Geology for Global Development

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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. **

Water and Sustainable Development – 6th GfGD Annual Conference Event Report

Water and Sustainable Development – 6th GfGD Annual Conference Event Report

Understanding, managing and protecting water resources is critical to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., education, water and sanitation, healthy oceans, zero hunger, good health, gender equality, energy, industry, and biodiversity). Increasing urbanisation, industrialisation, and climate change, however, are increasing pressure on water supplies and reducing water quality. Our 6th Annual Conference explored the role of geoscientists in managing conflicting demands for water, ensuring that the needs of the poorest are met while enhancing the health of ecosystems. We recently published a full event report online, and here we share some of the highlights.

Our Annual Conference is a highlight for many involved in the work of Geology for Global Development, bringing together people from across the UK and beyond to explore how geoscientists can contribute to sustainable development. This year approximately 120 attendees gathered at the Geological Society of London to talk about all things water, Sustainable Development Goals and geoscience.

The conference was opened by Lord Duncan of Springbank (UK Government Minister for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and a fellow geoscientist). Lord Duncan gave a passionate description of the important links between politics, geology and sustainable development. Another distinguished guest was Benedicto Hosea, visiting the UK from Tanzania and working closely with the Tanzania Development Trust. Benedicto gave us an insight into water resources in Tanzania, and the realities of implementing projects and taking practical action to improve water provision.

Our keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Bob Kalin from the University of Strathclyde, who gave us an overview of the interactions between water, geoscience and human impacts – and why it is important that geoscientists engage in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. You can find a recording of a similar talk Professor Kalin presented at a TedX event.

The first panel discussion of the day focused on management, with insight from industry, academia and the Overseas Development Institute. We discussed the challenges involved in listening to and considering many stakeholders, the management of transnational aquifers and how best to enforce policy – then attempted to come with some solutions to these challenges. Our event report includes links to key reading suggested by our panellists.

Water contamination is a significant environmental issue in many countries at all stages of development.  We heard about research into salinization and arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh. Mike Webster, head of WasteAid (check them out here) gave a different perspective on water contamination, talking about the work the charity has done in improving solid waste collection, thereby improving drainage and water quality.

Probably the most hectic, yet fun part of the conference was the UN style activity – we split up into groups representing different stakeholders and came up with a research and innovation statement relating to water and the SDGs.

We were also joined by The Eleanor Foundation, a charity working in Tanzania to provide access to safe, clean water provision to communities through pump installation and education programmes. It was so inspiring to hear about a charity that has undertaken effective work in ensuring the sustainable supply of water to communities, and made a real difference in improving lives – it is estimated that the Eleanor Foundation has improved access to water to over 250,000 people. In 2019, GfGD will be supporting the work of The Eleanor Foundation, helping to deliver SDG 6 in Tanzania. We will be using surplus income from our conference, together with other funds, to facilitate an evaluation of The Eleanor Foundation’s water programme. This will generate recommendations for The Eleanor Foundation team to ensure long-term impact and sustainability.

In true GSL conference style, we finished the conference with a reception in the library, giving us all the chance to chat about the conference and meet people sharing an interest in geoscience and development (of course admiring William Smith’s geological map!). I think it would be fair to say that a fun and interesting day was had by all, and I left feeling excited by the number of geoscientists I met that all share enthusiasm for the role that geoscientists have in helping to achieve the SDGs.

The 7th GfGD Annual Conference will be on Friday 15th November 2019, hosted again by the Geological Society of London. Please do save the date, and we hope to see you there!

Laura Hunt is a member of the GfGD Executive Team, and a PhD Student at the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey.

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

The urgency around many sustainability issues leads some billionaire investors to throw caution in the wind, frustrated with the pace of academic research. Robert Emberson sympathises with private projects like the Ocean Cleanup, even when things go wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘might we build a constructive bridge between ambitious entrepreneurs and scientific sceptics? ‘

Reading and writing about sustainable development in 2019 can be tough going, with a seemingly unending series of headlines suggesting that we as a society are lagging behind in the race to achieve our goals and that the deleterious effects of climate change are looming closer and closer, if not already upon us.

So when good news of any kind comes along, it can often be something to cling to – and perhaps even more devastating if that news is not what it seems. This up and down emotional trajectory describes my response to the clean-up operation launched last year to remove the plastic waste from the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which ran into difficulties early this year.

