EGU Blogs


Rocks in the right place at the right time…

Rocks in the right place at the right time…

Flo looks two examples of the strange and important ways that geology and where it’s located can affect international governance and regulation. From the presence of tiny coralline islands to ownership of the Arctic!

I’ve always had an interest in the peculiarities of geology and geomorphology and the inordinate (sometimes almost absurd!) ways that they play their part in deciding on big international governance. Humanity has long-relied on the presence of geological features such as mountain ranges, coasts, rivers etc. to delineate ownership and basis on which to set ‘ground rules’.These geological features account for many historic and modern day national borders and so the odd rock in the right place at the right time can be very handy (or not, depending on which side of the coin you’re on…).  Sometimes this works well, countries such as India and Chile use enormous, previously impassable mountain ranges such as the Himalayas and the Andes as their natural borders and this has worked relatively well. Island states such as the UK assume their land borders at the point where land meets the sea, which also works for now but is ultimately just a function of current sea level. But in a dynamic world, the formation and loss of landmass and particularly changing sea levels will be shifting quite considerably in the face of human-induced climate change, and so the previously established rules and regulations about ownership and governance may start to become and bit less solid than it was…so where does this leave us?

I’m going to look at a couple examples of where geological features have influenced the distribution of governance responsibility among nations, and just how flimsy that burden of proof can get!

The Arctic

2007_Arctic_Sea_Ice - Copy (2)

The image shows a record sea ice minimum in the Arctic, taken in September 2007. Image Credit – NASA, Wikimedia Commons.

One great example of how small, uncontrollable things can influence major decisions and changes, is the right to ownership and governance of the Arctic. The ongoing in reduction of sea ice in the Arctic due to climate change and recent developments in technology that would allow development of Arctic resources has led to something of an arms race with countries laying claim to large tracts of the region. The scientific basis for many of these claims is based on the mapping of ocean ridges and where they sit in relation to the Arctic states (Canada, US, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden).

The process for assigning areas of the Arctic is both scientific and political but nation states must prove through surveying that there is continuity and that they are geologically ‘attached’ to the Arctic by a ridge. The most recently lodged claim is that of Denmark, who, via Greenland a semi-autonomous Danish territory (another potentially fortuitous link in this chain), can lay claim to an area of 895,000 square kilometers due to the extension of the

Bathymetric map of the Arctic Ocean. Image Credit - NOAA, Wikimedia Commons.

Bathymetric map of the Arctic Ocean. Image Credit – NOAA, Wikimedia Commons.

Lomonosov ridge, according to a senior geophysicist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Denmark has filed a claim to the area to the UN linked to the ridge, and if successful will have access to a sizable chunk of the Arctic’s resources. The regulation that covers these kind of claims is the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea which states that nations are entitled to a distance of 200 nautical miles from their coast, any claims beyond this reach need to be supported by scientific data. This most recent claim is the fifth from Denmark who have also previously submitted claims north of the Faroe Islands (another Danish territory) and in an area south of the Faroe Islands. This builds on a body of work where Danish scientists surveyed a 2000 kilometer long underwater mountain range that runs north of Siberia, they concluded that this ridge is geologically attached to Greenland. All of the submissions await consideration by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf , the Danish statement currently overlaps with with Norway’s continental shelf beyond 200

A USSR postcard depicting Soviet dominance of the Arctic! Image Credit - kristofer.b, Wikimedia Commons.

A USSR postcard depicting Soviet dominance of the Arctic! Image Credit – kristofer.b, Wikimedia Commons.

nautical miles and there are also potential overlaps with claims by Canada, Russia and the U.S.

Some people involved in the process had hoped that control of the Arctic would be decided on through a ‘Gentleman’s agreement’ rather than the tough negotiations that will now ensue.

The United Nations panel will eventually decide control of the area, and the sea floor boundaries will be settled by international negotiations but this process won’t begin until the  scientific data has been examined. This is expected to take 10-15 years, by which stage the politics around accessible resources in the Arctic will have intensifed due to increased global warming creating easier access to many of the oil and mineral reserves, so this topic isn’t going away!

