Advocating for a new ecology grounded in systems science

By Brian Fath, Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) scientific coordinator, researcher in the Advanced Systems Analysis Program, and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University (Maryland, USA) and Soeren Nors Nielsen, Associate professor in the Section for Sustainable Biotechnology, Aalborg University, Denmark

IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) scientific coordinator, Brian Fath and colleagues take an extended look at the application of the ecosystem principles to environmental management in their book, A New Ecology, of which the second edition was just released.

IIASA is known for some of the earliest studies of ecosystem dynamics and resilience, such as work done at the institute under the leadership of Buzz Holling. The authors of the book, A New Ecology, of which the second edition was just released, are all systems ecologists, and we chose to use IIASA as the location for one of the brainstorming meetings to advance the ideas outlined in the book. At this meeting, we crystallized the idea that ecosystem ontology and phenomenology can be summarized in nine key principles. We continue to work with researchers at the institute to look for novel applications of the approach to socioeconomic systems – such as under the current EU project, RECREATE – in which the Advanced Systems Analysis Program is participating. The project uses ecological principles to study urban metabolism – a multi-disciplinary and integrated platform that examines material and energy flows in cities as complex systems.

Our book argues the need for a new ecology grounded in the first principles of good science and is also applicable for environmental management. Advances such as the United Nations Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development in 1992 and the more recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) have put on notice the need to understand and protect the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems to ensure our future existence. Drawing on decades of work from systems ecology that includes inspiration from a variety of adjacent research areas such as thermodynamics, self-organization, complexity, networks, and dynamics, we present nine core principles for ecosystem function and development.

The book takes an extended look at the application of the ecosystem principles to environmental management. This begins with a review of sustainability concepts and the confusion and inconsistencies of this is presented with the new insight that systems ecology can bring to the discussion. Some holistic indicators, which may be used in analyzing the sustainability states of environmental systems, are presented. We also recognize that ecosystems and society are physically open systems that are in a thermodynamic sense exchanging energy and matter to maintain levels of organization that would otherwise be unattainable, such as promoting growth, adaptation, patterns, structures, and renewal.

Another fundamental part of the evolution of the just mentioned systems are that they are capable of exhibiting variation. This property is maintained by the fact that the systems are also behaviorally open, in brief, capable of taking on an immense number of combinatorial possibilities. Such an openness would immediately lead to a totally indeterminate behavior of systems, which seemingly is not the case. This therefore draws our attention towards a better understanding of the constraints of the system.

One way of exploring the interconnectivity in ecosystems is taking place mainly through the lens of ecological network analysis. A primer for network environment analysis is provided to familiarize the reader with notation including worked examples. Inherent in energy flow networks, such as ecosystem food webs, the real transactional flows give rise to many hidden properties such as the rise in indirect pathways and indirect influence, an overall homogenization of flow, and a rise in mutualistic relations, while hierarchies represent conditions of both top-down and bottom-up tendencies. In ecosystems, there are many levels of hierarchies that emerge out of these cross-time and space scale interactions. Managing ecosystems requires knowledge at several of these multiple scales, from lower level population-community to upper level landscape/region.

Viewing the tenets of ecological succession through a lens of systems ecology lends our attention the agency that drives the directionality stemming from the interplay and interactions of the autocatalytic loops – that is, closed circular paths where each element in the loop depends on the previous one for its production – and their continuous development for increased efficiency and attraction of matter and energy into the loops. Ecosystems are found to show a healthy balance between efficiency and redundancy, which provides enough organization for effectiveness and enough buffer to deal with contingencies and inevitable perturbations.

Yet, the world around us is largely out of equilibrium – the atmosphere, the soils, the ocean carbonates, and clearly, the biosphere – selectively combine and confine certain elements at the expense of others. These stable/homoeostatic conditions are mediated by the actions of ecological systems. Ecosystems change over time displaying a particular and identifiable pattern and direction. Another “unpleasant” feature of the capability for change is to further evolve through collapses. Such collapse events open up creative spaces for colonization and the emergence of new species and new systems. This pattern includes growth and development stages followed by the collapse and subsequent reorganization and launching to a new cycle.

A good theory should be applicable to the concepts in the field it is trying to influence. While the mainstream ecologists are not regularly applying systems ecology concepts, the purpose of our book is to show the usefulness of the above ecosystem principles in explaining standard ecological concepts and tenets. Case studies from the general ecology literature are given relating to evolution, island bio-geography, biodiversity, keystone species, optimal foraging, and niche theory to name a few.

