Geology for Global Development

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Necessary Evils in Transitioning to a Sustainable Future

Necessary Evils in Transitioning to a Sustainable Future

Robert Emberson can’t help but wondering how geoscience, whilst having great potential for helping sustainable development, has been fueling polluting industries for centuries. Should geoscientists shy away completely from engaging with traditional industries? What are their roles and geoscientists’ roles in transitioning to a more sustainable world? [Editor’s note: This post reflects Robert’s personal opinions. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

It’s often a pleasure to write about the intersection of geology and sustainable development. Learning about ways in which earth science can positively impact the path towards a more sustainable world reinforces my perception of geology as a science that can really make the world a better place in the upcoming decades. However, that sunny perspective occasionally slips when I remember that earth science has for several centuries also informed the most polluting industries on the planet – industries that are deeply unsustainable. Fossil fuels, and the extractive industries more broadly, rely fundamentally on geological knowledge; perhaps we as geologists need to reckon more carefully with our role on both sides of the sustainability coin.

A conversation I had last week serves as an illustrative example. At a meeting with some geotechnical engineers from Canada, we fell to discussing the impacts of natural hazards – landslides in particular – on oil pipelines. One of the engineers explained that in British Columbia alone, around 100 million dollars is spent annually to mitigate the risk of damage to pipelines from geological hazards. That number astonished me, and my first reaction was of horror; how could this much money be poured into maintaining and supporting the oil industry, particularly in Canada where it is in part supported by the wildly unsustainable tar sands mining?

If you’re an earth scientist with an interesting in achieving a more sustainable world, like me, then it is worth asking where you see yourself in that transition.

At the same time, without geologists acting as experts to mitigate the risk from natural hazards, the pipelines could be destroyed and the oil spill out into the ecosystem. The devastating impact from oil spills does diminish the social license of a fossil fuel company to operate, but even a number of high profile spills has not prevented drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, nor the tar sands mining itself. So are the geologists involved in assessing a pipeline to prevent natural hazards helping a fossil fuel company – and as such slowing the transition to sustainable energy – or reducing damage to pipeline-adjacent environments?

Even the transition to sustainable energy entails a lot of ‘necessary evils’ that will be supported by geologists. Renewable energy has a vast need for rare earth elements, particularly to create solar panels and batteries. These elements must be extracted since even with a fully circular economy we would still need to scale the mining of rare metals by several dozen times to provide enough renewable energy to fully replace fossil fuels. Rare earth elements, including Neodymium that is integral to batteries, are often found in conjunction with radioactive elements, meaning that the mining process produces extensive dangerous waste. This is not to mention the natural hazard risks associated with mining tailings dams that have collapsed on a number of occasions in recent years.

Mining for both rare metals and fossil fuels also present opportunities for corruption and abuses, as the ore deposits and oil fields are often located in or near developing countries, which may lack the capacity to effectively negotiate fair and sustainable contracts with mining and oil companies. This kind of systemic abuse is part of the so-called ‘resource curse’, where countries with large natural resource reserves tend to have lower economic development than others without. While not inevitable, this effect has major implications for sustainability in those countries that provide resources.

Given the rapid pace of the transition needed from fossil fuels to renewable energy – according to many researchers we should be aiming to be fossil-free by mid-century – there isn’t much time to transform the mining practices to avoid these issues, and we likely must accept that mining will be a vital part of the process. The expertise of geologists will be essential to develop these mining operations, as well as mitigating the impacts. Geologists may wish to keep their hands clean when it comes to sustainability – but they may be needed to offset the worst of it, instead.

If you’re an earth scientist with an interesting in achieving a more sustainable world, like me, then it is worth asking where you see yourself in that transition. We often think that supporting the extractive industries that have allowed us to use resources at a rate faster than we can sustain is the wrong step to achieving the SDGs, but is it better to work within or alongside them to improve their practices and limit the damage they can do? Geological knowledge will be needed by these companies; I’d argue it’s better if the people providing it are aware of the implications for sustainability.

