As climate change warms up the planet, it is the Arctic where the effects are most pronounced. According to scientific reports, the Arctic is warming twice as fast in comparison to the rest of the world. That in itself is a cause for concern. However, as the region increasingly becomes ice-free in summer, making shipping and other activities possible, another threat looms large. That of an oil spill.
While it can never be good news, an oil spill in the Arctic could be particularly dangerous because of its sensitive ecosystem and harsh climatic conditions, which make a cleanup next to impossible. With an increase in maritime traffic and an interest in the untapped petroleum reserves of the Arctic, the likelihood of an oil spill increases significantly.
Maisa Nevalainen, as part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), is working to assess the extent of the risk posed by oil spills in the Arctic marine areas.
“That the Arctic is perhaps the last place on the planet which hasn’t yet been destroyed or changed drastically due to human activity, should be reason enough to tread with utmost caution,” says Nevalainen
Although the controversial 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound was quite close to the Arctic Circle, so far no major spills have occurred in the region. However, that also means that there is no data and little to no understanding of the uncertainties related to such accidents in the region.
For instance, one of the significant impacts of an oil spill would be on the varied marine species living in the region, likely with consequences carrying far in to the future. Because of the cold and ice, oil decomposes very slowly in the region, so an accident involving oil spill would mean that the oil could remain in the ice for decades to come.
Yet, researchers don’t know how vulnerable Arctic species would be to a spill, and which species would be affected more than others. Nevalainen, as part of her study at IIASA will come up with an index-based approach for estimating the vulnerability (an animal’s probability of coming into contact with oil) and sensitivity (probability of dying because of oiling) of key Arctic functional groups of similar species in the face of an oil spill.
“The way a species uses ice will affect what will happen to them if an oil spill were to happen,” says Nevalainen. Moreover, oil tends to concentrate in the openings in ice and this is where many species like to live, she adds.
During the summer season, some islands in the region become breeding grounds for birds and other marine species both from within the Arctic and those that travel thousands of miles from other parts of the world. If these species or their young are exposed to an oil spill, then it could not only result in large-scale deaths but also affect the reproductive capabilities of those that survive. This could translate in to a sizeable impact on the world population of the affected species. Polar bears, for example, have, on an average two cubs every three years. This is a very low fertility rate – so, even if one polar bear is killed, the loss can be significant for the total population. Fish on the other hand are very efficient and lay eggs year round. Even if all their eggs at a particular time were destroyed, it would most likely not affect their overall population. However, if their breeding ground is destroyed then it can have a major impact on the total population depending on their ability and willingness to relocate to a new area to lay eggs, explains Nevalainen.
Due to lack of sufficient data on the number of species in the region as well as that on migratory population, it is difficult to predict future scenarios in case of an accident, she adds. “Depending on the extent of the spill and the ecosystem in the nearing areas, a spill can lead to anything from an unfortunate incident to a terrible disaster,” says Nevalainen.
It might even affect the food chain, at a local or global level. “If oil sinks to the seafloor, some species run the risk of dying or migrating due to destroyed habitat – an example being walruses as they merely dive to get food from the sea floor,” adds Nevalainen. As the walrus is a key species in the food web, this has a high probability of upsetting the food chain.
When the final results of her study come through, Nevalainen aims to compare different regions of the Arctic and the probability of damage in these areas, as well as potential solutions to protect the ecosystem. This would include several factors. One of them could be breeding patterns – spring, for instance, is when certain areas need to be cordoned off for shipping activities, as most animals breed during this time.
“At the moment there are no mechanisms to deal with an oil spill in the Arctics. I hope that it never happens. The Arctic ecosystem is very delicate and it won’t take too much to disturb it, and the consequences can be huge, globally,” warns Nevalainen.
