Thursday, January 17, 2013

Harvard Business Review goes crackpot with “green the Australian desert” scheme

Please remember this: what I’m about to discuss is an article in Harvard Business Review. You know: a highly respected publication with an international reputation.

In so far as a single article suffices for this, I’m about to drop that reputation in the blender and ask the immortal question “Will it Blend?”

The article in question is this one, “When Social Enterprise Demands Mega Scale”, in which a guru of e-mail marketing, Arthur Middleton Hughes, suggests solving climate change by turning on the desal plants on a vast scale, to turn 80 percent of Australia’s deserts into Paulownia hardwood plantations. This, he confidently asserts, would soak up about 80 percent of the world’s excess CO2 and pay for itself through hardwood sales.

The numbers are all wrong.

Quote: “Australia has 834 million acres of desert”.

No, we do not. According to Geosciences Australia:

“The total desert area equates to 18 per cent of the total mainland area of Australia” – which, given Australia’s total area, means the desert area is around 137 million hectares – or 339 million acres (2.47 acres per hectare).

In other words, whatever source Mr Middleton Hughes used for our area of desert, it was more than double the actual area.

“If 80% of the Australian deserts were provided with fresh water and planted with fast-growing trees, Australian deserts could reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere of the planet by 7.4 billion tons per year.”

Nope. Because of the simple error in research, the total carbon capture available isn’t 7.4 billion tons per year – it’s 2.9 billion tons.

How does Mr Middleton Hughes propose to pay for this vast project?

“If fresh water were pumped to 80% of these deserts and trees were planted, the result could be a world hardwood export business eventually worth $2.4 trillion per year.”

Ahem: according to, the global hardwood market in 2006 was $257 billion. So there isn’t demand for $2.4 trillion worth of hardwood; the price would collapse.

And all of this ignores the environmental impact.

Australia’s deserts aren’t some kind of Martian landscape where nothing lives or grows. Rain brings the deserts into bloom: they are vital and diverse ecosystems.

Thanks, Mr Middleton Hughes, but we aren’t going to hand over deserts to a crackpot scheme that won’t work.

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