By Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer (and cyclist)
In May over 50 IIASA staff members took part in the Austrian Bike to Work month (Osterreich Radelt zur Arbeit), logging 11,681 kilometers riding to and from the institute in Laxenburg. The institute took fifth place in Austria in terms of kilometers ridden, and first place in Lower Austria.
According to the Austrian initiative’s calculations, this effort translated into saving over 1900 kg of CO2 emissions, or on average 36 kg per person—which is approximately 4% of an average Austrian’s monthly CO2 emissions. However, this calculation assumed that each of the IIASA cyclists would have been otherwise driving alone in a car. Since many people ride the bus or take public transport if they’re not biking, the actual emission savings from our cycling efforts in May were in fact much less. In fact, since buses and trains run anyway, cycling to work may make no impact whatsoever on emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Does that mean it’s not worth it to make the effort?
IIASA researcher Jens Borken has analyzed the impacts that our daily travel has on the individual climate footprint. Personal mobility—all kinds of travel—make up about one third of the average European’s annual greenhouse gas emissions: the rest come from consumption choices and household heating and energy use. Of the carbon footprint from mobility, he says, commuting generally only makes up 10-15% of that. The largest part of the mobility budget is related to shorter and longer distance leisure travel, and in particular from air travel.
“From a quantitative perspective, the climate benefit of riding your bike is small, but it can be one step on a path to a low-carbon lifestyle.” says Borken. “As researchers who work on climate change, riding a bike to work (and possibly further) brings one piece of our lives in line with the message that avoiding fossil fuel consumption is imperative. I think that that is valuable. But it need not stop there. Travel choices are important, especially for longer distances, but so are consumption choices and energy usage and efficiency.”
Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre and IIASA, recently won a grant from the European Research Council to explore the role that social influence plays in spreading climate innovations. He says, “As social animals we are strongly influenced by what others do; as psychological beings we strive for consistency. Changing a behavior – like cycling to work – may have a small impact in isolation. But this impact is magnified through positive spillover effects. Others may imitate or be inspired by our commitment to cycling. And this change in behavior may also strengthen the pro-environmental aspects of our own self-identity, reducing dissonance between our work and domestic lives, and supporting further changes in behavior.”
Of course there are benefits of cycling beyond the environmental or climate impact, which is one reason that once they start, many people keep it up. Cycling regularly can save money compared to commuting by car or public transport, and like any regular form of exercise, it can bring health benefits and stress relief. It also brings autonomy and flexibility compared to public transport.
Borken points to research showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the exposure to air pollutants that a cyclist might experience on busy city streets—and that automobile drivers are exposed to even higher levels of air pollution within their cars. Cyclists who ride to IIASA, located about 15km outside Vienna, probably have even lower exposure to air pollution riding along tree-lined bike paths.
“Riding to work in the morning wakes me up and prepares me for the day ahead. Even if windy and challenging, the return in the evening calms the mind while riding with colleagues at a pace that allows us to chat at the end of a busy workday. It’s truly one of the best ways to get exercise and stay healthy – good for the heart, good for the environment and, most importantly, good for the soul,” says Michaela Rossini, manager of the IIASA library and a co-organizer of Bike to Work Month at the institute.
By Carlijn Hendriks, Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) & IIASA Peccei award winner
Last summer, I participated in IIASA’s Young Scientist Summer Program, working with the Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases and Ecosystems Services and Management programs. My research focused on what impacts the EU climate and air quality policy could have on ground level ozone around the middle of this century. While clean air policies should help reduce the pollution that can lead to ozone formation, we found that that climate change and energy policies will still increase ozone concentrations and damage by mid-century, unless stricter air pollution measures are implemented.
Ozone at ground level is an air pollutant, causing health and ecosystem problems. It is also an important component of summer smog. Ozone is not emitted into the atmosphere directly, but is produced when volatile organic carbons are oxidized in the presence of nitrogen oxides and light. Nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere mainly as a result of combustion processes (like car engines and industry), while non-methane volatile organic carbons (NMVOCs) come in large part from vegetation, especially broad-leaf trees and some fast-growing crops.
Part of the EU energy policy is to stimulate the use of sustainable biomass as an energy source. This could lead to expansion of commercial bioenergy crop production in plantations and an increasing use of forests. While this may help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will also increase NMVOC emissions. At the same time, EU air quality policies aim to reduce emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and man-made NMVOC. Because some steps in the ground level ozone formation process are driven by absorption of light and/or proceed faster with higher temperatures, climate change could lead to higher ground level ozone concentrations in the future.
The separate effects of these three trends on ground level ozone have been studied before, but the question remains: what will be the combined impact of a) an increase of bioenergy plantations, b) EU’s air quality policy and c) climate change on health and ecosystem damage from ground level ozone? And which of the trends is the most important? To answer these questions, I used three models to study two energy and air quality scenarios for Europe under current and possible future climate conditions.