About the Researcher
Maisa Nevalainen is a third- year PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her main focus is on environmental impacts caused by Arctic oil spills, while her main research interests include marine environment, and environmental impacts of oil spills among others. Nevalainen is working with the Arctic Futures Initiative at IIASA over the summer, with Professor Brian Fath as her supervisor and Mia Landauer and Wei Liu as her co-supervisors.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
In 2016, Bolivia saw its worst drought in nearly 30 years. While the city of La Paz faced an acute water shortage with no piped water in some parts, the agricultural sector was hit the hardest. According to The Agricultural Chamber of the East, the region suffered a loss of almost 50% of total produce. Animal carcasses lay scattered in plain sight in the valleys, where they had died looking for watering holes.
One of the most dramatic results of this catastrophic drought was that Lake Poopo, (pronounced po-po) Bolivia’s second largest lake was drained of every drop of water. Located at a height of approximately 1127 meters, and covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, what remains of it now resembles a desert more than a lake. This event forced the fishing community of Uru Uru, which depended on the lake, to either migrate to other lakes or look for alternate livelihood options.
Lake Poopo is located in the central South American Altiplano, one of the largest high plateaus in the world (Bolivia’s largest lake, Titicaca, is located in the north of the region). Due to its unique topography, the highland faces extreme climatic conditions, which are responsible for difficult lives as well as widespread poverty among the people who live there.
While Titicaca is over 100 meters deep, Poopo had a depth of less than three meters. Combined with a high rate of evapotranspiration, erratic rainfall, and limited flow of water from the Desaguadero River, Poopo was in a precarious position even during the best of times. Whatever little water flowed in from the river is further depleted by intensive irrigation activities at the south of Lake Titicaca before the water makes it way down to Poopo.
The lake’s existence had been threatened several times in the past. However, the 2016 drought was one of the most devastating ones. According to the Defense Ministry of Bolivia, early this year the lake started recovering after several days of heavy rain, restoring as much as 70% of the water. However, since the lake is a part of a very fragile ecosystem, there have been some irreversible changes to the flora and fauna in addition to the losses to the fishing communities living around the lake.
Charting a better future
Claudia Canedo, a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, is exploring the impact of droughts and the risk on agricultural production in the light of this event, after which Bolivia declared a state of water emergency. Canedo was born and raised in the city of La Paz and experienced water shortages while growing up close to the Altiplano. This motivated her to investigate a sustainable solution for water availability in the region. With the results of her study she is hoping to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again in the Altiplano – that other communities directly dependent on ecosystem services, like that of Lake Poopo, do not have to lose everything because of an extreme weather event.
For a region where more than half the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts serve as a major setback to the national economy. “It is not just one factor that led to the drought, though. There were different factors that contributed to the drying up of the lake and also contribute to the agricultural distress,” she says.
“The southern Altiplano lies in an arid zone and receives low precipitation due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. Poor soil quality (high saline content and lack of nutrients) makes it unsuitable for most crops, except quinoa and potato in some areas,” adds Canedo. Residents also lack the knowledge and the monetary resources to invest in newer technology, which could possibly lead to better water management.
One of the most critical factors in the recent drought was the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, the warming of the sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn carries the warmer oceanic winds and lowers the rate of precipitation in the highland leading to increased evapotranspiration. In 2015 and 2016, the losses due to this phenomenon were devastating for agriculture in the Altiplano, says Canedo.
In her quest to find solutions, the biggest challenge is the lack of recorded data from local weather stations for the past years. Although satellite data is available, it is too generic in nature to do a local analysis. Therefore combining ground and satellite data could enhance the present knowledge and provide consistent results of the climate and vegetation variability. If done successfully, Canedo hopes to identify a correlation between precipitation and vegetation. With this information, she can improve climate forecasting that could help the local people adapt to droughts powerful enough to turn their lives upside down.
With weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme weather events like droughts, farmers would know what to expect and would be able to plant resilient varieties of crops. This might not earn them the same profits as in a normal year, but would not result in a failed crop. Claudia aims to come up with a drought index useful for drought monitoring and early warning, which will integrate short-term and long-term meteorological predictions.
Perhaps, in the future, with this newfound knowledge, the price for extreme weather events won’t be paid in terms of lost ecosystems like that of Lake Poopo, robbing people of their lives and livelihoods.