Reprinted from Robert Emberson’s personal blog with permission from Robert Emberson. Robert writes about cutting edge questions and techniques in geoscience today www.robertemberson.com

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Robert Emberson). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

The seven frames of climate discussion in the media. How climate liability pushes for corporate action. Are we already unwittingly geoengineering the oceans? Jesse Zondervan’s August 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

The seven frames of climate discussion in the media. How climate liability pushes for corporate action. Are we already unwittingly geoengineering the oceans? Jesse Zondervan’s August 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

As Greta Thunberg hits the news with her zero-carbon crossing of the Atlantic, this month discussion on adaptation to climate change is voluminous. Coverage of climate change follow seven distinct frames, depending on the economy and other characteristics of countries, found a US/Vietnam based study.

Where in rich countries the focus lies on science and new discoveries, in low-resource countries the focus tends to be on international relations or natural impacts of climate change. Social progress and the potential for solving problems is the least popular frame, but arguably the most important.

Whilst the media and governments are grappling with adapting to climate change, litigation of companies causing emissions or neglecting climate risk to their facilities and infrastructure starts to really take off. This is driven partly by insuring companies, compensating damage whilst chasing irresponsible companies for negligence.

Though climate change claims and suits threaten any industry linked to hydrocarbons and greenhouse gas emissions, such as transport, manufacturing, agri-business, and finance, the biggest group of companies does not view it as strategic yet. This might change soon as the push for climate-change-related risk reporting in business intensifies.

How to make progress through communicating and applying science

So where is the potential for solving problems? Climate change adaptation planning always makes assumptions, and whether these are reasonable is up for debate. That is why geoscientists at Pennsylvania State University argue there is for wider use of Earth science to identify effective strategies for climate risk management.

Another opportunity for climate researchers to help out is by contributing to Wikipedia, especially information on the Global South, which is underrepresented on the wiki whilst it is overlooked as a communication platform beyond the scientific audience.

Geoengineering – yes/no or are we already doing it?

There is limited knowledge on how geoengineering techniques might affect the environment, making it a risky business for now. Analogies for solar geoengineering are often based on volcanic eruptions. But how accurate is this?

A new study based on numerical models suggests that unlike the disruption of rainfall patterns after a volcanic eruption, the sustained deployment of a geoengineering system would be less significant.

Another study published in Nature Communications this month takes a whole different perspective, arguing we are already geoengineering the ocean by the input of industrial iron fertilizing it. The study found at least half if not all the soluble iron in the air masses of Europe and North America derives from human activities.

Indeed, another study from UC Santa Barbara finds in over half of the oceans the cumulative human impact is increasing significantly and overall has doubled in the recent decade.

As always, there is more to read. Go ahead!

Climate Change Adaptation

Climate change is global—but climate journalism isn’t by Sarah DeWeerdt at Anthropocene

Climate liability is on the rise. Here’s what it looks like by Jennifer Hijazi at E&E News

Investing in Science to Improve Climate Risk Management at Eos

OPINION: Why I believe climate change researchers should contribute to Wikipedia by Katharine Vincent at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

NEWS: Edit-a-thon helps tackle Wikipedia’s Africa gap by Lisa McNamara at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

CDP reporting data suggests world’s biggest firms are underestimating climate risks at Acclimatise News

Desertification: A Serious Threat To Southern Europe by Ana Garcia Valdivia at Forbes

The case for retreat in the battle against climate change at ScienceDaily

Ethiopia’s future is tied to water – a vital yet threatened resource in a changing climate by Meron Teferi Taye and Ellen Dyer at The Conversation

Unpicking the datacentre industry’s complicated relationship with climate change by Nicholas Fearn at Computer Weekly

Climate Change Is Making Hawaii’s Beaches More Dangerous by Nathan Eagle at Civil Beat

Sustainability

Human impacts on oceans nearly doubled in recent decade at ScienceDaily

17 Countries, Home to One-Quarter of the World’s Population, Face Extremely High Water Stress at the World Resources Institute

Geoengineering

While we debate geoengineering the ocean, it seems we’re already doing it by Sarah DeWeerdt at Anthropocene

Geoengineering versus a volcano at Carnegie Science

Disaster Risk

Meteotsunami Spotted for the First Time in the Persian Gulf by Katherine Kornei at Eos

‘100-year’ floods will happen every 1 to 30 years, according to new flood maps at EurekAlert

External Opportunities

Opportunity: Senior Research Associate in Low-Carbon Lifestyles and Behaviour, UEA

