Geology for Global Development

Robert Emberson

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. **

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

The Sustainability Argument for Open Access Publishing

The Sustainability Argument for Open Access Publishing

Those who follow the work of GfGD, either via posts on this blog or more direct engagement, will know that there are a multitude of connections between geoscience and the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are almost impossible to disentangle from resource use and environmental pressures, subjects which are themselves cornerstones of modern geoscience.

While this may be the case, a key question that I’ve heard from some colleagues goes something like this: “My research project might have implications for sustainability in the long term, but my primary research isn’t focused on the SDGs. How can I make a difference to attaining the goals?”

It’s true that many earth scientists aren’t specifically working on addressing the SDGs; the actual action is often left to policy makers and NGOs. So what’s the best way to help, if your work might have some input? One answer comes to mind quickly – get your work out to these stakeholders through science communication. However, this isn’t to everyone’s taste, and not every scientist is comfortable in the social-media communication sphere. It’s often tricky to reach all the potential stakeholders all at once, so is there an alternative solution that doesn’t require devoting too much time to public-facing communication?

Yes – you can publish open access.

Open access journals – where there aren’t subscription fees to view an article, and costs are covered by external agencies or through article processing charges – have disrupted science publishing significantly over the last 15 years. The question over open access research journals is a complex and fraught one; many scientists feel strongly one way or the other, and large scale legal battles are playing out between governments and traditional publishing houses in relation to demands for open access science.

I’m not taking a position as to whether open access is a good model for science or researchers, but instead I’d suggest that it can help attain SDGs – particularly if it’s geoscience research that’s published for all to see.

As an early career researcher, I tended to think that open access might not make such a difference to my own work; the public wouldn’t be interested in my extremely niche topic of research. I didn’t consider that there might be different groups of readers for whom geoscience research might make more impact than for my friends and family. Government researchers and NGO analysts working in the developing world vitally need access to data and science, but their budgets may not stretch to pay for access to subscription journals. These are the important stakeholders for the attainment of SDGs, and these are the end-users of open access research we should consider more.

Let’s use mining as an example. Given the same absolute amount of mineral or fossil resources, historical evidence suggests that a country in the global south would likely only find 1/5 of the amount that a rich country would. Exploration and utilisation of a nation’s mineral wealth requires a clear understanding of resource science, which may be lacking in developing states due to lack of access to published research. This is such a significant issue that the World Bank in 2014 set out to spend $1 billion to produce geological maps of Africa’s natural resources, for governments there to better use their resources.

For the global south, a lack of data surrounding their own resources – particularly fossil fuels – puts them at a huge disadvantage when negotiating contracts with multinational petrochemical or mining corporations. Global firms like Exxon or Shell have huge, dedicated R&D arms, with larger research budgets than many developing countries can muster. The effect is that the two parties have ‘asymmetric information’; according to economics, this situation almost always leads to less-than-optimal outcomes, and it’s normally the party with less information that loses out. In real terms, this could mean mining firms negotiating contracts that might underplay the risk and pollution from extraction for local communities.

Using resources sustainably and carefully is at the heart of efforts to attain the sustainability goals. Water quality suffers when pollution is extensive; poverty and inequality are exacerbated by inefficient and corrupt management of income from mining or drilling; the effective use of taxes from mining and fossil fuel extraction can help build sustainable infrastructure for a greener future.

Open access geological data allows governments in the global south to make more informed decisions about their own national resources, and fosters a framework of openness that encourages greater accountability. It prevents vulture companies exploiting those nations, too, which is a key aspect in the fight for global equality.

Another classic geological field of study is natural hazards, and here too open data can be crucially important. According to a study published by the Open Data Institute,

“Open data can help to inform evidence-based policy-making and the design of government services. It offers policy-makers a source of information to identify wasteful spending, better target resources and design more responsive services. Although open data can be useful to most services, to date it has been especially relevant in the areas of healthcare, education, disaster risk management and transportation.”

The global south are likely to face more severe threats to life and economic growth as a result of climate change than developed states (e.g. this report by DARA), and this potential risk is exacerbated when governments lack sufficient data to make informed policy decisions. Climate change has the potential to adversely impact almost all of the sustainability goals, from resolving inequality, to food security, to life on land and in the ocean. The global scale of climate change makes it in everyone’s interest to encourage smart policy making in every country – and thus a great incentive for scientists and policy-makers to support open-access research.

Perhaps there are other more important incentives for earth scientists to publish in other journals; but in future, perhaps we should consider the ramification of our publishing choices for sustainability. Maybe the ‘social impact’ factor of research is more relevant than the publication impact factor.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com).

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

The Case Against Fieldwork – How can we internalise the carbon cost of fieldwork, as scientists who investigate the earth system?

Contrails from a jetliner. Image courtesy Pixabay/diddi4

There are few, if any, fields of human study for which fieldwork is more fundamental than geology. For many geologists, the solid earth itself is their subject, and this means observations can be made at any given location on the planet. Moreover, the local quirks of different environments almost necessitate a diverse range of study sites for us to fully comprehend the differing processes that govern the world we see around us.

Beyond offering us the chance to make observations in a variety of different locations, fieldwork allows us to test our laboratory models, to interact with researchers from other institutions, and from a personal standpoint can broaden perspectives while exploring and experiencing new places. These positive consequences of exploration and observation are offset by the impact that researchers have on their chosen field sites. ‘Leave only footprints, take only photos’ is a fine motto, but much like Schrödinger’s cat of quantum physics, when we choose to observe the natural system, we have an impact on the subject of our observation.