Two energy scenarios calculated by the Price-Induced Market Equilibrium System (PRIMES) model form the basis of this work. We used a reference scenario and one in which Europe reaches 80% CO2 emission reduction in 2050. These energy scenarios were used as a basis to calculate air pollutant emissions with IIASA’s Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model. Then we put the same scenarios into IIASA’s Global Biosphere Model GLOBIOM to obtain the change in land cover because of increasing bioenergy demand. I combined these datasets in chemistry transport model LOTOS-EUROS (the model of choice at my home institute, TNO) to calculate the impact on ground level ozone concentrations across Europe. To simulate ‘future climate’ we used the year 2003, in which Europe had a very warm summer, with temperatures 2-5 °C higher than normal.
Difference in average ozone concentration (in µg/m3) between the current situation and the 80% CO2 reduction scenario in 2050 under future climate change conditions for the period April-September. Negative numbers mean a decrease in ozone levels.
We found that especially for the CO2-reduction scenario, the increase in bioenergy production could cause a slight increase in ozone damage. However, the impact of reduced emissions because of more stringent air quality policies far outweighs this effect, leading to a net reduction of ozone damage. The third effect, more efficient ozone formation in a warming climate, is so strong that in 2050 ozone damage to human health could be worse than today, especially for northwestern Europe. Stringent air quality policies close to a maximum feasible reduction scenario would be needed to make sure that health and ecosystem damage towards the middle of the century is smaller than it is today.
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.
By Jens Borken-Kleefeld, IIASA Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases Program
Earlier this week, Volkswagen admitted fraudulent software causing high exhaust emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from several of its diesel car models during normal driving. That diesel cars emit many times more NOx in normal driving than their legal limit has been known for more than a decade in Europe. The surprise to me is that the enforcement of these legal limits is pursued now from the USA and not from a European authority, and that – in the face of a public outcry – the automaker admitted the same software was not only in US models.
Following this announcement, I took a second look into the on-road emission data from Europe and compared it with data collected by colleagues in the USA. We find that VW diesel cars in Europe emit as much NOx as the incriminated models in the USA, as shown in the chart for VW Golf, Jetta and Passat models model years 2009 to 2013.
On-road data US: Peter McClintock, remote sensing campaign by Envirotest Inc. for Colorado (2013). On-road data Europe: Jens Borken-Kleefeld, analyzing remote sensing campaigns by AWEL Zurich (2009-2013). Each filtered for normal driving conditions.
We measured significant differences between manufacturers, yet on the whole the gap between officially certified and real-driving NOx emissions from diesel cars in Europe has been growing. The few models with low emissions are by far outnumbered by cars with high NOx emissions. Yet, VW’s emission levels are not even the worst in class.
What’s your role at Princeton? I have a joint appointment with two institutions within the university, and one of my roles is to improve the communication between these: I am a visiting professor at the relatively young Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment (ACEE), and a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (WWS). The ACEE is part of the engineering school, so there I mostly interact with engineers, while the WWS mostly hosts economics, lawyers, and political scientists. At WWS I am part of the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) Program.
What’s a typical day for you at Princeton? Over the year I am teaching a fair amount, more than the average Princeton faculty. That is, I am not doing a sabbatical in the usual sense of the word. I am basically constantly preparing lectures for courses I am teaching on energy technologies, the energy and water nexus, and energy policy. I am also supervising undergraduate and graduate students on their theses. During the semester there are more seminars, brown bag lunches and breakfasts than one can realistically attend.
How does your work at the university differ from your work at IIASA? Here the projects I am involved in do not have strict deadlines: The next deadline is always the next lecture. The exceptions are the days by which grades need to be submitted. As a professor I advise students, but they go away and do their research themselves. It is fascinating to see how smart they are and how quickly they absorb ideas and can apply them. Oh, and I have no supervisor who guides what I do.
What do you miss about IIASA? I miss the team spirit of the MAG group, and the more international outlook on issues. What I do not miss is the long commute from Vienna to Laxenburg—here I live on campus and can walk to either one of my offices in three minutes.
Princeton University campus. Credit: Princeton University
What are you doing at a university that you would not normally do at IIASA? I attend a lot more seminars, and in general – because the work here is less funding-driven – there is a great deal of room for intellectual curiosity. I also work with corporate partners of the university. While at Princeton, I’m working with a local energy utility on a project to model the future electricity system and electricity market in New Jersey and neighboring states to support the further development of their Energy Master Plan.
Here I have a lot of freedom in deciding what projects to engage in and how to spend my time. In my experience Princeton is very open to cross-cutting activities. IIASA is small, so the number of approaches, methods and modes of thinking are limited. On the other hand, much of the work at Princeton is not so holistic and integrated as IIASA’s work, and some activities here lack a critical mass and long-term engagement.
When you come back to IIASA, what would you want to bring with you from your experience at Princeton? The courses that I teach here are more on the turf of IIASA’s energy and water programs, so I hope to be able to interact with them more in the future. Also, in addition to the specific things I am learning I also hope to bring back some inspiration to IIASA colleagues to think about the value of changing perspectives from time to time, and about the space of possible career moves.
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.
