Triple Bottom Line Evaluation of Barren Land

Faculty advisor: Prof. J. Rhee
Student Project Members:

  • Mike Alvarado
  • Shabnam Khan
  • Jonathan Sandhu
  • Shelby Troxel

Current science believes that carbon emissions, primarily resulting from burning fossil fuels, are a leading contributor to accelerated climate change. While the ultimate goal is to reduce or cease human-caused carbon emissions, it is just as important to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere while new technologies and practices are developed.

Unable to fully abandon our current fossil fuel based society, we are left with two options to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere, reduce the amount of fossil fuels used, mitigation, and carbon sequestration, absorbing the emissions into natural carbon sinks such as soil. Our team found that underutilized land, specifically barren land, could be used towards this goal. Barren Land is land of limited ability to support life and in which less than one-third of the area has vegetation or other cover.

In order to study the feasibility of using barren land for carbon emission mitigation or sequestration, we found a local organization considering development options for a patch of barren land. Silver Creek Country Club (SCCC) expressed a desire to use barren land within their property boundary in an alternative manner. They hoped to maximize long-term financial and social benefits, but where unsure what would meet their criteria and maintain feasibility.

To meet their weighing mechanism we employed 'The Triple Bottom Line' (TBL) which incorporates social and environmental performance into financial considerations. Our team analyzed potential alternative uses for SCCC's barren land, comparing the environmental, social, and financial benefits of each alternative. Using the TBL and the goal of carbon emission mitigation or sequestration as guidelines, the team compared social, environmental, and fiscal benefits and costs of the current proposal to SCCC, planting a wine vineyard, versus reforestation of the land, a photo-voltaic installation, and leaving the land is. Each development option produced a carbon sequestration effect, but they differed in benefits produced based on the TBL.

Each alternative produced potential and actual benefits, but the feasibility of the proposed alternatives depends on the personal values SCCC places upon social and environmental benefits versus fiscal benefits, and how they weigh their short term gains and losses versus the long term. Although the 'best' alternative remains a subjective choice, the project represents a template for how to evaluate alternative development feasibility in a more ecologically conscious world. By shifting towards a TBL analysis, proposals that would normally be turned away as unviable due to slow or unknowable fiscal gains are now bolstered by global sustainability benefits.

The percentage of used land that is not arable or under permanent crops represents over 82% of the earth's surface or 149 million sq km. If even 5% of that amount was considered barren land, it would equal 7.5 million sq. km. - a significant potential carbon sink/offset.