The story is not yet over, though, and there are lessons to be learned for scientists working on issues related to sustainability more generally – so perhaps a positive outcome is still to come.

For those unaware, plastic pollution, both small and large, often ends up in the ocean, where gyres – or ocean currents – preferentially carry the waste products to certain areas, where it accumulates. These patches are hard to delineate, since unlike the images of islands of plastic bottles and grocery bags sometimes portrayed in the media, the plastic concentration is relatively low (4 particles per cubic metre), but the patch – which may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres – likely represents the largest waste accumulation in the ocean.

The open ocean, while home to diverse ecosystems and vitally important to many food networks, is a challenging thing to govern. Since it is not owned by any given country, the responsibility to clean up waste accumulating within the seas is nigh on impossible to assign. It’s a classic problem of ‘the commons’ – shared resources, like the ocean or the atmosphere, that many users need but none own, can be overexploited and depleted. Resolving those issues can be challenging at best.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start

So, in 2012, enter the Ocean Cleanup Project. At a TED talk, the 18-year-old inventor Boyan Slat laid out a plan to use floating booms to gradually gather up the waste in an efficient manner. Investors were intrigued, and the project took off quickly; billionaires funding it allowed for it to be deployed in mid-2018, rapid progress by any standard. The clean-up attempt had begun in earnest.

Quickly, though, problems arose; the system of floating booms couldn’t withstand the storms in the open ocean, and by January 2019 the first clean-up system had been towed to Hawaii for repairs after teething problems.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, research oceanographers unaffiliated with the project, analysed the project and found major issues. While there was communication between the scientists and the engineers involved with the project, and some of the issues raised were addressed, the two oceanographers still maintained that while the aim was laudable, the design was not as accomplished. Despite this, the project went ahead, and the concerns of the scientists proved to be well founded.

Clearly, this is a well-intentioned project. But perhaps just as clear is that a communications gulf existed between the scientists and the project developers. And therein lies the key question: how can scientists involved in sustainability issues best communicate their thoughts to private sector projects aiming to solve those issues? It certainly seems unlikely that the Ocean Cleanup will be the last case where such communication matters.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that in some cases private investors and entrepreneurs have stepped in with big ideas to solve problems of the commons. It’s clear that in many cases billionaires have lofty ambitions beyond the business that made them rich – both Jeff Bezos at Amazon at Tesla’s Elon Musk have moved into space exploration, and for individuals with such a mindset the idea of ‘saving the world’ might well appeal. They may also consider themselves less limited by regulation and national borders than scientists and government.

In fact, there’s more than just regulation and borders that hold back some ideas. The precautionary principle, both in unwritten and legal contexts, prevents some action where it is unclear if that action could result in harm to the public. This is often applied to geoengineering ideas, since the long-term implications may not be well known. A private project to dump iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage plankton growth and thus a draw-down of Carbon Dioxide in 2012 was cited as falling foul of these principles, having not established the long-term risk of seeding the ocean in this way.

The slower pace of academic research, …, makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late

At the same time, however, there is an increasing sense of urgency around many sustainability questions. The slower pace of academic research, the painstaking process of ensuring reproducibility in findings, and the need to establish long term effects of potential solutions to climate or sustainability issues makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late.

I can sympathise with that view. It’s well-meaning, and solving a problem is better than sitting on the sidelines, or worse profiting from it. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20, so if a solution only becomes problematic after it is deployed, then those behind it can always argue that they did what they could in advance. That must be balanced though with an abundance of caution, and perhaps this is where scientists can help.

I would argue that we should be realistic – solutions will come from all sectors of society, and private individuals and entrepreneurs may well be the ones leading the charge. While it shouldn’t be incumbent upon research scientists alone to ensure their voices are heard by private projects, we shouldn’t shy away; building bridges, especially in the form of communication channels, would be of great benefit. Goldstein and Martini did a great service to science by reaching out and making their voices heard, even if they might have been perceived as naysayers.

We might not be able to change the minds of those leading private initiatives, but we can at least provide them with the most information possible to make their decisions.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website robertemberson.com

Wearing the Earth Down: The Environmental Cost of Fashion

Public Domain (https://pixabay.com/en/color-textile-fabric-tissue-2532495/)

Eloise Hunt is an Earth science student at Imperial College London, and coordinator of the GfGD University group there. Today we publish her first guest article for the GfGD blog, exploring the environmental cost of fashion.