Okinotori Islands

This tiny uninhabited set of islands, 1100 miles south of Tokyo in the Phillippine Sea is currently also responsible for lending control of a 160,000-square-mile economic zone in the surrounding waters. The most southerly of Japan’s landmass is only 7 miles around and it is just, and only just, keeping its head above water. Herein lies the problem, according the the UN’s ‘Law of the Sea’ ( useful but problematic bit of regulation), any claim to an exclusive economic zone, (such as Okinotorishima, or ‘distant bird island’) like the one in Japan is

Location of the Okinotorishima islands in the Phillippine Sea. Image Credit - ForestFarmer, Wikimedia Commons.

Location of the Okinotorishima islands in the Phillippine Sea. Image Credit – ForestFarmer, Wikimedia Commons.

dependent on the existence of a habitable island landmass existing in the area. If this island sinks beneath the water then the whole claim to the economic zone sinks with it, along with important mineral and fish resources for Japan. The claim, even if the islands stay above water isn’t uncontested, China disputes the ownership stating that  the islands are just a cluster of uninhabitable rocks and doesn’t fulfill the requirement of ‘habitable’ at all! While it’s true that no one lives there, the small area is host to a small man-made islet with a platform which is used as a weather monitoring station with a building that houses researchers.

The usefulness (and contention) of these islands and their slow sinking has not bypassed the Japanese government who have set up programs (and considerable investment) to keep the islands bobbing above sea level. The project to keep the island above water is two-fold, the Japanese government have installed protection around the island in the form of  cement, steel blocks and titanium mesh to protect from erosion and the increasing number of tropical storms.


Map of Okino-Torishima, Pacific Ocean. Image credit – Ratzer, Wikimedia Commons.

However the ‘sinking’ is not just due to erosion and damage but also due to the low production of coral.  This is thought to be due to the warmer waters in the area lowering coral growth.  This loss of landmass and the important politics associated with it has meant that several agencies have made it a priority to revitalise the growth of  corals, although it’s not quite that simple! This involves applying a method of sexual reproduction developed over the past 20 years to cultivate corals. According to the fisheries agency, about $19 million ( of tax payers money…) has been spent to breed about 100,000 coral plants using the method with a success rate of approximately 20%. It remains to be seen whether this rock, doctored or otherwise, will be in the right place for the Japanese authorities in years to come…..

It’s worth reflecting that with both these examples, not only are they wholly reliant on the location of bits of geology to define long-lasting rules, regulations and potentially economic opportinities that can make or break countries but also these rocks (in a geological sense) are totally transient, and the ridges that secure the Arctic and the corals that secure the economic zone for Japan just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Throw in an exntending ridge of a destructive plate margin somewhere else and this fragile hierarchy would be thrown into disarray.

Further Reading

BBC News – Denmark challenges Russia and Canada over North Pole.

Phys.Org – Denmark claims North Pole link via Greenland ridge link – Denmark Claims Part Of The Arctic, Including The North Pole

Global News – Denmark claims North Pole through Arctic underwater ridge link from Greenland

New York Times –Growing Coral to Keep a Sea Claim Above Water

You Tube – China refutes Japanese claim about Okinotori Reef as island

Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus – The US-Japan-China Mistrust Spiral and Okinotorishima



What’s geology got to do with it? 5 – Scottish Independence Referendum

What’s geology got to do with it? 5 – Scottish Independence Referendum

Flo summarises 5 geo-relevant policy issues that are likely to impact on the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Sooooo apologies for the long blog holiday we’ve been on of late, Marion and I have had a fairly hectic summer, but fear not, we will be updating on a more regular basis from now on!


Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Smooth_O.

Hitting the headlines in the UK this week is the impending referendum for Scottish Independence taking place on the 18th September. Latest polling suggests that the vote outcome is on a knife-edge. Either way, the build-up and inevitable political wrangling after the result undoubtedly means that the situation has changed for everyone, regardless of the outcome. One thing is for sure: the implications of an independent Scotland means big changes for both countries, the shape of which is still little understood and requires much discussion in the negotiation stages.

Taking a sidestep from the core politics for the moment, I’m going to have a brief look at 5 geology related topics in the run up to the referendum that could be affected, for better or worse depending on your point of view, by the decisions made next week!

This topic, like others with a geopolitical element, tells another interesting story about the link between the fortuitous geo-location of resources and the creation of nation states.

Fossil Fuel Reserves: The North Sea and Shale Gas

North Sea Licence

Exclusive economic zones for the North Sea, the green refers to the area covered by the UK Continental Shelf. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Inwind.