No theory is ever complete, so we invite readers to respond and comment on the ideas in the book and offer feedback to help improve the ideas, and in particular the application of these principles to environmental management. We see a dual goal to understand and steward ecological resources, both for their sake and our own, with the purpose of an ultimate sustainability.

Note: 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.

Understanding climate change as an everything issue

Award-winning climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and director of the Climate Center, discusses the importance of effective science communication in overcoming barriers to public acceptance of climate change in a recent interview with Rachel Potter, IIASA communications officer.

© Chris.Soldt | Boston College.MTS.Photography

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your specific areas of research as a scientist? 

I study what climate change means to people, in the places where we live: how it is affecting our water supply, our health, our air quality, the integrity of our infrastructure, and other human and natural systems. Often when people think about climate change they think about polar bears or people who are living on low-lying islands in the South Pacific. I bring climate change down from the global scale to the local level because when we understand that it is an ‘everything issue’, that’s when we understand that we need to act.

Q: You have been widely recognized as a remarkable communicator. What do you see as key to effective science communication?

I believe effective communication begins with connecting and identifying shared values, and ends with talking about solutions. With climate change, sometimes people are overt in their opposition by outright saying the science isn’t real. More often however, it is passive opposition where people feel the problem is too big and there is nothing they can do to fix it. We need to present people with solutions that are practical and viable – in other words, actions that they can engage in.

Q: Why is science communication important?

Science communication explains how the world works. Today we are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet, the only one we have. Understanding this is one of the most important things anyone can do as a human being living on Earth.

Q: Can you briefly outline what you see as trends in public and political opinion with regard to human-induced climate change?

Our world is becoming increasingly polarized and we are dividing into tribes. It is happening with many issues and in many places around the world. When the world is changing so quickly, many of us feel uncomfortable with the rate of change, so we retreat to a more tribalized, divided society where we feel comfortable. But by doing so, we focus on the tiny fraction of what divides us rather than the vast preponderance of what unites us, because it makes us feel more secure to do so.

Climate change is a casualty of this fracturing, tribalism, and polarization that is happening – most notably in the US because there are only two political parties, so the tribalization there is much more obvious. In the US, the best predictor of whether people agree with the facts that: climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious, is not how much they know about science, it’s simply where they fall on the political spectrum. This politicization of science is also happening in the UK, Austria, across Europe, Canada, Australia, and Brazil.

© IIASA Katherine Hayhoe with members of the IIASA Women in Science Club

Q: How can this polarization and the barriers to dealing with climate change be challenged?

Climate change is a human issue – it doesn’t care if we are liberal or conservative, rich or poor, although the poor are being more affected than the rich. It affects all of us and almost everything we care about. For that reason, we must emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. We need to challenge the idea that the solutions to climate change pose a bigger threat to our wellbeing, our comfort, the quality of our lives, our identity and who we are, than the impacts.

We must expose the myths that underlie inaction around climate change and examine them in an objective way. Will it really ruin our economy to fix climate change? Will it take us back to the Stone Age? If we don’t tackle the myths directly, they will continue to thrive in our sub-conscious. For example, in Canada there is an idea that a carbon tax will destroy the economy. I like to point out that there were four provinces in Canada that had a price on carbon before it became a federal policy, and those four provinces have led the country in terms of economic growth and output.

Q: What part do you see IIASA playing in being able to build bridges between countries across political divides? 

IIASA stands in a key position at a pivotal time. It is a truly international organization in terms of its mandate, structure, governance, and the people that work here. Climate change is a global problem and IIASA is a global institution that can offer both big-picture and regionally-specific insights into climate impacts and solutions.

Katharine Hayhoe visited IIASA on 4 October 2019 to give a lecture titled, Barriers to Public Acceptance of Climate Science, Impacts, and Solutions, to IIASA researchers and to meet with the IIASA Women in Science Club. IIASA has a worldwide network of collaborators who contribute to research by collecting, processing, and evaluating local and regional data that are integrated into IIASA models. The institute has 819 research partner institutions in member countries and works with research funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and individual researchers in national member organizations.

Note: 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

More fish, less energy, less pollution – but only if all players cooperate

By Adriana Gómez-Sanabria, researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program

Adriana Gómez-Sanabria discusses the results of a new study that looked into the impacts of implementing various technologies to treat wastewater from the fish processing industry in Indonesia.