About the Researcher
Claudia Canedo is a participant in the 2017 IIASA YSSP. She is pursuing a doctoral program in water resources engineering at Lund University, Sweden. She is interested in studying the hydrological and climatological conditions over small basins in the South American highlands. The aim of her research is to define water resources availability and find strategies for sustainable water management in the semi-arid region.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.
How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career? The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.
Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this? Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.
How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse? Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation. To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.
COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this? Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.
What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today? My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.
What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers? Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Why have Germany and Japan, two large, and in many respects similar developed democracies pursued different energy options? A recently published study examines why Germany has become the world’s leader in renewable energy while phasing out its nuclear power and Japan has deployed only a trivial amount of renewables while constructing a record number of nuclear reactors.
The widespread story is that Germany rejected nuclear power in a politically bold move after Fukushima and instead pursued ‘Energiewende’ prioritizing wind and solar energy to combat climate change. Leading scholars such as Amory Lovins described Japanese policymakers as manipulated by the nuclear lobby, clinging to their old ways, and unwilling to properly support renewable energy. The lesson to other countries is that public anti-nuclear sentiments and a capable democratic government is what it takes to turn to decentralized renewable energy.
This research shows that these stories are myths. As I and my coauthor wrote in a letter to the editor in Nature last year, Japan had ambitious renewable targets already before Fukushima and there is no evidence that these have been affected by its nuclear plans. The same holds for Germany: its targets for renewable energy were not affected by the change in its nuclear strategy following Fukushima’s disaster in 2011.
In fact, the differences between Germany and Japan started not in 2011 after Fukushima, but some 20 years earlier in the early 1990s when Japan’s electricity consumption was rapidly growing and it desperately needed to expand electricity generation to feed demand that could not be matched with very scarce domestic fossil fuels. Furthermore, Japan was developing ‘energy angst’ related not only to its high dependence on Middle Eastern oil and gas but also to potential competition with China’s with its rising appetite for energy. At the same time, Germany’s electricity consumption stagnated in the 1990s and its energy security improved following the end of the Cold War. Germany was also one of the world’s largest coal producers and could in principle supply all its domestic electricity from coal. As a result, in the 1990s, Japan was forced to build nuclear power plants, but Germany could easily do without them.
There was another important development in the early 1990s: wind power technology diffused to Germany from neighboring Denmark. This was triggered by an electricity feed-in-law of 1990s, which obliged German electric utilities to buy electricity from small producers at close-to-retail prices. The law, which aimed to benefit a small number of micro-hydro plant owners, unexpectedly led to almost a 100-fold rise in wind installations in Germany. Although still insignificant in terms of electricity, this development created a large and vocal lobby of owners and manufacturers of wind turbines. In the early 2000s, the wind sector provided less than one-tenth of nuclear electricity but had more jobs than in the nuclear sector. In contrast, Japan’s similar policies of buying wind energy from decentralized producers did not result in any considerable growth of wind power, because the Danish technologies prevalent in the early 1990s could not be as easily diffused to Japan.
By the turn of the century, the electricity sectors in Germany and Japan still looked largely similar, but the political dynamics could not be more different. In Germany, a huge politically-powerful coal sector was represented by Socio-Democratic Party and the so-called ‘red-green’ coalition was formed with the Green party, who represented the rapidly growing wind power sector. The stagnating nuclear industry, however, had not seen new domestic orders or construction for 15 years and large industrial players like Siemens had begun to diversify away from it. All this was in the context of a positive energy security outlook and declining electricity prices. In contrast, in Japan, the nuclear sector had vigorously grown over the last decade and was becoming globally dominant by acquiring significant manufacturing capacities. Nuclear power was the only plausible response to the energy angst and it lacked any credible political opponents: the domestic coal sector in Japan virtually did not exist (Germany had around 70,000 coal mining jobs, Japan – about 1,000) and wind had never taken off.
The results of these very different political dynamics were predictably different: the red-green coalition in Germany legislated nuclear phase-out in 2002 and unprecedented financial support for renewables in 2000, while retaining coal subsidies and triggering construction of new coal power plants. Japan continued to support solar energy in which it had been the global leader since the 1970s but it also adopted a plan for constructing many more nuclear reactors designed to substitute imported fuels. Fukushima, rather than highlighting differences actually made the energy trajectories of two countries more similar as both countries began to struggle to replace their aging nuclear capacities with new renewables.
