resist making up a completely random number, claiming that 3.5 million people were in need of food aid.

This sort of irresponsible numbers game helps no-one, but disputes over figures should not detract from the serious business of responding to potential major drought impacts. Contingency planning is an essential task when disasters are potentially in the offing. Donor funds are flowing into Zimbabwe, but the lack of state capacity, and the continued hesitance of donors, NGOs and government working together, is hampering preparations.

But for the longer term, building local resilience to respond to climate uncertainty is essential. This inevitably must be central to any development option for the future in the context of living with climate change. No matter what happens in Paris, we will all have to live with the consequences of several degrees of global temperature rise.

This means more droughts, more floods, and less certainty for rainfed agricultural production and livestock keeping in particular. Resilience building has become a favoured buzzword, but it must start with what people already do, and build on local solutions and knowledge. This means storing more water, shifting to more drought resilient crops, creating livestock systems that can be buffered against climate shifts and more.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland



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Tackling climate change: the contested politics of forest carbon projects in Africa

Tackling climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our age. And this year is a crucial moment with the Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris in December 2015 hopefully to forge a new climate agreement. Forests, carbon and their management are high on the agenda, and a new book has just come out from the STEPS Centre, edited by Melissa Leach and myself. It’s called Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa (take a peek at some of the content, check out the reviews and chapter listing, and use code DC361 and get 20% off buying it!).

The book dissects the issues, and offers a bunch of case studies from across Africa, including a great chapter on Zimbabwe by Vupenyu Dzingirai and Lindiwe Mangwanya from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences at UZ. This focuses on the Kariba REDD project in Hurungwe, one of a number of districts involved, with the whole project covering to date a massive 1.4 million hectares of land along the Zambezi valley.

Deforestation and land degradation globally contribute significantly to carbon emissions, and addressing these has become a major policy priority. Carbon offset approaches, mediated by carbon markets and facilitated by international accords and global climate finance, have become especially popular. In such schemes carbon emissions in one part of the world (usually the industrialised north) are offset by initiatives that reduce emissions in another part of the world where there are plentiful forests, and opportunities for new carbon sequestration (such as Africa). Such projects can, it is argued, additionally focus on poverty reduction and biodiversity protection, creating a ‘win-win’ scenario, rather than a feared ‘green grabbing’.

This is the theory; but what of the practice? The book is about what happens on the ground when carbon forestry projects – existing in various guises, often under the umbrella of the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme – arrive. In this new field of environment and development practice, there are many new players, a whole panoply of models, processes and procedures for verification and monitoring, and a hot politics of authority and control. Understanding what works, and what doesn’t is crucial, and the various chapters offer some salutary lessons on the current fad for market-based offset approaches to carbon mitigation.

The detailed case studies come from seven countries, from west, east and southern Africa, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The chapters ask what actually happens when carbon forestry projects unfold in particular places: who wins, and who loses out, and what are the consequences – for carbon sequestration and offsetting, as well as poverty reduction? As all the cases show, carbon projects do not arrive on a blank slate. All sites have long histories of intervention, including a whole array of forestry, environmental protection and development projects. These have shaped and reshaped livelihoods and landscapes, and generated experiences and memories that influence local responses to new interventions.

The chapters cover a huge range of African ecologies, different carbon forestry project types and an array of national political-economic contexts. In all chapters, the authors ask: what difference does carbon make? What political and ecological dynamics are unleashed by these new commodified, marketized approaches, and how are local forest users experiencing and responding to them? Carbon forestry projects – as previous interventions in forest use, ownership and management – have not been the panacea some had expected. Multiple conflicts have emerged between land owners, forest users and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects not straightforward.

In the Zimbabwe case, for example, the project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore  farmers and the Rural District Council, offering a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and ‘alternative livelihood’ projects  in exchange for protecting forests, and planting trees. As the notional ‘traditional’ and ‘administrative’ owners of the land, they should have the authority. But they are pitched against powerful forces with other ideas about resource use and economic priorities. These including politically-connected tobacco farmers who migrated to the area through the 1980s and 90s; indeed at the invitation of the same local Korekore leaders now backing carbon. Today, they are making considerable sums of money, and destroying substantial areas of forest when curing. With the land reform in 2000 there was a further wave of in-migration from those displaced from the nearby Karoi farmers, notably farmworkers of diverse origins. They were encouraged to settle on the frontiers, often inside game and safari areas as a buffer to wildlife for the long-standing residents. They too have cleared land and reduced forest cover, and survive through a mix of farming, hunting and gathering, as well as labouring on the tobacco farms. The new social, cultural and economic landscape, evolving through waves of migration, is one where a simple REDD project is immensely difficult to implement, as divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority and more divide ‘the community’ that is notionally involved in the project. The assumption that climate mitigation through carbon offsetting in Africa’s forests is going to be easy is thoroughly challenged by the Zimbabwe case – as all the others in the book.

Across the book, we argue that a new politics of access and control over forests and their carbon is emerging, making the noble aims of climate mitigation through carbon forestry very challenging indeed. There’s a need to address conflicts head on, and to develop a more politically sophisticated approach to carbon governance in complex landscapes than has been seen to date. For all those engaged in the debates in the lead up to Paris and beyond, the book points to ways forward that take account of the complex, layered politics of Africa’s forest landscapes. As Jesse Ribot from the University of Illinois says: “Carbon forestry is privatizing, commodifying and financializing the world’s forests, recasting relations between state and market forest landscapes. This book illuminates the fraught political economy of this transformative moment”.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland



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Are livestock destroying the planet?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across Africa. On Zimbabweland there have been many blogs on this theme focusing on Zimbabwe’s livestock and marketing systems. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions?

A special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change late last year offered some new data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to the Economist weighing into the debate. The Economists’ summary of a paper by Mario Herrero from CSIRO in Australia and colleagues from IIASA and ILRI suggested that the solution to the high climate change impacts of traditional livestock rearing was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”. Why is this position adopted? The Economist explains:

… More acres are given over to feeding animals than to any other single use. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres. A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus). A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication published recently that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor. So should Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa be abandoning livestock production to save the planet? Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer?

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. The data in the PNAS article is clear. Inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard.

But the assessment does not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with studies such as the PNAS one is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

Simon Fairlie produced a brilliant book a few years back, Meat: a Benign Extravagance. It even got George Monbiot to change his views on meat eating. The book argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. The same applies in the great climate and environmental impact debate, a theme that is picked up in the book, and in a recent paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following the Economist article Mario Herrero distances himself from the claims made by the Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but how then can the extensive savannah grasslands of Africa be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

The problem with studies of this sort – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. In this case focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with, often put to one side (or in very long appendices of supplementary data). In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equiibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management. Our book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa, highlighted through many case studies the way pastoralism contributes to development in the Greater Horn of Africa. A similar case could be made for the livestock dependent areas of Zimbabwe, as I and many others have long argued.

Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland






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