North Sea oil and gas has formed a significant proportion of revenue for the UK since the mid 60’s when the UK Continental Shelf Act came into force. Since then the UK government, via the UK continental shelf economic region, has controlled licensing of hydrocarbon extraction. This has been a particularly crucial source of revenue for the UK which peaked in 1999 with production of 950,000m3 (6 million barrels a day). In an independent Scotland, income from the remaining hydrocarbons in the North Sea would provide a considerable amount of revenue, but the rights over the North Sea, in the event of an independent Scotland are unclear, as it is yet to be negotiated. The majority of the confusion over this issue arises from the line in the North Sea that would demarcate Scottish territory. Many agree that this is likely to be drawn along the ‘median line’ or ‘equidistance principle’: a ‘line between the nearest points of land on either side using the baselines established around the coast of the UK in accordance with international law’ (from the UK Government’s Scotland Analysis: Borders and Citizenship). On this basis, Scotland’s share of the North Sea would be somewhere between 73-95% according to different sources. Further complications lie in the debate over the estimates of reserve remaining and whether it is more difficult to extract (geologists will be more than familiar with this sort of uncertainty!!).

North Sea oil and gas fields distribution. Source - Wikimedia Commons.

North Sea oil and gas fields distribution. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Gautier, D.L .

A fact check produced by Channel 4 earlier this year cast doubt on the values of remaining reserves. These unknowns have made confident and informed arguments on this topic difficult for both sides. This may not be critical, however, as leaving the North Sea out of the Scottish economy completely, it is still a thriving economy: only slightly smaller than that of the UK.

Another issue that has been discussed in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum is Scotland’s shale gas reserves and the issue of fracking. A report published just last week by the N56 business body claimed that fracking of what would be Scotland’s oil and gas reserves could almost double the amount recoverable from oil and gas in the North Sea, the target being the Kimmeridge Bay formation, an Upper Jurassic organic rich shale which is the major oil and gas source rock for the Central and Northern North Sea. The BGS has since debunked this estimate stating that there is only “a modest amount” of shale gas and oil reserves

There is a more detailed discussion of these issues on Carbon Brief’s blog

Climate Change and Renewable Energy

Wether Hill, Dumfries and Galloway wind farm. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Walter Baxter.

Scotland has some pretty impressive environmental credentials when it comes to renewable energy, a staggering 69% of Scotland’s electricity was generated from a combination of renewables (29.8%) and nuclear (34.4%) in 2012. Scotland has a massive renewable resource and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have been vocal in stating that they want to make Scotland the green capital of Europe. The Yes campaign website states that ‘Scotland is on target to meet all of its electricity needs, and 11% of its heat requirements, from renewable sources such as wind, wave, tidal, solar and biomass by 2020′. As it stands, control over energy policy and funding resides with Westminster. The Scottish Government has shown a commitment to low-carbon energy sources in its 2009 paper which introduced ambitious plans to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

Carbon Capture and Storage


Peterhead Power Station, Site of DECC CCS funding. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: PortHenry.

After some very slow progress in the DECC CCS competition (see my earlier post on this), the shortlist (not even the final selection) was eventually announced last year with two shortlisted sites, one of which is the Peterhead Project off the coast of Aberdeenshire, which has been awarded a funded contract to undertake front-end engineering and design studies. The Peterhead Project may well have an uncertain future if the referendum turns out a ‘Yes’ result. Energy Secretary Ed Davey admitted that the progress of the Peterhead CCS plant would be significantly trickier in the event of independence. While the Yes campaign has outlined its low-carbon credentials, a future Independent Scotland may find it hard to justify funding the very expensive CCS scheme alone. We could, however, end up in a situation where rUK (rest of the UK – the successor state in the event of Scottish independence) projects send their CO2 to storage sites in the North Sea, the revenues of which would go to an independent Scotland. This would mean that Scotland could still benefit from CCS development even if development at Peterhead is cancelled.

Research and Science Funding


Grant Institute, School of Geosciences, Edinburgh University. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Kay Williams.

Much has been written about the future of science research and  funding in the event of a Yes vote at the referendum. Some groups of scientists have come out to say that a Yes for independence could damage the country’s research base and hurt the economy, this was stated most recently by the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences. In contrast, the ‘Academics for Yes‘ group states that Scottish independence will secure and enhance the international profile of Scottish universities and also boost work between the research sector and the government to develop Scotland’s economy, as well as giving them control of research priorities. A piece posted just this week in Nature showed that opinion is split with regards to the impact of independence on science research and funding, with some touting improved innovation under independence and others saying that the border would hinder the open exchanges under which science thrives.