How does this story relate to wider questions such as: why are some countries more successful in deploying renewables than others? The answer is not in ‘stronger political will’ and in the strength of climate change concerns, but in economy, geography, and the structure of energy systems. Political wins for renewables and the climate can also be the result of dubious political compromises such as the alliance with the coal lobby in Germany, which led to the rapid growth of renewables and demise of nuclear power. It may be particularly difficult for countries with fossil fuel resources to implement renewable energy policies if they lead to the contraction of domestic coal, gas or oil industries.
By Alvaro Silva Iribarrem, researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program.
Restoration of degraded ecosystems is an exciting and relatively new way of looking into the conservation of natural capital—the world’s natural assets, including soil, air, water, and all living things. For one, the success of restoration is more readily verifiable than, for example, avoided degradation. Further, it increases the landscape’s resilience: natural areas can be placed around agricultural crops, increasing their yields by providing habitat for pollinators and therefore increasing pollination, protecting them from natural disasters, and improving the provision of important ecosystem services for human wellbeing.
These services include removing CO2 from the atmosphere (which contributes directly to climate change mitigation); ensuring that more sediment is filtered from the rivers (which reduces the risk of landslides and floods); and providing habitat for a large diversity of species. For scientists, it feels like being at the head of the counter-offensive: it is us, humans, finally doing something not only to slow our seemingly unstoppable degradation of the environment, but to actively start pushing it back.
Restoring an ecosystem to its original state can be an expensive endeavor, but tropical rainforests are very resilient. For example, even after centuries of extensive use of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, which has been reduced to a tenth of its size, in many places it would still grow back to much of its original state in a manner of decades, if allowed to do so. For such ecosystems, natural regeneration represents an extraordinary opportunity to enable restoration at scales that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.
In places like the Paraitinga watershed, in the countryside of São Paulo state, most of the original forest has long been cleared, and replaced, predominantly, by small dairy farms. After over a century of careless land use, large areas of the converted landscape has degraded to the point where yields are so low that farms are barely viable. The lack of forest cover has led to frequent floods. The worst of the recent ones, in 2010, destroyed most of the historical city of São Luiz do Paraitinga, with a population of 11 thousand inhabitants.
In a couple of recent publications, we made a comprehensive effort to include the natural regeneration of that watershed’s native forest as part of a bigger plan for more sustainable development of the region, one that would increase its resilience to this kind of disaster.
Starting from a landscape approach, we looked at the potential for grass growth in the region, and concluded that it was possible to accommodate all foreseeable future demands for cattle production and still make space for the restoration of a large area in the watershed. Sustainable intensification of current pasture is key to avoid the economic losses that could otherwise follow the land shortage caused by such a large-scale restoration. It would also help to gain the farmers’ acceptance. By producing more in a smaller area, they could let go of the degraded areas they currently use, allowing the native forest fragments nearby to spread.
In our regeneration scenario, we assume that around 24,000 hectares of pastureland that is presently abandoned in the watershed will be allowed to undergo natural regeneration in the next 20 years. This naturally occurring forest regrowth would sequester 6.2 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Additionally, it would reduce sediment load into rivers by 570,000 tons annually, bringing water purification costs in the area down by 0.37 dollars per year per hectare restored. Finally we showed that restoration of even this relatively small area would be enough to significantly increase habitat availability for all species, particularly for those which travel between forest fragments.
To understand the difficulties farmers face in improving productivity, we conducted interviews and focus groups with them. We found that the tendency to keep to their old, low-producing, land-extensive ways, is less related to a resistance to change, and more to a lack of technical knowledge and the means to make the upfront investments needed to switch to a more productive system. Credit for investment is available and cheap in the country, but only a small number of farmers in the region risk taking it. Technical assistance is key to tap into these resources and enable the necessary improvement of the watershed’s production. The conditions for unlocking large-scale forest regrowth, not only in the Paraitinga watershed but in many similar landscapes in the country, are in place—they need only to be implemented properly.
