Apple is working to restore African grasslands to curb climate change (and save the elephants)


Adele Peters, Fast Company

Date Published

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Sitting between two national parks in Kenya, the Chyulu Hills are home to large populations of elephants and other wildlife. The area is also the site of Apple’s latest donation, as the tech company looks for new solutions to climate change that can be replicated at scale.

The company is working with the nonprofit Conservation International to restore degraded grasslands in the area. “By restoring tens of thousands of hectares in the Chyulu Hills, we can remove carbon from the air, protect a critical wildlife corridor for elephants, and support the livelihoods of the Maasai people,” says Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental, social, and policy initiatives, who formerly served as head of the EPA.

The grasslands at the foot of the hills, along with similar rangelands across Africa, have the potential to capture huge amounts of CO2. But over time, the landscape has become degraded through unsustainable land use. That means that the soil can’t sequester as much carbon, and it also leads to other problems for people and animals in the area. Across the Chyulu Hills, overgrazing has left Maasai herders without enough food for their livestock. The habitat is so degraded that elephants and other wildlife also struggle to find enough to eat.

In the past, a restoration project in an area like this might have focused on replanting grass and trees. But Apple is funding tests of a different approach, led by Conservation International with work on the ground from local partners including the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and the Big Life Foundation. Instead of focusing on planting, the team will test social interventions. For example, they might help Maasai herders shift to rotational grazing, which could help degraded areas of rangeland recover. The theory: With strategic interventions, the landscape can rebound on its own.

“Direct planting work is very expensive,” says Nikola Alexandre, a restoration fellow at Conservation International. “But when you work instead with local communities, you find actions that they can carry out that improve their well-being and the well-being of the ecosystem. It’s kind of a win-win solution for everyone.” The landscape is already experiencing the effects of climate change, including drought followed by heavy rains and erosion. “It is likely that climate change is going to radically change the nature of that ecosystem,” he says. “So what we’re trying to do is use restoration to make that ecosystem more resilient to climate change as much as we possibly can.” 

The nonprofit had already been working in the Chyulu Hills to protect forested areas (by employing more rangers and creating local job opportunities that don’t involve damaging the forest) around the grasslands. But the new funding from Apple will allow it to test its new strategy. “What we want to do is really show a cost-effective model for doing rangeland restoration that can be replicated in other areas, and use this landscape as a demonstration for other African governments,” says Alexandre.

Implemented on rangelands across Africa, this type of restoration could yield huge climate benefits. Restoring degraded land could lead to 4 metric tons of CO2 removal per hectare. “If you look across all of Africa, there are over 900 million hectares of degraded lands,” he says. (That’s an area larger than the entire country of Brazil.) “Restoring that area, using the kinds of approaches that we’re trying to identify—that are specifically meant to reduce costs while having direct benefits to wildlife and to people—could, in an ideal scenario, result in the annual sequestration of 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s approximately equivalent to the annual emissions from the E.U.”

For Apple, it’s the latest in a series of projects aimed at helping conservation organizations use nature itself to fight climate change. “Tackling the global climate challenge requires everyone to act with a fierce urgency,” Jackson says. “At Apple, we’re bringing the same focus we have for creating innovative and groundbreaking products to creating climate solutions.” Previously, the company worked on a project to protect a mangrove forest in Colombia, a type of ecosystem that is particularly effective at sequestering carbon dioxide (in both projects, Apple supplied both monetary help as well as helped design the program). Before that, Apple funded a project in China to help improve forest management on a million acres, and a project in the U.S. that similarly helped improve forest management.

For Conservation International, it’s a source of funding at a time when—despite growing interest in the potential of forests and other ecosystems to sequester carbon—there’s still far from enough money available. “The pool of capital that is available to do the work that needs to get done to avoid catastrophic climate change cannot exclusively be funded by the public sector or by philanthropy,” Alexandre says. “It’s just too small. Some estimates put that conservation-restoration gap at $500 billion per year.” There’s a need for funding from all sources, he says, but corporate funding also tends to allow nonprofits to move faster than they might be able to with a grant from the government.

Some companies, he says, are becoming more deeply committed to supporting this type of work, where in the past a company might have written a one-off check. “It’s really making these corporations make these practices a way of life, a way of doing business,” says Alexandre.