Radioactive Waste Disposal

800px-Dounreay_Nuclear_Power_Development_Establishment_geograph-3484137-by-Ben-Brooksbank (1)

Dounreay nuclear power development, Caithness. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Ben Brooksbank.

The Scottish Government’s energy policies, in contrast to Westminster, favour renewable energy as well as use of North Sea Oil and Gas over what is described as ‘risky’ nuclear power and their policies for radioactive waste disposal also differ from that of Westminster. While Scotland has stated that it won’t be developing new-nuclear power it has an extensive history of nuclear power generation which has its own legacy waste associated with it.  The Scottish Government, unlike the UK Government, has stated it will not use geological disposal as a method of waste storage and their policy is that waste should be stored in near-surface facilities and recognises that ‘long-term management options may not be feasible at present or have yet to be developed‘.  A recent academic paper on this issue suggested the following: 

‘In an independent or further devolved Scotland the task of building the necessary installations for nuclear waste disposal will be a significant cost to a new nation. However, there is also a lack of a legal framework, and this should be addressed with immediate effect.’

Additional confusion with regards to radioactive waste policy arises from the difference between ‘spent fuel’ and waste. Spent fuel is defined by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as:

the bundles of uranium pellets encased in metal rods that have been used to power a nuclear reactor. Nuclear fuel loses efficiency over time and periodically, about 1/3 of the fuel assemblies in a reactor must be replaced. The nuclear reaction is stopped before the spent fuel is removed. But spent fuel still produces a lot of radiation and heat that must be managed to protect workers, the environment and the public.

Spent fuel is not currently classified as waste, and therefore can be traded and sent overseas for processing, whereas this is banned for material classified as ‘waste’. Currently, the Thorp Reprocessing plant at Sellafield accepts spent fuel contracts from around the world (including Scotland), that would include an independent Scotland. However, the Thorp plant is due to close in 2018 when current contracts have been completed. This may create an issue with any remaining spent fuel in the UK, regardless of an independent Scotland. However, if either an independent Scotland or the remaining UK decided to reclassify ‘spent fuel’ as waste, this would remove the option to export waste for processing and would require an independent Scotland to develop additional infrastructure to deal with this new waste.

Further Reading

The Water-Energy Nexus

The Water-Energy Nexus

Flo Bullough writes on the concept of the water-energy nexus; its implications for energy and water security and the impact of climate change and future planning and regulation. 

I first came across the concept of the water-energy nexus when the former UK Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington discussed the interdependence of food, water and energy as part of his tenure at government: something he described as a ‘perfect storm’. Since then, much has been written about this topic and below is an overview of the issues as they relate to the geosciences.

Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in pakistan. The dam was completed in 1974 and was designed to store water from the Indus River for irrigation, flood control, and the generation of hydroelectric power. The use of water for power captures the interdependence of energy and water. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in pakistan. The dam was completed in 1974 and was designed to store water from the Indus River for irrigation, flood control, and the generation of hydroelectric power. The use of water for power captures the interdependence of energy and water. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Water stress and scarcity is one of the most urgent cross-cutting challenges facing the world today and is intrinsically linked with the need for energy.  Water is required for extraction, transport and processing of fuel as well as to process fuels, for cooling in power plants and for irrigation in the case of biofuels. While energy is required for pumping, transportation and the purification of water, for desalination, and for wastewater.  The interconnectedness is such that water and energy cannot be addressed as separate entities. This interdependence is termed the ‘water-energy nexus’, an approach which allows a more holistic assessment of energy and water security issues. Water scarcity is intensifying due to excessive withdrawal , whilst concern for energy provision is sparked by diminishing fossil fuel reserves and the built-in problem of CO2 emissions and climate change.

Over the last 50 years, the amount of water withdrawals has tripled while the amount of reliable supply has remained constant. This has resulted in depletion of long term water reservoirs and aquifers, most acutely in emerging economies with high population growth such as China, India and areas in the Middle East. Additionally, pressures such as the growing cost of fuel extraction, climate change and the of the energy mix has put pressure on the security of energy supply.

