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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. **

How successful disaster risk reduction looks like. Modelling economics with climate science. How do rocks end up in your food? That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s September 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

How successful disaster risk reduction looks like. Modelling economics with climate science. How do rocks end up in your food? That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s September 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:

Minimising disaster risk has two dimensions, understanding the hazard and targeting people’s behaviour. Therefore to prevent volcanoes killing people, researchers have studied why people return to dangerous volcanoes during evacuation periods, and have developed an approach to leverage the forecasting techniques used in weather forecasting, to predict volcanic behaviour.

Disasters are most harmful to those with fewer resources. Fortunately, great process is being made in the East Africa region, where the water resource sector, road sector, and various stakeholders communicate with meteorologists to provide impact-based forecasting. Thus, a forecast might read:

“50mm of rainfall falling in Western Kenya on Thursday will lead to some flooding of homes in Kisumu, and will disrupt transport and agriculture. Vulnerable people close to river valleys may want to consider moving to higher ground temporarily”

Read more about countries most vulnerable to hazards: Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and which challenges they face.

Integrating climate science into finance

Climate change continues to be in the news, and the economic sector is waking up to the cost of consequences. However, economists are still downplaying major risks according to a new report by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and the UK’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

The simplified and business-as-usual economic assessments don’t take into account the severity of impacts when thresholds in Earth systems are exceeded, resulting in a potential for mass migration and conflict.

Bad news too for pensions and government funds, many of which invest in index funds, which face unmanageable risk from climate change, according to the director of Stanford University’s Sustainable Finance Initiative. They have a need for more science-based climate policy.

That’s why companies such as Four Twenty Seven’s combined economic modelling with climate science. Their analysis shows some of Europe’s main office areas are at risk to flooding and heat extremes, leading up to a potential of over €1 trillion in damage.

More on how climate experts judge geoengineering, how the geological resource of phosphate cycles through our food system (yes we eat rocks), and how more rainwater can lead to less water available to people along the Nile.

As ever, there is more to explore, check below for more news and ideas.

Climate Change Adaptation

You Asked: How Can Students Make a Difference on Climate Change? At the Earth Institute

Planting the seeds of science diplomacy by Cristina Serra at The World Academy of Sciences

Real Estate Climate Risks: How Will Europe be Impacted? By Léonie Chatain at FourTwentySeven

Economists Are Downplaying Many Major Climate Risks, Says Report at the Earth Institute

Climate Change and Migration in Vulnerable Countries by Mariam Traore Chazalnoël at the UN Sustainable Development Blog

Big Data, Rising Tides: How Advances in Free Remote Sensing Technology Can Help Cities to Prepare for Climate Change by Ran Goldblatt and Nicholas Jones at GIM International

Fund Managers Failed To Anticipate Climate Risk That Led To PG&E Bankruptcy by Jeff McMahon at Forbes

Benefits of Adaptation Measures Outweigh the Costs, Report Says by Maya Earls at E&E News

Sustainability

Not all meat is created equal: How diet changes can sustain world’s food production at the Stevens Institute of Technology

Large transnational corporations play critical role in global natural resource management at Oregon State University

More rain yet less water expected for up to 250 million people along the Nile at Dartmouth College

Geoengineering

How do climate experts think about geoengineering? They get personal. by Sarah DeWeerdt at Anthropocene magazine

Disaster Risk

Volcanoes kill more people long after they first erupt – those deaths are avoidable at The Conversation

New volcanic eruption forecasting technique at the University of Illinois

Impact Based Forecasting is set to save lives and livelihoods in East Africa by George Achia at the Climate & Development Knowledge Network

External Opportunities

The Climate & Development Knowledge Network at the African Climate Risks Conference in Addis Ababa

First-of-its-kind Curriculum Will Focus on Climate Risk and Investment Research at the Earth Institute, Columbia University

Earth Institute Postdoctoral Research Program Now Accepting Applications for 2020

 

Check back next month for more picks!

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

Why California is least prepared for earthquakes. Increasing pressure on geoengineering. Tackling the challenge of groundwater. Jesse Zondervan’s July 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Why California is least prepared for earthquakes. Increasing pressure on geoengineering. Tackling the challenge of groundwater. Jesse Zondervan’s July 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:

Earthquake preparedness in the US

Last month has seen two strong earthquakes in California, and in an interview with CNN seismologist Dr Lucy Jones says California is not as well prepared as it could be, especially compared to places like Japan and Chile. Political scientist Matt Motta attributes this to a low electoral incentive for policymakers to work on preventative policies rather than response to earthquake damage, which leads to the conclusion that communicating earthquake risk to people living in hazardous areas is vital to improving preparedness.

To geoengineer or not?

There has also been some debate on geoengineering, with climate scientists at Harvard and MIT arguing that risks of geoengineering may be overstated, whilst Cambridge scholars warn against the social blinding effect of ‘emissions debt’ through the temporary use of solar geoengineering.

At the same time, there is an increasing pressure from insurance companies for cities to adapt to climate change-related risks, and the threat of Antarctic ice collapse raising sea levels dramatically led to the suggestion of artificially snowing ocean water on it in great quantities.

Ultimately, we need research to understand the risks and efficacy of solar engineering, which is why the newly published map for predicting paths of particles emitted in the atmosphere is a welcome addition.

The challenge of groundwater

The challenge to relying on deeper water aquifers to sustain supply is that deeper strata are generally less conducive to extraction, water gets saltier at depth, and finally, it costs more. A new study finds that Americans are drilling deeper, raising concern over the sustainability of water extraction.

