If Australia wants to stay cool, it should stop land clearances and plant some trees

Koala bears are among the cuter victims of land clearances. Image: Getty.

Land clearance is on the rise in Australian states like Queensland and New South Wales, with land clearing laws being fiercely debated.

In Queensland in 2013–14, 278,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared: an area 1.2 times the size of the Australian Capital Territory. A further 296,000ha were cleared in 2014–15. These are the highest rates of deforestation in the developed world.

Land clearing on this scale is bad for a whole host of reasons. But our research shows that it is also likely to make parts of Australia warmer and drier, adding to the effects of climate change.

How do trees change the climate?

Land clearing releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but the effect of land clearing on climate goes well beyond carbon emissions. It causes warming locally, regionally and even globally, and it changes rainfall by altering the circulation of heat and moisture.

Trees evaporate more water than any other vegetation type – up to 10 times more than crops and pastures. This is because trees have root systems that can access moisture deep within the soil. Crops and pastures have 70 per cent of their roots in the top 30cm of the soil, while trees and other woody plants have 43 per cent of their roots in the deeper part of the soil.

The increased evaporation and rough surface of trees creates moist, turbulent layers in the lower atmosphere. This reduces temperatures and contributes to cloud formation and increased rainfall. The increased rainfall then provides more moisture to soils and vegetation.

The clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation for shallow-rooted crops and pastures diminishes this process, resulting in a warmer and drier climate.

We can see this process at work along the “bunny fence” in southwest Western Australia, where there is a moister atmosphere and more clouds over native vegetation compared with nearby farming areas during summer.

The rabbit-proof fence, which keeps pests from the rest of Australia out of the Western Australian pastoral lands. Image: Rougengineer/Wikimedia Commons.

Studies in Amazonia also indicate that, as deforestation expands, rainfall declines. A tipping point may be reached when deforestation reaches 30-50 per cent, after which rainfall is substantially reduced. Complete deforestation results in the greatest decline in rainfall.

More trees, cooler moister climate

We wanted to know how land clearing could affect Australia’s climate in the future. We did this by modelling two scenarios for different amounts of land clearing, using models developed by CSIRO.

In the first scenario, crops and pasture expand in the semi-arid regions of eastern and southwest Australia. The second scenario limits crops and pastures to highly productive lands, and partially restores less productive lands to savanna woodlands.


We found that restoring trees to parts of Australia would reduce surface temperatures by up to 1.6℃, especially in western Queensland and NSW.

We also found that more trees reduced the overall climate-induced warming from 4.1℃ to 3.2℃ between 2050 and 2100.

Replanting trees could increase summer rainfall by 10 per cent overall, and by up to 15.2 per cent in the southwest. We found soil moisture would increase by around 20 per cent in replanted regions.

Our study doesn’t mean replanting all farmed land with trees: just areas that are less productive and less cost-effective to farm intensively. In our scenario, the areas that are restored in western Queensland and NSW would need a tree density of around 40 per cent, which would allow a grassy understorey to be maintained. This would allow some production to continue such as cattle grazing at lower numbers or carbon farming.

Political and social challenges

Limiting land clearing represents a major challenge for Australia’s policymakers and farming communities. The growing pressure to clear reflects a narrow economic focus on achieving short- to medium-term returns by expanding agriculture to meet the growing global demand for food and fibre.

However, temperatures are already increasing, and rainfall is decreasing over large areas of eastern and southwest Australia. Tree clearing coupled with climate change will make growing crops and raising livestock even harder.

Balancing farming with managing climate change would give land owners on marginal land new options for income generation, while the most efficient agricultural land would remain in production. This would need a combination of regulation and long-term financial incentives.

The climate benefits of limiting land clearing must play a bigger part in land management as Australia’s climate becomes hotter and drier. Remnant vegetation needs to be conserved and extensive areas of regrowth must be allowed to regenerate.

And where regeneration is not possible, we’ll have to plant large numbers of trees.The Conversation

Clive McAlpine is a professor, Leonie Seabrook a landscape ecologist and Jozef Syktus a principal research fellow in the Global Change Institute at the The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.