Map of the global distribution of economic and physical water scarcity as of 2006. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Map of the global distribution of economic and physical water scarcity as of 2006. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Energy limited by water

The energy sector relies heavily on the use and availability of water for many of its core processes. Resource exploitation, the transport of fuels, energy transformation and power plants account for around 35% of water use globally. Thermoelectric power plants are particularly thirsty and use significant amounts of water accounting for the majority of water use by the energy sector. In the USA in 2007, thermoelectric power generation, primarily comprising coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, generated 91% of the total electricity and the associated cooling systems account for 40% of USA freshwater withdrawals (King et al., 2008).

Of the different types of power plants, gas fired plants consume the least water per unit of energy produced, whereas coal powered plants consume roughly twice as much water, and nuclear plants two to three times as much. By contrast, wind and solar photovoltaic energy consume minimal water and are the most water-efficient forms of electricity production.

Comparative water consumption values by energy type. Data source - WssTP

Comparative water consumption values by energy type. Data source – WssTP

There has been much discussion over the variable CO2 contributions of different fuels but these can be misleading, as the consideration of water consumption (as opposed to withdrawal, see Link) is often omitted. For example, unconventional fracked gas is often presented as a preferable source of energy over coal due to its reduced associated CO2 emissions, but the extraction of fracked gas consumes seven times more water than natural gas, oil extraction from oil sands requires up to 20 times more than conventional drilling and bio fuels can consume thousands times more water due to the need for irrigation. Additionally, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has the capacity to remove CO2 from the system but is also estimated to need 30-100% more water when added to a coal fired power plant. Looking at carbon intensity alone may result in a scenario where electricity production is constrained by water scarcity, while global demand for electricity increases.

Water limited by Energy

The flipside to the need for water for energy production is the need for energy in order to produce and deliver water for drinking and other domestic, agricultural and industrial use. Domestic water heating accounts for 3.6% of total USA

Water treatment works. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Water treatment works. Source – Wikimedia Commons

energy consumption (King et al., 2008) while supply and conveyance of water is also energy-intensive and is estimated to use over 3% of USA total electricity. Energy is required at every step of the supply chain, from pumping ground water (530 kW h M-1 for 120 m depth), to surface water treatment (the average plant uses 370 kWh M-1) and transport and home heating (King et al., 2008). Water treatment will require even more energy with the addition of treatment technologies and purification measures.  Water companies in the UK report increases of over 60% in electricity usage since 1990 due to advanced water treatment and increased connection rates, and conservative estimates predict increases of a further 60-100% over 15 years in order to meet the myriad relevant EU directives. This increased energy use may result in displacement of the pollution problem from that in water bodies to build up of CO2 in the atmosphere.


One of the most problematic developments in the competition for water and energy is the growth of desalination. It is used in areas suffering from water scarcity, but have viable energy sources to power the energy-intensive purification process. In areas such as the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Western USA, governments have increased their investment in desalination technology in order to secure a more stable water supply. However, the high-energy requirements, steep operational costs, wastewater disposal issues and large CO2 emissions often make this an unsustainable solution.

Desalination is often made economical through access to cheap, local energy sources and an abundant water source. This

Desalination can be very energy intensive. A view across a reverse osmosis desalination plant. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Desalination can be very energy intensive. A view across a reverse osmosis desalination plant. Source – Wikimedia Commons

usually precludes the adoption of desalination in many land-locked countries, as operational costs increase with distance from the water source. However, increased water stress is leading to calls for more ambitious projects such as the planned Red Sea-Dead Sea project (see an earlier Four Degrees post on this) to build a desalination plant and a 180 km pipeline through Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

Desalination can use 10-12 times as much energy as standard drinking water treatment, and is expensive, unsustainable and can lead to increased CO2 emissions (King et al., 2008). These undesirable effects have led to widespread opposition to desalination in areas such as California and Chennai, India. Utilising renewable energy resources, coupled with the use of saline or wastewater for cooling at the power plants, could make the process more sustainable.Water and energy are set to become increasingly interdependent, and by 2050 water consumption to generate electricity is forecast to more than double.