© Mikhail Dudarev | Dreamstime.com

To reduce water pollution and climate risks, the world needs to go beyond signing agreements and start acting. Translating agreements and policies into action is however always much more difficult than it might seem, because it requires all players involved to participate. A complete integration strategy across all sectors is needed. One of the advantages of integrating all sectors is that it would be possible to meet different objectives, for example, climate and water protection goals in this case, with the same strategy.

I was involved in a study that assessed the impacts of implementing various technologies to treat wastewater from the fish processing industry in Indonesia when involving different levels of governance. This study is part of the strategies that the government of Indonesia is evaluating to meet the greenhouse gas mitigation goals pledged in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), as well as to reduce water pollution. Although Indonesia has severe national wastewater regulations, especially in the fish processing industry, these are not being strictly implemented due to lack of expertise, wastewater infrastructure, budgetary availability, and lack of stakeholder engagement. The objective of the study was to evaluate which technology would be the most appropriate and what levels of governance would need to be involved to simultaneously meet national climate and water quality targets in the country.

Seven different wastewater treatment technologies and governance levels were included in the analysis. The combinations included were: 1) Untreated/anaerobic lagoons – where untreated means wastewater is discharged without any treatment and anaerobic lagoons are ponds filled with wastewater that undergo anaerobic processes – combined with the current level of governance. 2) Aeration lagoons – which are wastewater treatment systems consisting of a pond with artificial aeration to promote the oxidation of wastewaters, plus activated sludge focused solely on water quality targets with no coordination between water and climate institutions. 3) Swimbed, which is an aerobic aeration tank focusing mainly on climate targets assuming no coordination between institutions. 4) Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) technology, which is an anaerobic reactor with gas recovery and use followed by Swimbed, and 5) UASB with gas recovery and use followed by activated sludge, which is an aerobic treatment that uses microorganisms forming particles that clump together. Both, 4 and 5 assume vertical and horizontal coordination between water and climate institutions at national, regional, and local level. It is important to notice that the main difference between 4 and 5 is the technology used in the second step. Two additional combinations, 6 and 7, are also proposed including the same technological combinations of 4 and 5, but these include increasing the level of governance to a multi-actor coordination level. The multi-actor level includes coordination at all institutional levels but also involves academia, research institutes, international support, and other stakeholders.

Our results indicate that if the current situation continues, there would be an increase of greenhouse gases and water pollution between 2015 and 2030, driven by the growth in fish industry production volumes. Interestingly, the study also shows that focusing only on strengthening capacities to enforce national water policies would result in greenhouse gas emissions five times higher in 2030 than if the current situation continues, due to the increased electricity consumption and sludge production from the wastewater treatment process. The benefit of this strategy would be positive for the reduction of water pollution, but negative for climate change mitigation. From our analyses of combinations 2 and 3 we learned that technology can be very efficient for one purpose but detrimental for others. If different institutions are, for example, responsible for water quality and climate change mitigation, communication between the institutions is crucial to avoid trade-offs between environmental objectives.

Furthermore, when analyzing different cooperation strategies together with a combination of diverse sets of technologies, we found that not all combinations work appropriately. For instance, improving interaction just within and between institutions does not guarantee proper selection and application of technologies. In this case, the adoption of the technology is not fast enough to meet the targets proposed in 2030, thus resulting in policy implementation failures. Our analyses of combinations 4 and 5 showed that interaction within and between national, regional, and local institutions alone is not enough to prevent policy failure.

Finally, a multi-actor cooperation strategy that includes cooperation across sectors, administrative levels, international support, and stakeholders, seems to be the right approach to ensure selection of the most appropriate technologies and achieve policy success. We identified that with this approach, it would be possible to reduce water pollution and simultaneously decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity required for wastewater treatment. Analyzing combinations 6 and 7 revealed that multi-actor governance allows to simultaneously meet climate and water objectives and a high chance to prevent policy failure.

In the end, analyses such as the one shown here, highlight the importance of integrating and creating synergies across sectors, administrative levels, stakeholders, and international institutions to ensure an effective implementation of policies that provide incentives to make careful choices regarding multi-objective treatment technologies.

Reference:

Gómez-Sanabria A, Zusman E, Höglund-Isaksson L, Klimont Z, Lee S-Y, Akahoshi K, Farzaneh H, & Chairunnisa (2019). Sustainable wastewater management in Indonesia’s fish processing industry: bringing governance into scenario analysis. Journal of Environmental Management (Submitted).

Note: 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.