When we think of pollution, we imagine raw sewage pumped into rivers, open-cast mines or oil spills. We don’t often think of our inconspicuous white shirt or new jeans.  But, the overall impact that the fashion industry has on our planet is shocking.  The production of clothing has been estimated to account for 10% of total carbon impact. The fashion industry has been argued to be “one of the greatest polluters in the world, second only to oil“, although there is a lack of data to verify this.

Following London Fashion Week 2017, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Whilst geoscience may not seem to link to fashion, once you look closer at the production and environmental costs of textiles, you can see they are coupled with situations where geoscientists may be involved. Geoscience alone cannot improve the world.  But, through collaborations between geoscientists, engineers and policy makers, real changes can take place.

The lack of sustainability in fashion can be blamed on four major factors.  Firstly, there is enormous energy consumption associated with clothing.  Production is concentrated in countries such as Bangladesh and China. Factories are powered by coal before garments are shipped to the rest of the world.  It is difficult to find reliable data on how much fuel is used to transport clothes.  Yet, we do know that in the US only 2% of clothing is domestically produced and globally 90% of fabrics are transported by cargo ship  (read more).  One of these ships can produce as much atmospheric pollution as 50 million cars in just one year.

Another major factor is cheap synthetic fibres increasingly replacing natural cotton or wool. Polyester and nylon are both synthetic, non-biodegradable, energy intensive and made from petrochemicals.  Polyester is rapidly increasing in value and is now in over half of all clothing. Nylon is absorbent and breathable making it a popular choice for sportswear manufacturers.  But, nylon production forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Viscose is another synthetic fibre which is derived from wood pulp; the material’s popularity in fashion has caused deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.  These countries are home to rainforests, often described as the ‘lungs of the earth’, acting as our most effective carbon sink and oxygen source.

Even stepping away from synthetics, cotton is hardly innocent.  It is incredibly water intensive accounting for 2.6% of global water use. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the average cotton t-shirt. Furthermore, 99.3% of cotton growth uses fertilisers, which can cause runoff and eutrophication of waterways.  Uzbekistan, the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world, is an important example of ‘cotton catastrophe’.  In the 1950s, two rivers were diverted from the Aral Sea as a source of irrigation for cotton production.  As the sea dried up, it also became over-salinated and laden with fertiliser and pesticides as a result of agricultural runoff. Contaminated dust from the desiccated lake-bed saturated the air, creating a public health crisis with some studies linking this to abnormally high cancer rates. Groundwater up to 150 m deep has been polluted with pesticides and regional climate has become more extreme with colder winters and hotter summers.  Currently, water levels in the Aral are less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago (Fig. 1). Whilst this is a dramatic example of cotton farming, environmental problems have  occurred in other locations.

 

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Credit: NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. PUBLIC DOMAIN

The final environmental issue with fashion is responsible consumption and production (SDG 11).  Water problems in cotton producing areas cannot be fixed without consumers being held responsible for ecological impacts in the producing areas.  Globally, 44% of water used for cotton growth and processing goes towards exports.  High demand produces 150 billion items of clothing annually, which equates to 20 new items per person every year. Then, on average, each garment is worn only 7 times before being dumped in landfill.  In the UK alone, £30 billion worth of clothing is buried unused in our closets.

Figure 2- Expanding childrens trousers to minimise clothes waste (Credit: Petit Pli website http://petitpli.com)

Faced with issues of energy consumption, the rise of synthetics, water consumption and fast fashion, it’s easy to feel powerless but with increased scrutiny come sustainable solutions. The UK James Dyson Award was recently bestowed upon the student inventor of Petit Pli, innovative children’s clothing with pleats which allows it to grow with children from four months to three years old (Fig. 2).  This could help tackle clothes waste and is a small yet significant thread of hope.  On an individual level, when you need new clothes opting for Fair Trade or organic fabrics is a simple way to minimise pesticide pollution and, in the case of cotton, reduce water consumption. Or, better yet choose second hand, vintage or upcycled items to prevent processing of more virgin fibres.

Fashion is not yet sustainable. We as consumers hold enormous power to persuade brands to make products that are clean, of high-quality and worth wearing.  People need to be taking fashion more seriously, not less.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author. These may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development. **