The Impact of Water Scarcity

Freshwater scarcity is a growing issue and by 2030, demand is set to outstrip

India is a very green and wet country courtesy of its regular monsoons but poor management and overexploitation has left is with problems with water scarcity. Source - Wikimedia Commons

India is a very green and wet country courtesy of its regular monsoons but overexploitation of its water resources has left it with problems with water scarcity. Source – Wikimedia Commons

supply by 40%. This is due in part to economic and population growth, but also the rise of aspirational lifestyles, which creates demand for more water-intensive products. This increase in demand will put additional pressure onto water-stressed regions, as well as intensifying current trans-boundary water conflicts. The issue of water shortages often intersects geographically with fragile or weak governments and institutions that may lack the capacity to put in place measures to address water security. In 2004, 29% of India’s groundwater reserves resided in areas that were rated semi-critical to overexploited. About 60% of India’s existing and planned power plants are located in water-stressed areas and there are plans to build a further 59 GW of capacity, around 80% of which will be in areas of water stress and scarcity.

Click on the image to watch an animation showing the average yearly change in mass, in cm of water, during 2003-2010, over the Indian subcontinent. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Click on the image to watch an animation showing the average yearly change in mass, in cm of water, during 2003-2010, over the Indian subcontinent. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Climate change impacts

Climate change presents a challenge to business-as-usual assumptions about future energy and water provision. Predicted major heat waves and droughts will add pressure to both water and energy security. Climate change is set to affect areas around the world in unprecedented ways; in southern Europe, temperatures are likely to rise, and drought will become more common in a region already vulnerable to water stress. Particularly in Spain, a country that derived 14.3% of its electricity production from hydropower in 2010, where hydroelectric plants have been under considerable stress in the last 20 years due to long running issues with drought (Perez et al., 2009;  Trading Economics, 2013). Power cuts caused by extreme weather events, which are expected to become more frequent, will affect areas that rely heavily on energy-intensive ground water extraction for drinking water.

The 2013 EIA Energy Outlook up to 2040 shows steady increases in the need for all fuel types for energy use. Source - Wikimedia Commons

The 2013 EIA Energy Outlook up to 2040 shows steady increases in the need for all fuel types for energy use. Source – Wikimedia Commons

What can be done?

The conflict between more water-intensive energy production and the water needs of a growing population, seeking a better quality of life, will exacerbate an already stressed water-energy nexus.Additionally, Climate change is now considered an issue of national security in many countries, threatening both people and the environment within and across state boundaries. For this reason, climate change mitigation and adaptation must be managed at a new strategic level, beyond that of national law making. A more holistic approach to management of environmental change, water and energy security will also be required.  It will also require strategic planning of water and energy security over much longer timescales than previously.New water and energy production plants must be sited with consideration for water withdrawal, consumption and local power accessibility in addition to future unpredictability in climate as the lifetime of such developments is several decades or more.

Regulatory Changes

Another important tool to address these issues is regulation. Current regulatory frameworks such as the European Climate and Energy Package and the Water Framework Directive (WFD) need to be developed in light of the water-energy nexus model. The EU is committed to 20-30% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 compared to levels in 1990, with reductions of up to 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 under negotiation. In contrast, the WFD requires additional treatment measures and this will need additional energy, exacerbating tensions between water and energy demand.

There are many policy instruments that can be used to regulate the role of water and energy management, such as water pricing and charges on carbon emissions to incentivise sustainable behaviour. A recent example of this includes the new  US Environment Protection Agency announcement that they will be limiting greenhouse gas emissions for all new electricity generating power plants for coal and gas.  The development of CCS technology could reduce the carbon footprint of power plants, but water consumption implications should be taken into consideration. Adoption of disincentives for certain types of land-use change and stricter building and engineering regulations could also be introduced to increase resilience against extreme weather.

The growing geopolitical issues of water location and scarcity will need to be managed through adaptable water sharing agreements, since many of the world’s largest and most important river basins, such as the Mekong River, which passes

Map of the Mekong River - The long and complicated route of the Mekong river and its intersection with many borders shows the complexity of water management. Source - Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Mekong River – The long and complicated route of the Mekong river and its intersection with many borders shows the complexity of water management. Source – Wikimedia Commons

through south-east Asia, cut across many borders. Co-management strategies such as shared water level and quality information will become important so as the water systems can be managed effectively. Governments must also improve their resilience to extreme weather conditions individually and collectively.

A greater focus on recycling energy- and water-intensive commodities would also alleviate water stresses when taken together with other measures. Education about recycling and water and energy conservation programmes could produce benefits, but also require investment and careful management.

