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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.

New Paper: Interconnected Geoscience for International Development

A new paper published in Episodes: The Journal of International Geoscience highlights the importance of geoscience in tackling complex development challenges, and the need for new approaches to overcome barriers preventing greater application of geoscience within development. ‘Interconnected geoscience for international development‘, written by Professor Michael Petterson of Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand) sets out a conceptual model that combines geoscience expertise with an understanding of developmental situations, conditions, and context. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction require geoscientists from across all sectors and sub-disciplines to get involved, improve access to their science, and participate in effective and respectful capacity building and knowledge exchange (read more here). In this new article, Petterson (2019) reflects on his experiences as a geoscientist working in two sharply contrasting development contexts (the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan) to synthesise key learning. With one funding cycle starting as another comes to an end, taking time to reflect on and share lessons learned is sadly not always typical. As the SDGs and a renewed focus on science-for-development provide geoscientists with greater opportunities to engage in international development, this reflection is of great importance.

 

One factor discussed by Petterson (2019) is the importance of both understanding and valuing situational context (including local world views), and using this to enrich the design and implementation of projects. Another is the importance of inclusivity, building strong networks and actively including local wisdom. While good technical geoscience knowledge and skills are greatly needed in development programmes, these must be complement by a suite of other skills (often missing from the traditional education of geoscientists). Recognising this, and helping geoscientists to build these skills, is central to the work of Geology for Global Development.

Petterson (2019) notes: “Developmental setting/conditions are the foundation: these will guide how the geoscience is to be optimally applied. Projects are devised with development goals in mind and outputs/services tailored to meet the needs of policy makers and practitioners. Local affected communities must be at the heart of project outcome design. An interconnected approach places importance on issues such as inclusivity, environment and local focus, indigenous and non-conformist world-views, valuing and incorporating traditional knowledge, the possibilities of citizen-science and geoscientist-community connections/relations. The interconnected approach adopts the equal and respectful inclusive approach from the earliest stages of programme conception and development. Interconnected geoscience approaches, provide a conceptual model for the possibilities of science + social science + community + local world views, to feed into policy and communal acceptance of policy. An interconnected geoscience approach stands a better chance of addressing complex, regional and global development issues, including planetary health and global climate change. The approach improves the probability of practitioners using research results, and researchers undertaking research that addresses the highest level needs of development.”

Read the whole article (open access) here.

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.