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Michael Pawlyn: Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture

How can architects build a new world of sustainable beauty? By learning from nature. At TEDSalon in London, Michael Pawlyn describes three habits of nature that could transform architecture and society: radical resource efficiency, closed loops, and drawing energy from the sun. — TED


  1. I have recently completed an MSc thesis entitled: ‘What is the potential for reducing atmospheric CO2 levels through solar-desalinated irrigated vegetation of the Sahara and Arabian deserts?’ and I’m currently looking to take it to the next level and hopefully meeting with Michael Pawlyn in London this month.

    In my thesis I have focussed on the supply of freshwater and electricity generating capacity of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region via Concentrating Solar Power. I investigated the potential of using solar-desalinated water to irrigate the MENA region in order to grow vegetation in the Sahara and Arabian deserts, with the proposal being that this vegetation would lower atmospheric CO2 by creating a net carbon sink. Having investigated a range of species I chose Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla to model this proposal, due to its relatively well-researched growth rate and water requirement and high transpiration ratio. (the wood production of this species has increased 4-fold since the sixties due to intensive Brazilian research). I am well aware of the negative aspects of monoculture – but this is a model and figures for polycultures and permacultures to the accuracy required for MSc were not available in the literature.
    I calculated how much carbon could be sequestered in the vegetation and soil of a Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla forest, on an estimated area of 8.4 million km2 across the MENA deserts. I calculated the water required to irrigate the trees and the electricity needed to provide the water through desalination of seawater, mostly through reverse osmosis, and to supply the water to the trees by pumping it across the desert in pipes.

    I then reviewed how much electricity could be generated using concentrating solar power in the MENA region from studies undertaken by the DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Centre)) and related this to the electricity requirements of region in 2050 and the electricity requirements to desalinate the seawater to irrigate the trees. (The DLR did this work for the Desertec Foundation, whose own Grand Projet is to produce vast quantities of electricity from the world’s deserts). I found that there would be a great deal of surplus energy generated, beyond that required for the desalination and irrigation processes. I then calculated the area of land required for the parallel troughs or linear Fresnels used to provide the electricity from the land use efficiency of the CSP units and the direct normal irradiation falling on an area of land. I also looked at the costs, benefits and possible sources of income from the project, including the provision of food beneath the linear fresnels.

    Results from my thesis suggest that a forest of Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla occupying 8.4million km2 of MENA deserts could be capable of sequestering 8 – 14.3GtCyr-1 in the vegetation and upper-soil profile. Non-land-use-change anthropogenic carbon emissions are currently 8.7Gtyr-1. The forest would require 7,560 – 8,400km3 water yr-1 for irrigation, which would require 56,144 – 62,553TWh electricity yr-1 to desalinate. Electricity could be supplied by CSP units covering 324,532 – 579,194km2. Major project costs included CSP units, RO plants and pipework. Benefits included ecosystem services, timber and carbon credits.

    I have researched a great deal of additional material that did not make it into the final version of my thesis, including a large chapter on the role that people could play in the project. This chapter reviewed the number of people currently living in poverty in the world and the increase in world population predicted over the next 40 years. I then investigated the potential of the transformed MENA deserts to host thriving human settlements by reducing the area of land dedicated to Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla production, in order to host these human settlements including food production. I looked at the use of permaculture to serve the needs of these people (settlers) including the use of biointensive gardening and forest gardening and how much carbon this form of gardening could sequester. Preliminary calculations indicate that using intensive permaculture techniques the MENA desert could be partitioned into 400 million permaculture smallholdings, each with an attached forestry micro-plantation, capable of supporting up to 4 billion people.
    I then developed a model whereby these settlers could take responsibility for individual micro-areas of Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla forest (1 hectare per settlement) and in exchange receive payment and title deeds to their land. A mixed forest would be preferable to a monoculture of Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla. Growth rates, water requirements and transpiration ratios of a range of species would need to be practically assessed.

    I removed these sections on advice of my thesis supervisor as they contained too much speculation for an academic thesis. However in the bigger picture they are highly relevant to the purpose of poverty elevation and providing the land necessary to absorb the world population increase before the predicted stabilisation is reached around 2050. I am in the process of reintegrating these sections as a post-thesis addendum.

    I am now investigating ways to progress the work I have done in my thesis to practical study. I gained my Permaculture Design Certificate with Geoff and Nadia Lawton in Jordan in 2009 and I believe that permaculture environmental restoration through planned biological succession and human settlements will play a critical role in climate change mitigation and poverty eradication.
    My thesis is freely available for download here:
    I shall post my addendum when complete. If anyone can help with the next stages of this, please do get in touch.

  2. Let me be that voice in this situation that reminds – while technological innovation and advances are necessary and welcomed, it still seems they, solely, will not “save” the current human predicament.

    In my mind, any show of technology of this kind must be prefaced by the need for severe reclamation of responsibility for our personal resource use and lifestyle implications. For so many, those in North Africa included, the opportunity to make the Sahara productive seems to also mean DEVELOP these places. And development will only be successful with responsible resource consciousness and actively sustainable lifestyles.

    Perhaps I’m being a permie puritan, but this seems imperative and like it needs to be clearly stated each and every time.



  3. Craig. Your research is interesting but I suggest a different Eucalyptus species or hybrid cross.You will need to consider soil type and tolerance to extreme dry heat.I am sure the genus will provide.

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