Introducing a framework for 21st century biological invasions

By Bernd Lenzner, post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Botany and Biodiversity at the University of Vienna, Austria and IIASA YSSP alumnus

To guide action towards a sustainable future for nature and people, it is crucial to understand the role of invasive species in shaping global biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as how this depends on human actions.

Imagine arriving at the shores of a country you have never visited before. What kind of nature awaits you? Will you be stunned by the beauty of plants and animals you only know from documentaries and books? Will you be fascinated by the songs of birds you’ve never heard before? Or, will you find species you know from your backyard and the landscape surrounding your home?

© Johan Larson | Dreamstime.com

Most of us probably hope to find new, untouched nature with many plants and animals we haven’t encountered yet. Isn’t that after all the purpose of exploring our planet? Unfortunately, nowadays we see that the biota in many regions of the world are becoming more and more similar as a consequence of the movement of species by humans across the globe. Recent studies have shown that approximately 4% of all plants [1], 10% of all birds [2], and 2% of all amphibians and reptiles [3] worldwide can be found in regions outside their native distribution, and these numbers are increasing with no sign of saturation [4]. Once introduced, these so-called alien species can emerge as a major threat to global biodiversity [5] and ecosystem services [6], and lead to global biotic homogenization [7].

We know that these trends are driven not only by the intentional and unintentional human introduction of species into new regions through increased trade and transport, but also by how climate and land use facilitate the establishment of species outside their native range. While these drivers are expected to largely evolve in the decades to come, researchers have so far been unable to build scenarios exploring the long-term dynamics of the distribution of alien species and their impacts.

I lead a joint study between researchers from Vienna University, IIASA, and other colleagues that was recently published in the journal BioScience [8]. In our paper, we introduced the necessary steps for building scenarios of future long-term dynamics of biological invasion at a global scale. We propose a general framework for global 21st century scenarios and models of biological invasions and review essential datasets and milestones. This is the first time that biological invasions are put into a global scenario context with the aim to develop qualitative storylines that can be linked to quantitative models.

I actually started working on this in 2017 when I was still a PhD student in the Division of Conservation Biology, Landscape, and Vegetation Ecology at the University of Vienna, and a participant in the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program. The project helped to build bridges between research communities deeply involved in core activities from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

IIASA was involved in IPBES’ methodological assessment on the use of models and scenarios for biodiversity and ecosystem services and in its efforts to apply biodiversity models in existing IPCC scenarios [9] to deliver insights into the IPBES’ global assessment report released earlier this year. Recently, the IIASA Bending the curve project [10] led by David Leclère, a researcher in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program, used models to elicit what type and ambition of actions are necessary to reverse biodiversity declines, to support on-going discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on a global international agreement for people and nature to be negotiated in 2020. I am a member of the IPBES expert group involved in the writing of the upcoming thematic assessment on invasive alien species and their control, and also a contributor to a new research project called AlienScenarios funded by BiodivERsA and the Belmont Forum. Led by my supervisor Franz Essl at the University of Vienna, this project will assess global and regional mid- and long-term trends of alien species richness and impacts, as well as develop scenarios for biological invasions.

In the near future, we hope to integrate these on-going projects, to allow better modeling of global biodiversity trends and their drivers, as integrating biological invasions into the global picture are required to materialize the 2050 vision of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

References

[1] van Kleunen M et al. (2015) Global exchange and accumulation of non-native plants. Nature, 525, 100-103.

[2] Dyer EE, Redding DW, Blackburn TM (2017) The global avian invasions atlas, a database of alien bird distributions worldwide. Scientific Data, 4, 170041.

[3] Capinha C, Seebens H, Cassey P, García-Díaz P, Lenzner B, Mang T, Moser D, Pyšek P, Rödder D, Scalera R, Winter M, Dullinger S, Essl F (2017) Diversity, biogeography and the global flows of alien amphibians and reptiles. Diversity and Distributions, 23, 1313-1322.

[4] Seebens H et al. (2017) No saturation in the accumulation of alien species worldwide. Nature Communications, 8, 14435.

[5] Maxwell SL, Fuller RA, Brooks TM, Watson JEM (2016) Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers. Nature, 536, 143-145.

[6] Pejchar L & Mooney HA (2009) Invasive species, ecosystem services and human well-being. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 9, 497-504.

[7] Capinha C, Essl F, Seebens H, Moser D, Pereira HM (2015) The dispersal of alien species redefines biogeography in the Anthropocene. Science, 348, 1248-1251.