Within the next few decades, the world will need to increase food production to support a growing population also striving for higher shares of animal protein in their nutrition. But food production always affects the environment: Nitrogen runoff from fertilizer has led to major pollution of waterways around the world, while deforestation to extend cropping areas and methane emissions from livestock increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, adding to the problem of climate change. In order to increase food production, without further increasing nitrogen pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural systems will need to innovate.
In a recent study, IIASA researcher Wilfried Winiwarter explored the range of solutions for future agriculture, researching current literature for ideas and innovations, and examining their feasibility and potential.
“I call this a science fiction paper,” says Winiwarter. “It’s not about what exists and can be implemented immediately, but about the possible innovations that could conceivably be developed in the long-term.”
The study focused on innovations ranging from seemingly simple behavioral changes to radical technological fixes as discussed in more detail below. It reviewed existing scientific literature, mostly peer-reviewed, including design studies that quantified potential environmental effects of such innovations.
Precision Farming Precision farming refers to technological solutions to improve yields and reduce waste in farming. On the one hand, precision farming can refer to the mechanization of agriculture that may not be environmentally benign, but on the other side, to optimized processes that reduce losses and impacts on the environment.
“Much is already happening,” says Winiwarter. For example, milk production in Europe now occurs mainly in large sheds, with indoor cows, not with free-ranging cows in idyllic meadows. While this industrial approach to agriculture makes food cheaper and more abundant, it also raises questions about animal welfare, and the massive scale of such operations can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Precision farming can also be used to reduce the amounts of fertilizers or irrigation used, for example, using soil sensors or other high-tech infrastructure to detect exactly what is needed and apply no more than necessary.
Genetic Modification Genetic modification (GM) of crops allows scientists to equip organisms with certain traits in a much more directed way than traditional breeding. It presents the potential to increase yields, provide drought or pest resistance, or introduce additional nutrients to foods that lack them. GM is already widely used in some crops (mostly to increase pesticide resistance and thus also pesticide application), but in Europe the subject is controversial and GM foods are viewed negatively
Winiwarter notes that the side effects of genetic modification are in general not well understood, and thus possible impacts are quite unpredictable.
Urban Gardening The study looked into the growing popularity of urban gardening, the “green” trend to grow food in individual gardens inside cities. While urban gardening is generally considered environmentally benign due to small-scale, low transport needs and high personal motivation, Winiwarter notes that it doesn’t have the potential to produce staple food required to feed large populations. One key background study calculated that urban gardens had the potential to produce 10% or less of the food needed in a given city.
“You need space to produce food,” says Winiwarter.
Vertical Farming As people move to cities and land becomes scarcer, one logical concept is to construct skyscraper “farms” with multiple levels of vegetables growing in hydroponic or aeroponic tanks – like giant, multistory greenhouses. “Compared to an open field, you could produce 200 times as much food on the same space,” explains Winiwarter. “In a city like Vienna, you could conceivably produce all the food for the city within city limits.”
Another advantage of vertical farming is that it could be organized to avoid waste: whereas fertilizer in a field runs off or percolates through the soil into the water table, a vertical farm would employ nutrient solutions that could be contained and recycled.
However, the sunlight needed for photosynthesis could not so easily be multiplied. Instead, the process would require artificial light, which means enormous amounts of energy – even if efficient LED lighting could be employed. “The question is where you would get that energy,” he says.
Cultured meat can now be grown in laboratories – but will it ever make sense on a large scale?
Cultured Meat Another radical idea for food production is to take meat production off the farm, and instead culture animal cells in petri dishes to grow artificial meat in a laboratory in a nutrient solution. Indeed, the first hamburger from cultured meat was produced in 2013. But Winiwarter notes that meat from the laboratory may not be less resource-intensive than the real thing, since it would need energy, heat, light, and nutrients, which all would make the process extremely expensive, even under ideal conditions. He says, “Upscaling such a process may come with a number of negative surprises – from sanitary issues to pollution as a side-effect of tackling potential health threats. Little is known on the potential environmental effects in a life cycle.”
Dietary Changes “In general, meat has a higher environmental footprint than a vegetarian diet,” says Winiwarter. “It takes more area to produce feedstock for an animal than it would to produce vegetarian food for humans.”
Europe in particular has a high level of meat consumption, Winiwarter explains, so cutting meat consumption in the region has a large potential. In much of the highly populated areas of Asia, people consume a mostly vegetarian diet. As these countries become richer, increased consumption of meat and milk production is observed when people tend to copy European lifestyle. If Europeans were able to cut down on meat consumption and treat themselves with a more healthy diet, positive environmental effects may even spread to world regions where European food patterns may serve as an example.
Agriculture, like a high-tech industry, will continue to develop dynamically in the future. Many paths of development can be imagined, and have been described in scientific or other literature. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ to resolve the environmental damage of agriculture”, Winiwarter says. Instead, future innovations will need to be carefully monitored and evaluated for potential environmental effects, in order to minimize damage of nitrogen pollution and maintain livelihood on earth.