A new method of testing groundwater resources using the tidal effects of gravitation on groundwater addresses the challenge of investigating and managing water resources more sustainably.

More this month, the unwavering resistance of Guatemalans in one of the world’s most hazardous areas, the unnoticed climate crisis disasters happening weekly, and the question of sovereignty as Pacific countries drown.

Groundwater

Simple, accurate and inexpensive: A new method for exploring groundwater at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)

Americans are drilling deeper than ever for freshwater at University of California – Santa Barbara

Climate Change Adaptation

Insurance Companies Push Cities To Take Climate Action by Sarah Lawrynuik at The Sprawl

What happens when a country drowns? By Sarah Munoz at The Conversation

Climate Risk Disclosure Act Is Good for Your Investments by Nicole Pinko at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Arctic ice loss is worrying, but the giant stirring in the South could be even worse at The Conversation

Geoengineering

Betting on speculative geoengineering may risk an escalating ‘climate debt crisis’ by Shinichiro Asayama and Mike Hulme

Risks of Controversial Geoengineering Approach “May Be Overstated” By John Fialka at E&E News

Chaos theory produces map for predicting paths of particles emitted into the atmosphere at ScienceDaily

Sea level rise: West Antarctic ice collapse may be prevented by snowing ocean water onto it at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)

Earthquake preparedness in the US

She’s been explaining earthquakes for decades. Here’s where she says California is least prepared by Braden Goyette at CNN

Americans focus on responding to earthquake damage, not preventing it, because they’re unaware of their risk by Matt Motta at The Conversation

Hospitals implement quake-ready technology, teams in seismically active areas by Jacqueline Renfrow at FierceHealthcare

Disaster Risk

‘Artificial intelligence’ fit to monitor volcanoes at GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences

Istanbul: Seafloor study proves earthquake risk for the first time at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR)

History, disasters, and resilience: The story of Antigua Guatemala by Barbara Minguez Garcia and Rodrigo Donoso Arias at World Bank Blogs

One climate crisis disaster happening every week, UN warns by Fiona Harvey at The Guardian

External Opportunities

Law and Sustainability Summer School at the Earth System Governance Project

Opportunity: Senior Research Associate in Policy, Politics and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

 

Check back next month for more picks!

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

Tracking water consumption: how you can help fight climate-change-driven water stress

Tracking water consumption: how you can help fight climate-change-driven water stress

How much water do you think you’re using? When you eat 200 g of beef, you are using more than 3,000 liters of water. Regular blog author Bárbara Zambelli helps us understand how we can alleviate climate-change-related water stress in countries around the world, just through our choices of consumption. [Editor’s note: This post reflects Bárbara’s personal opinions. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

This month our blog theme is resources, and I chose to write about water, not only because it is our most basic need but also as it is the basis of all goods, products and resources that we use.

Freshwater, like any other natural resource, is unevenly distributed on Earth’s surface, leading to physical scarcity in many parts of the globe, while other regions are suffering from floods and heavy rain events. So, we have to deal with water scarcity problems every time that water is too little, too much or too dirty.

The largest share of water is used in agriculture and industry, whilst direct uses (such as drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning and so on) are responsible for only a small amount

Another reason to be alert is that, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 47% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortage by 2030. In this article, in order to better discuss sustainable water usage, I want to explore some important concepts in the following paragraphs.

Virtual water is the first one: it is related to indirect water used for different purposes, such as growing crops, energy production or transportation. Let’s take an example from food production – Do you know how much water is necessary to produce 1 kg of beef? The global average is about 15,400 L/kg.

On the other hand, to produce the same amount of vegetables, only 322 L are needed, for cereals 1,644 L/kg and for milk 1,020 L/kg. With that in mind, do you feel you really know your own water consumption? Would you like to find out? In this link, you can calculate your water footprint.

Here we come to the second important concept: water footprint. A water footprint reveals water consumption patterns, from individual to national level, communicating its expenditure in the manufacturing and production of goods. In addition, it reports the amount of water contaminated during those processes.

When a country is exporting some product (cereals, vegetables, oil, ores, clothes, technology and so on), it is also exporting virtual water needed to produce that product.

If we take a look at a list of highest water footprint by country, the United Arab Emirates leads the way, followed by the U.S. and Canada. Brazil appears at number 6.

It is important to point out that nowadays the largest share of water is used in agriculture and industry, whilst direct uses (such as drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning and so on) are responsible for only a small amount. On this website, you can find many more interesting statistics about virtual water.

Another important concept is the international virtual water trade flow. When a country is exporting some product (cereals, vegetables, oil, ores, clothes, technology and so on), it is also exporting virtual water needed to produce that product.

Big virtual water exporters are most of the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Central Africa while big importers are in Europe, Japan, North and South Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, and Indonesia.

One problem related to this trade happens because the indirect effects of water exploitation are externalized to other countries. Moreover, consumers are generally not aware and do not pay for the water problems in the overseas countries where their goods are being produced.

So, how can we take action, at an individual level, to reduce our water consumption and, at the same time, tackle climate change?

 First of all, we need to think outside the box. Reducing water consumption means way more than closing the tap while brushing your teeth. We need to re-think our lifestyles, diet, our choices for daily commutes and more.

A good start would be cutting off meat one day of the week (meatless Monday, for example). Instead of buying new clothes every year, look for some in second-hand shops, flea markets or swap with friends. Choose public transportation or bikes over private cars. When you need to shop anything, always check for local products instead of imported ones. Overall, always be a conscious citizen!

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