[8] Lenzner B, Leclère D, Franklin O, Seebens H, Roura-Pascual N, Obersteiner M, Dullinger S, Essf F (2019) A framework for global twenty-first century scenarios and models of biological invasions. BioScience, 69, 697-710.

[9] Kim HJ et al. (2018) A protocol for an intercomparison of biodiversity and ecosystem services models using harmonized land-use and climate scenarios. Geoscientific Model Development, 11, 4537-4562.

[10] Leclere D et al. (2018) Towards pathways bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity trends within the 21st century. IIASA DOI:10.22022/ESM/04-2018.15241.

Note: 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.

Perspectives on transforming food and land use systems for sustainable development

By Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager (FABLE) in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Food and land use systems play a critical role in managing climate risks and bringing the world onto a sustainable development trajectory.

The UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September seeks to catalyze further momentum for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The transformation of the food and land use system will play a critical role in managing climate risks and bringing the world onto a sustainable development trajectory.

Today’s food and land use systems are confronted with a great variety of challenges. This includes delivering on universal food security and better diets by 2030. Over the last decades, great strides have been made towards achieving universal food security, but this progress recently grinded to a halt. The number of people suffering from chronic hunger has been rising again from below 800 million in 2015 to over 820 million people today [1]. Food security is however not only about a sufficient supply of calories per person. It is also about improving diets, addressing the worldwide increase in the prevalence of obesity, and how we use and value environmental goods and services.

© Paulus Rusyanto | Dreamstime.com

Agriculture, forestry and other land use currently account for around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities [2]. Land use changes are also a major driver behind the worldwide loss of biodiversity [3]. Clearly, in light of population growth and the increasingly visible fingerprints of a human-induced global climate crisis and other environmental changes, business as usual is not an option.

Systems thinking is key in shifting towards more sustainable practices. A new report released by the Food and Land-Use System (FOLU) Coalition showcases that there is much to be gained. There are massive hidden costs in our current food and land use systems. The report outlines ten critical transitions, which can substantially reduce these hidden costs, thereby generating an economic prize, while improving human and planetary health.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) contributed to the analytics underpinning the report [4], applying the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) [5]. A “better futures” scenario, which seeks to collectively address development and environmental objectives, was compared to a “current trends” scenario, which is basically a continuation of a business-as-usual scenario. The assessment illustrates that an integrated approach that acknowledges the interactions in the food and land use space, can help identify synergies and manage trade-offs across sectors. For example, shifting towards healthy diets not only improves human health, but also reduces pressure on land, thereby helping to improve the solution space for addressing climate change and halting biodiversity loss.

While understanding that the global picture is important, practical solutions require engagement with national and subnational governments. The challenge is to identify development pathways that address the development needs and aspirations of countries within global sustainability contexts. As part of FOLU, the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land and Energy (FABLE) Consortium was initiated to do exactly this. The FABLE Secretariat, jointly hosted by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and IIASA, is working with knowledge institutions from developed and developing countries, to explore the interactions between national and global level objectives and their implications for pathways towards sustainable food and land use systems. Preliminary results from inter-active scenario and development planning exercises, so-called Scenathons, were recently presented in the FABLE 2019 report.

These initiatives highlight that acknowledging and embracing complexity can help reconcile development and environmental interests. This also entails rethinking how we relate to and manage nature’s services and their role in providing the foundation for the welfare of current and future generations. This is underscored by the prominent role nature-based solutions are given at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit. We need to move from silo-based, sector specific, single objective approaches to a focus on multiple objective solutions. In the land use space, this means embedding agriculture in the broader land use context, which accounts for and values environmental services, and linking to the food system where dietary choices shape human health and the demand for land.

Doing so will help bridge the international policy objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined in ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. This represents an opportunity to create a new value proposition for agriculture and other land use activities where environmental stewardship is rewarded.

References

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) et al. (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. Rome, FAO.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2019). Climate Change and Land. IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[3] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (2018). The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Montanarella, L., Scholes, R., and Brainich, A. (eds.). Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany. 744 pages.

[4] Deppermann, A. et al. 2019. Towards sustainable food and land-use systems: Insights from integrated scenarios of the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM). Supplemental Paper to The 2019 Global Consultation Report of the Food and Land Use Coalition Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use. Laxenburg, IIASA.

[5] Havlik P, Valin H, Herrero M, Obersteiner M, Schmid E, Rufino MC, Mosnier A, Thornton PK, et al. (2014). Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (10): 3709-3714. DOI: 1073/pnas.1308044111 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/10970].

Note: 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.