This broad set of issues can only be effectively ameliorated through a holistic approach. A broad analytic framework is needed to evaluate the water-energy relationship, and this must be balanced with local policy contexts and different regulatory measures to ensure water and energy are sustainably managed in the 21st century.

A version of this post first appeared in the European Federation of Geologists magazine ‘European Geologist‘. 

References and Further Reading

Gassert, F., Landis, M., Luck, M., Reig, P., Shiao, T. 2013. Aqueduct Global Maps 2.0. Aqueduct, World Resources Institute. (accessed here in March 2013:

Glassman, D., Wucker, M., Isaacman, T., Champilou, C. 2011. The Water-Energy Nexus: Adding Water to the Energy Agenda. A World Policy Paper. (accessed here in March 2013:

IEA World Energy Outlook 2011. (accessed here in March 2013:

King, C, W., Holman, A, S.,  Webber, M, E. 2008. Thirst for energy. Nature Geoscience, 1, 283-286.

Lee, B., Preston, F., Kooroshy, J., Bailey, R., Lahn, G. 2012. Resources Futures. Chatham House. (accessed here in March 2013:

Perez Perez, L., Barreiro-Hurle, J. 2009. Assessing the socio-economic impacts of drought in the Ebro River Basin. Spanish Journal of Agricultural Research, 7, No 2, 269-280.

Trading Economics. Electricity Production from Hydroelectric Sources (%of total) in Spain. (accessed here in March 2013:

WssTP The European Water Platform. 2011. Water and Energy: Strategic vision and research needs. (accessed here in March 2013:

Policy Focus: 1 – Creating value from Waste

Waste and recycling is a growing issue in a world where abundant resources are diminishing. This week Flo Bullough looks at recent policy activity in the area of ‘valuing waste streams’ and the geo-relevant example of Rare Earth Elements.

This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology committee has been taking oral evidence on the topic of ‘Generating value from waste’ with a particular focus on the technology and processes used to

House of Lords Chamber. Source - Wikimedia Commons

House of Lords Chamber. Source – Wikimedia Commons

salvage raw materials from waste and what the government can do to encourage and assist progress in this area.

This topic was also discussed in a recent European Commission consultation on the Review of European Waste Management Targets and the Raw Material initiative which highlights the importance of recycling to ensure safe access to raw materials. Consultations like these seek to engage with experts in the relevant field and are useful research and fact-finding exercises to inform future government policy.

This is all part of a wider plan to try and incorporate the disposal and cost of waste into the manufacturing life cycle. Additionally, waste is not just a cost burden but can also be a source of valuable materials that can be recycled.  In 2009 Friends of the Earth published a report entitled Gone to Waste – The valuable resources that European countries bury and burn. This included data on the value of the waste we don’t recycle and the associated CO2 emissions. The report also attempted to calculate the monetary value of recyclables. They found that in the UK in 2004, the value of materials classified as ‘key recyclables’ that had been disposed of as waste,  was a minimum of £651 million (based on values for materials such as glass, paper, iron, steel and biowaste. Rare earth elements were not included in their study).


Landfill Site. Source – Wikimedia Commons.

Geo-Relevant Example – Rare Earth Elements


Internal view of an iPhone. Rare earth elements are used in the manufacture of electronics such as smart phones but when replaced often end up in landfill. Source – Wikimedia Commons

The concept of valuable waste is particularly true of the rare earth elements that end up in waste streams through discarded electronics. Demand for rare earth elements is soaring while scarcity and market cost is increasing. Rare earth elements are essential to many commonplace electronics such as mobile phones and computers as well as in renewable technology such as wind power. The supply of these materials is finite and the market is currently dominated by China (see this excellent post from Geology for Global Development on the issue) which has its own geopolitical implications and so increasing focus from both an environmental and economic perspective is to extract these valuable materials from waste streams.

In terms of current research into Rare Earth Element recycling, Japan is the only place where significant research is being undertaken. An example of this is Hitachi who are aiming to be able to recycle electric motor magnets. It was also announced last year that the US is to build a $120 million ‘Critical Materials’ institute in Iowa which will focus, amongst other things on developing recycling techniques.

For more information see the following links:

Chemistry World – Recycling rare earth elements using ionic liquids – Rare earths recycling on the rise

POST note from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology – Rare Earth Elements