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

The link between development and resource use

The link between development and resource use

This month the GfGD blog revolved around the theme of Resources. Blog author Heather Britton explores the link between the use of natural resources and development. How feasible are the various options available to us, to reach a use of resources aligned with sustainable development? From the ideology of a circular economy, a switch to renewable resources and increasing efficiency, what might help us get out of an unsustainable pattern? [Editor’s note: This post reflects Heather’s personal opinions. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

Resources play a huge part in determining the character, history and trading power of a country. Many of these resources – such as metal ores, precious stones and fossil fuels – link directly to the geology of a region, which has inspired the theme of ‘resources’ for this month’s selection of blog posts.

This week, I want to look at how in the past, and indeed to this day, the quantity and quality of resources available to a country has acted as a predictor of how developed that country is, and how this will need to change in the future if we are to succeed in meeting the UN sustainability goals.

The most striking example of development spurred on by the availability of resources is the industrial revolution. The UK is thought to have led the way in becoming an industrialised nation due to a combination of the amount of underlying carboniferous coal, and a strong agricultural economy.

Although Britain is thought to have experienced an industrial revolution of its own between the mid-18th century and 1830, the more widely recognized industrial revolution occurred between the mid-19th to the 20th century and was experienced by other countries, including France, Germany and North America to name a few.

Without the use of coal as a resource, development might have come to the UK much later.

It is predicted that by 2050, 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass will be used per year – three times the current average.

The environmental effects of burning coal and other fossil fuels were not fully appreciated at this time.

In the UK, as light has been shone on the negative impact of fossil fuel use, carbon emissions have been cut to a fraction of what they were during the industrial revolution. That being said, the UK is in the privileged position of having gone through industrial development prior to the threat of global warming being appreciated.

Many countries, particularly in parts of the world with low GDP, are only now beginning to use the natural resources available to them to undergo similar development to that which the UK experienced a century ago (this website gives an indication of world income by region over time).

This poses a problem for the climate, however, and brings us to the cusp of the problem – development needs to be decoupled from resource use, so that countries are able to reap the rewards of development in a sustainable way which does not exacerbate the negative impact that people have had on our planet up until now.

But how can this be achieved?

going from our entrenched linear method of dealing with waste to a circular economy would require huge changes to the way in which property, possessions and businesses f­unction

It is predicted that by 2050, 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass will be used per year – three times the current average.

Citizens of developed countries consume an average of 16 tons of these same materials per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India consumes only 4 tons per year. This stark contrast demonstrates how much resources are taken for granted in the economically developed world, and how this needs to change.

One method of severing the link between development and resource availability is to shift towards a circular economy. This is an ideology whereby there is little to no waste, and instead of items being thrown away once used, the worn-out components are continually replaced.

This idea is similar to how natural ecosystems function (there is no waste in nature). Adopting this kind of lifestyle would separate our reliance on resources from the ability of a nation to develop, but going from our entrenched linear method of dealing with waste to a circular economy would require huge changes to the way in which property, possessions and businesses f­unction.

Although it may be the ideal solution, transitioning to a circular economy would require a huge change in global attitude which will take a great deal of time to develop.

A far more feasible way of working to separate unsustainable resource use from development is … to minimise the use of non-renewable resources

A far more feasible way of working to separate unsustainable resource use from development is simply to minimise the use of non-renewable resources so that it is no longer essential to use them to reach a developed state.

Methods of doing so include adopting new, greener technologies to replace the heavy industries that have been large-scale users of fossil fuels in the past (for example adopting electric arc furnace improvements in the iron and steel industry) and ensuring that fewer high carbon fuels need to be burned to heat homes by improving home insulation, particularly in cooler parts of the world.

By improving the materials, insulation and orientation of buildings (orientations which make the most use of solar gains) energy use in buildings can be cut by 80%.

On top of these examples, using more renewable energy in agriculture and continuing to innovate to create alternatives to unrenewable resources use are further options.

Picture by Joyce Schmatz, distributed via imaggeo (CC BY 3.0). By making agriculture more renewable we can take a step towards decoupling development from resource-use.

It is doubtless that as a country develops, its resource use will increase. However, with awareness of the environmental challenges facing the planet as it is growing, developing countries will be able to tap into the growing renewables industry rather than turning to substantially increased fossil fuel use.