Cooperation needed! The case of drought management in Austria

By Marlene Palka, research assistant in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

Marlene Palka discusses the work done by the IIASA FARM project, which has been investigating drought risk management in Austria for the past three years.

Future climate projections forecast an increase in both the frequency and severity of droughts, with the agricultural sector in particular being vulnerable to such extreme weather events. In contrast to most other climatic extremes, droughts can hit larger regions and often for extended periods – up to several months or even years. Like many other countries, Austria has been and is expected to be increasingly affected, making it necessary to devise a management strategy to mitigate drought damages and tackle related problems. The FARM project – a three year project financed by the Austrian Climate Research Program and run by the IIASA Risk and Resilience and Ecosystems Services and Management programs – kicked off in 2017 and has been investigating agricultural drought risk management both in a broad European context, and more specifically in Austria.

Young sunflowers on dry field © Werner Münzker | Dreamstime.com

Austria represents a good case study for agricultural drought risk management. Despite the agricultural sector’s rather small contribution to the country’s economic performance, it still has value and represents an important part of the country’s historical and cultural tradition. Around 80% of Austria’s total land area is used for agricultural and forestry activities. Equally important is its contribution to the preservation of landscapes, which is invaluable for many other sectors including tourism.

Globally, agricultural insurance is a widely used risk management instrument that is often heavily subsidized. Apart from the fact that the concept is increasingly being supported by European policymakers – the intention being that insurance should play a more prominent role in managing agricultural production risk – more and more voices from other sectors are calling for holistic management approaches in agriculture with the overall aim of increasing the resilience of the system.

There is a well-established mutual agricultural insurance company in Austria, which has high insurance penetration rates of up to 75% for arable land, and comparably high subsidies of up to 55% of insurance premiums. It is also encouraging to note that recent policy decisions support the timeliness of drought risk: in 2013, the Austrian government paid EUR 36 million in drought compensation to grassland farmers and in 2016, premium subsidies of 50% were expanded to other insurance products, including drought, while ad-hoc compensation due to drought was officially eliminated. In 2018, the subsidy rate was further increased to 55%. In light of these prospects, we investigated the management option space of the Austrian agricultural sector as part of the FARM project.

The 2018 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on monitoring and evaluation of agricultural policies claims that efficient (drought) risk management in agriculture must consider the interactions and trade-offs between different on-farm measures, activities of the private sector, and government policies. The report further argues that holistic approaches on all management levels will be vital to the success of any agricultural management strategy.

In the course of our work, we found that agricultural drought risk management in Austria lacks decision making across levels. Although there is a range of drought management measures available at different levels, cooperation that includes farms, public and private businesses, and policy institutions is often missing. In addition, measures to primarily and exclusively deal with drought, such as insurance and irrigation, are not only limited, but (as we found) are also less frequently implemented.

As far as insurance is concerned, products are still being developed, and penetration rates are currently low. Drought risk is also highly uncertain, making it almost impossible to offer extensive drought insurance products. Irrigation is perceived as the most obvious drought management measure among non-agronomists. Simply increasing irrigation to deal with the consequences of drought could however lead to increased water demand at times when water is already in short supply, while also incurring tremendous financial and labor costs and additional stress to farmers. With that said, a large number of agricultural practices may also holistically prevent, cope with, or mitigate droughts. For example, reduced soil management practices are low in operating costs and prevent surface run-off, while simultaneously maintaining a soil structure that facilitates increased water holding capacity. Market futures might also stabilize farm income and therefore allow for future planning such as the purchase of irrigation equipment.

A workshop we held with experts from the Austrian agricultural sector further highlighted this gap. Thinking (not even yet acting) beyond the personal field of action was rare. The results of a survey we conducted showed that farmers were experiencing feelings of helplessness regarding their ability to manage the negative effects of droughts and other climatic extremes despite the implementation of a broad range of management solutions. One way to explain this could be a lack of cooperation across different management levels, meaning that existing efforts – although elaborate and well-proven – potentially reach their limit of effectiveness sooner rather than later.

Due to the more complex effects of any indirect/holistic drought management measure, we need tailored policies that take potential interdependencies and trade-offs into account. With evidence from the FARM project, my colleagues and I would like to emphasize an integrated risk management approach, not only at farm level but also in all relevant agencies of the agricultural sector in an economy. This will help to secure future production and minimize the need for additional public financial resources. Our findings not only contribute to ongoing high-level discussions, but also underpin the resulting claim for more holistic (drought) risk management with bottom-up data from our stakeholder work.

Note: 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.