The scale of that impact can vary widely. When I undertook fieldwork in New Zealand, in field areas culturally significant to the Maori people, we took great pains to limit any long lasting effect on the landscape (with help from the NZ Department of Conservation), taking only small quantities of water samples and keeping to specific areas. The vast majority of field scientists recognise that their own presence can be a source of systematic bias, and experimental or observational design to limit that bias is undoubtedly essential. There’s one big impact that we rarely consider, though; the carbon footprint of travel to and from far-flung locations. Even if the effect of emissions from a single trip is relatively minor, the cumulative effect of climate change systematically influences a great many geological processes.

The carbon footprint of an individual is not always an easy number to pin down. Given that nearly every action we take has some impact on emissions, there are a huge number of variables to constrain for any single person. With some caveats, it’s easier to use data for large populations and average to an individual level. The World Bank provides nation-level data for CO2 emissions per capita, which is highly informative. Unsurprisingly, emissions from Western Europe are higher than the so-called developing world (approx 6.4 tons of CO2 per person per year in W Europe, and 0.8 tons in sub-Saharan Africa for example), while the US values are higher still (16.5 tons).

How do these numbers compare with the emissions from flying? Again, it is difficult to nail down an exact value for airline pollution, with estimates complicated by a variety of aircraft of differing efficiencies in service, as well as non-linear emissions with respect to the length of a journey (taking off burns more fuel, meaning shorter flights have a higher proportional impact – read more here). Roughly, though, airliners emit between 100-260g of CO2 per passenger kilometre. Scaling up, this means a return trans-Atlantic flight puts around a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere per passenger; thus, fieldwork across the world could rapidly make a huge impact on the overall carbon output of an individual.

My own experience is illustrative. As a PhD student in Germany, I felt very fortunate to carry out fieldwork in both Taiwan (c. 9000km from Berlin) and New Zealand (c. 18000km from Berlin); the high rates of erosion in the mountains in those settings made them the ideal location to study landslides and related chemical weathering. However, comparing my emissions from flying over the course of a 4-year PhD purely for fieldwork (probably at least 10-12 tons) with the average emissions per person in Germany (around 8-10 tons of CO2 annually) makes for uncomfortable reading. Not only was this worth more than a whole years’ worth for the average German citizen, but it was far in excess of a level that would, if adopted by everyone, help mitigate dangerous climate change. While it is still under debate what the acceptable level of emissions per person would be, my personal emissions are certainly incompatible with any of the proposed levels, which are often cited as closer to 2 tons per year each.

This would even be true if I had made every other lifestyle change that is often discussed to reduce one’s own ecological impact; a vegan diet, using only public transport, and limiting purchases of new goods; these would not have sufficiently offset the emissions just from fieldwork.

More and more scientists are already reckoning with these moral questions in regards to conferences. A recent editorial about the amount of emissions from the American Geophysical Union’s Fall meeting highlighted that scientists gathered together from across the world have a non-negligible impact on CO2. Such large conferences also present a problem of ‘optics’ as the media might describe it; how are scientists supposed to advocate for a lower carbon economic system when their massed meeting could create such potential harm? Perhaps fieldwork has a less obvious optics problem, given that geologists are scattered around the world, but there remains potential for accusations of hypocrisy to be made.

I’m certainly not the first to be concerned about these issues. When I’ve discussed them before with friends and colleagues, a kind of compromise is often the solution that has been suggested to me: weigh up the costs and benefits of the fieldwork. Perhaps the work in question is directly relevant for carbon capture research, or modelling of the climatic system; in this case, the direct impact of the research resulting from the fieldwork might be more tangible, and in some cases even quantifiable.

For a great many geologists who don’t work on the climate system, these direct comparisons are not possible. In this case, we are forced to make subjective value judgements about how the positive outcomes of our research and findings should be compared with the incremental changes that result in the environmental system from our emissions. These judgements are certainly not unique to geologists, but are perhaps more stark than others given the potential for dramatic climate change to fundamentally alter many surface or marine environments that have been the subject of centuries of geological observation.

I certainly would not presume to make these value judgements for other scientists. We each have our own perspectives, and these may often be highly personal decisions. Moreover, I wouldn’t expect geologists to give up fieldwork lightly, or even at all; it’s so crucial to the science as we know it, and is often the highlight of many researchers calendars.

I would argue, though, that the time has come for us to seriously question whether we can do fieldwork in a more sustainable fashion. We’re often seeking the prime location to test our hypotheses, which may be half way around the world, but instead of forgoing these field sites, we should perhaps ask ourselves: could local researchers take the samples we require on our behalf? There’s an added bonus to this suggestion, too – it could encourage productive collaboration across borders, as well as helping development in economically deprived-but-geologically-interesting countries through the intersection of ideas.

Whether it’s seeking new collaborators in the ‘perfect setting’, or seeking a compromise field-site closer to home, or even to embrace a slower way of travelling (such as trains) there are ways to reduce flight for fieldwork. As earth scientists, we are among the most informed citizens about the potential for catastrophic climate change. It is up to each scientist to decide for themselves whether this knowledge carries with it an imperative to act, but given the global consequences of our actions such an imperative seems more urgent than ever.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com).