Altering the large-scale dynamics of the Earth system through continual and deliberate human intervention now seems possible. In doing so, one should question the energetic sustainability of such interventions. Here, from the basis that a region might be unnaturally vegetated by employing technological means, we apply the metric of “energy return on investment” (EROI) to benchmark the energetic sustainability of such a scenario. We do this by applying EROI to a series of global climate model simulations where the entire Sahara/Sahel region is irrigated with increased rates of desalinated water to produce biomass. The energy content of this biomass is greater than the energy input rate for a minimum irrigation rate of about 200mmyr-1 in the winter and 500mmyr-1 in the summer, thereby yielding an EROI ratio >1 : 1, expressing energetic sustainability. Quantified annually, the EROI was >1 : 1 for irrigation rates more than 500mmyr-1, progressively increasing to a maximum of 1.8 : 1 with 900mmyr-1, and then decreasing with further increases in the irrigation rate. Including the precipitation feedback arising from changes in moisture recycling within the study region approximately doubles these EROI ratios. This overall result varies spatially and temporally, so while the entire Sahara/Sahel region is irrigated equally, the western coastal region from June to August had the highest EROI. Other factors would complicate such a large-scale modification of the Earth system, but this sensitivity study concludes that with a required energy input, desert greening may be energetically sustainable. More specifically, we have shown how this type of EROI analysis could be applied as a metric to assess a diverse range of human alterations to, and interventions within, the Earth system.
Bowring, S. P. K., Miller, L. M., Ganzeveld, L. N., & Kleidon, A. (2014). Applying the concept of “energy return on investment” to desert greening of the Sahara/Sahel using a global climate model. Earth System dynamics, 5, 43-53. https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-5-43-2014