At the end of the day, countries will develop however they are able and it is not up to anyone to dictate how they do this. However, in the interests of meeting UN sustainable development goal 13 – climate action – encouraging sustainable development may be the best way to ensure that as development spreads to more countries, our planet is not significantly affected as a result.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

Are we ready for water stress? The potential locations for undiscovered water sources. Investment in earthquake resilience in Tokyo and China. That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s June 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Are we ready for water stress? The potential locations for undiscovered water sources. Investment in earthquake resilience in Tokyo and China. That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s June 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

As temperatures in Europe surge, one may not find it difficult to imagine water will be in demand. However, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population lives in a stressed water basin. A study published in Nature Sustainability points towards the inflexibility of our water demands. To ensure resilience to climate-change driven droughts, we better start looking for opportunities to save or build elsewhere or look for other sources.

On a positive note, this month such a new source was found off the coast of the US Northeast. Mapping of the ocean floor with electromagnetic waves revealed aquifer of fresh water underneath the salty ocean, starting at 180 m beneath the seafloor, extending 50 miles to the edge of the continental shelf. Similar deep offshore aquifers might be waiting to be found elsewhere in the world.

Tokyo and Sichuan – Earthquake resilience in Asia

This week The Guardian explores Tokyo, naming it the world’s riskiest city and one of its most resilient. The scale of the city, its risks and its efforts to build resilience are evident in the way Tokyo deals with the prediction of day X. Experts estimate a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 hitting Tokyo before 2050. With the added pressure of the 2020 Olympics Tokyo is preparing evacuation plans, and decided to cut the number of spectators for the sailing event to be better able to deal with the tsunami risk.

Over in China, a magnitude 6 earthquake struck Sichuan this month. Professor Wei Shengji considers whether human activities might have increased seismic activity, a topic also discussed in South Korea’s Pohang where there seems to be no doubt a geothermal energy project is to blame. The impact of disaster risk reduction efforts is unmistakable in the case of Sichuan, where forward thinking and the installment of an earthquake early warning system saved hundreds.

More this month, how citizen scientists can help predict and prepare for disasters,  how airlines decide whether to fly near volcanoes and the challenge of dealing with the risk of tailings dam failures in the mining industry

 

Sustainability

Combination of water scarcity and inflexible demand puts world’s river basins at risk at UCI news

Scientists Map Huge Undersea Fresh-Water Aquifer Off U.S. Northeast by Kevin Krajick at State of the Planet

Tokyo

‘This is not a “what if” story’: Tokyo braces for the earthquake of a century by Daniel Hurst at The Guardian

Tokyo 2020 organisers cut crowds at sailing events over tsunami risk by Justin McCurry at The Guardian

Sichuan

Earthquake Early Warning System Saves Hundreds in Sichuan by Kristen Wang at The Nanjinger

Commentary: Is Sichuan more prone to earthquakes? By Wei Shengji at Cnannel News Asia

Climate Change Adaptation

Mountain-Dwellers Adapt to Melting Glaciers Without Necessarily Caring About Climate Change by Sarah Fecht at State of the Planet

Stanford-led study investigates how much climate change affects the risk of armed conflict by Devon Ryan at Stanford News

How Climate Change Impacts the Economy by Renee Cho at State of the Planet

Past climate change: A warning for the future? At ScienceDaily

Disaster Risk

How Qantas and other airlines decide whether to fly near volcanoes by Heather Handley and Christina Magill at The Conversation

Boston Built a New Waterfront Just in Time for the Apocalypse by Prashant Gopal and Brian K Sullivan

Risk and the mining industry after the Brumadinho tailings dam failure by Cate Lamb at global environmental disclosure charity CDP

Five ways in which disasters worsen air pollution at UN Environment

Citizen Scientists Can Help Predict and Prepare for Disasters by Jackie Ratner at State of the Planet

Future tsunamis possible in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Elat-Aqaba at ScienceDaily

Lessons from Pohang: Solving geothermal energy’s earthquake problem at ScienceDaily

External Opportunities

The APRU Multi-Hazards Program in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is calling for research papers and case studies of “Non-Events” to share global success and investment in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.