Samir KC is a researcher in the IIASA World Population Program. He worked on the population projections that form the “human core” of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), a set of scenarios designed for climate change research, but increasingly being applied more broadly to research in sustainability and environmental change.
What are the SSPs? The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways are about the future, how the future could look like under different set of conditions. When we want to talk about the future or we need to think about the future, we always have to do some kind of a projection. Whatever the topic is, even in our personal life, we can use scenarios to map out how things might develop, creating different pathways, which can allow us to better understand how our choices could affect these pathways.
Socioeconomic means the major factors socially as well as economically that can affect future changes on our planet—demographic, socially, and economic. But within this broad umbrella, there are multiple disciplines who work on their own topics and have their own methods and data. If they want to work together they have to match with each other so that output of one work could be the input to another group. That’s why the word shared is there.
The SSPs were developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Why were they needed? For one thing, we just needed to update the data from the earlier generation of emissions scenarios, and define new scenarios. But secondly, the focus changed a bit between the IPCC’s last report and the most recent one, released in 2014. In the new scenarios, the focus is more on challenges to adaptation and mitigation of climate change. These dimensions are harder to incorporate because they depend on a lot of socioeconomic factors.
You worked specifically on the population projections for the SSPs, which were published in 2014. How did this process work? The first thing that we did was to define narratives for each of the SSPs, essentially a story about how the world would look like in the future. This first part is very important. These narratives were based on the current knowledge of science and how the variables are related and interact.
Then for each of the pathways, we had to start defining the variables like population, urbanization, technological change, and economy. Since population is one of the first variables you need in order to calculate other socioeconomic variables, it was the first thing we looked at when turning the narratives into a quantitative projection. Population is needed as a multiplier to calculate demand in the future, for example to calculate how much energy will be required in the future, how much water, and many other things. At the same time when there are adverse effects of climate change, the population determines how many people are impacted as well as who and where. For example the air pollution group who would need population to see how will air pollution affect the population. So population is an important variable.
It was an iterative process—there were lots of calls, involving sometimes 10 or 15 people from many different fields. Whenever we had something to share or something to decide, it was done in this big group. It was a lot of talking and listening to others. That was a very educational for me, because I learned a lot about how people are using population data. It was a very good dialogue—people had sometimes very simple questions but sometimes very interesting questions about population, fertility, mortality, and those kinds of things.
How did your population projections differ from previous demographic data used for climate research? In most climate research, until recently, population was used as a total number. Populations were assumed to be homogenous—everybody the same, the average will represent everyone. We argued that that is not the case, that you need to consider population heterogeneity, not only age and sex, but also education levels. There is a growing body of research showing that these details make a difference.
Still not everybody is using it, but for example, people working on GDP have used it, and hopefully more and more will use these factors in the future. We have shown in the past that knowing the education level of the population can help us make better projections. Having a more educated population has effects on many other socioeconomic measures. For example, more educated societies have higher level of productivity. Education level has also been used to calculate the speed of technological change. In societies where there are highly educated people the advancement in technological change comes faster than otherwise. And these factors are key to understanding humanity’s vulnerability to climate change, our ability to adapt, and our chances to solve the problem.
A lot of your work focuses on what might happen in the future. How do you explain to people the difference between scenarios or projections and predictions? When we make projections about the future, we don’t use the word “prediction.” The chances that such a projection will be wrong are 100%. We can never say exactly what will happen in the future.
It’s important to understand how the narratives were defined, how we defined the scenarios. We cannot guarantee the future, the results, but we can guarantee the quality of what can be done, what we can say now, today about the future. And then there is the idea of uncertainty – we have said something about the future but we haven’t reported any kind of uncertainty there other than reporting ranges of scenarios. This is a big area for future work. It’s difficult to do, and it would be difficult to interpret, but it’s important to consider.
References KC S, Lutz W (2014). The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: Population scenarios by age, sex and level of education for all countries to 2100. Global Environmental Change http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/10759/