​Spekboom can fix ecosystems, create jobs and suck up CO2 – if SA gets a carbon tax

A young elephant pulls at a branch in the Addo Elephant National Park. (Alex Grimm, Reuters)

A young elephant pulls at a branch in the Addo Elephant National Park. (Alex Grimm, Reuters)

Spekboom was meant to be the ultimate symbol of sustainable development, a plant that could fix ecosystems and making farmers bucketloads of money. Then the world economy crashed and progress towards a local carbon tax stalled.

A few projects are chugging along, showing the potential of the indigenous plant to rehabilitate large parts of the country. But the shine has gone.

“This was going to be the big breakthrough for climate change. Instead of just being a victim, South Africa could plant spekboom, which would soak up carbon emissions and do so in a profitable manner,” says Professor Richard Cowling, who was there for the test project in 2004.

His name is on much of the research into how planting a 2.5m-tall evergreen succulent could transform the rural parts of the Eastern and Western Cape.

But that research now catalogues potential, not reality. “Maybe there was too much hype, so people expected too much of a miracle solution,” he says.

Cowling lives in Cape St Francis, with the restless blue Indian Ocean on one side and the rhythmic rotation of dozens of wind turbines on the other. This was an area that was almost impassable a century ago, given the dense thicket of spekboom that covered the coastal belt. The plant was a favourite of elephants. Thousands crashed through the thicket, eating the top leaves and spreading the seeds.

Then came the farmers who cut away the spekboom to introduce irrigated crops and livestock such as goats. The latter ate spekboom from the bottom up, ruining millennia of adaptation. With the food gone and land use changed, only a few hundred elephant remain in Addo Elephant Park.

All this broke the local ecosystem. Now, when the winter rain falls it washes away topsoil. This flows into dams, silting them up. Little water infiltrates deep into the ground to recharge aquifers. And none of this is good for farming, a bulwark of the local economy that formally employs 7% of the province’s workers.

Fixing ecosystems could turn this around. But planting spekboom is expensive and the plant grows slowly. It also means farmers have to take a leap of faith, converting land that makes money now into something that creates longer-term value. That’s where climate change and spekboom come in.

Because it is evolved to survive the arid conditions of the Karoo, spekboom has a few unique tricks. In winter, when it gets moisture from cold fronts, it photosynthesises like any other plant. In summer, it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) during the day but stores this away without photosynthesising. Instead, it does this at night so no water evaporates. That moisture is then stored as carbon compounds in the spekboom’s leaves, stems and roots.

In other words, the plant is really good at sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, something the world needs. Carbon dioxide levels are currently at 400 parts per million, their highest concentration in three million years.


An elephant leaves a waterhole in Addo elephant park. (Patrick Hertzog, AFP)

Carbon trading schemes were introduced to lower CO2 concentration. Companies that emit carbon buy credits to offset against the carbon tax. Those credits pay for people to carry out activities to reduce the emissions, such as plant spekboom.

In the mid-2000s, this looked to be extremely profitable. Research by the Rhodes University-based Subtropical Thicket Restoration Programme found that a farmer could earn R440 000 a hectare each year by planting spekboom. 

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian in 2008, Anthony Mills, then of Stellenbosch University’s department of soil science, said: “The bottom line is that the carbon market is booming and creating carbon credits is likely to be profitable.” At that time, companies were buying carbon credits for between €10 (about R130 then) and €20 a tonne of carbon emitted. Mills said the price was expected to reach €60 by 2030. That would mean R2.6-million a year per hectare for farmers.

Startups seized on this. Airlines advertised the fact that paying a bit extra on a fare would plant spekboom in rural South Africa. The money started to flow. Farmers in the southern part of the Eastern Cape started converting hundreds of hectares of land to spekboom. This was especially useful in an area where farmers were turning to wildlife as a source of income — spekboom is a good source of food. 

Then came the 2008 financial crash. The bottom fell out of the carbon market. Carbon credits are now €5 (about R75) a tonne. That has all but destroyed the dream of spekboom. Without lucrative profits, farmers cannot afford the tens of thousands needed to convert their land.

But part of the spekboom project is surviving. Through the environment department’s Working for Land programme, R45-million has been invested in more than 7 000 hectares, creating jobs in areas where there is no industry.

Ecosystems become valuable to politicians when they create jobs. This guarantees a budget. Research by the Development Bank of South Africa, titled Natural Resource Management: An Employment Catalyst, shows that fixing ecosystems is a big job creator. It calculates that 500 000 jobs could be created “if the prevailing environmental challenges are to be addressed more actively”. Spekboom is a small but integral part of that future.

Overseeing this future is the environment department’s Dr Christo Marais, head of its chief directorate for environmental protection and infrastructure programmes.

Forever visiting projects, he is a difficult man to contact. An initial email gets the response: “The thicket project is still very much alive.” A call follows. “We have problems with the deadly sins that bring fatalities [to spekboom]: frost, drought and grazing. But things are looking good.”

Without the backing of lucrative carbon credits, Marais spends his time convincing farmers that fixing ecosystems makes sense — in this instance, more water, particularly underground. But that’s water that you cannot see, he says. “A farmer wants to see his dam and see that there is water in that dam.”

The current drought has helped his argument, as have the valleys where rehabilitation has meant once-dry rivers now flow again. “Farmers talk. It’s a slow process because we are working with a small budget, but each example means more people get interested in fixing their local ecosystem.”

That could be given a huge boost should the South African carbon market take off. Taxed at R120 a tonne on carbon emissions, companies could invest in projects such as spekboom. With 500-million tonnes of carbon emitted each year in South Africa, the treasury has said the potential for stimulating local projects is big.

But the tax is being blocked by companies and government departments that say it would lead to factories closing and job loss.

Because of this, spekboom’s potential to improve local ecosystems dramatically, provide jobs and slow global warming will remain just that — a potential. 

Sipho Kings

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