Roads, landslides, and rethinking development

By Prakash Khadka, IIASA Guest Research Assistant and Wei Liu, Guest Research Scholar in the IIASA Equity and Justice Research Group

Prakash Khadka and Wei Liu explain how unbridled, unplanned infrastructure expansion in Nepal is increasing the risk of landslides.

Worldwide, mountains cover a quarter of total land area and are home to 12% of the world’s population, most of whom live in developing countries. Overpopulation and the unsustainable use of these fragile landscapes often result in a vicious cycle of natural disaster and poverty. Protecting, restoring, and sustainably using mountain landscapes is an important component of Sustainable Development Goal 15  ̶  Life on Land  ̶  and the key is to strike a balance between development and disaster risk management.

Nepal is among the world’s most mountainous countries and faces the daunting challenge of landslides and flood risk.  Landslide events and fatalities have been increasing dramatically in the country due to a complex combination of earthquakes, climate change, and land use, especially the construction of informal roads that destabilize slopes during the monsoon.

According to Nepal government data, 476 incidents of landslides and 293 fatalities were recorded during the 2020 monsoon season – the highest number in the last ten years, mostly triggered by high-intensity rainfall – a trend which is increasing due to climate variations. According to one study, by mid-July 2020, the number of fatal landslides for the year had already exceeded the average annual total for 2004–2019.

Figure 1: A map of landslide events in Nepal from June to September 2020. Source: bipadportal.gov.np

Landslides are not a new phenomenon in the country where hills and mountains cover nearly 83% of the total land area. While being destructive, landslides are complex natural processes of land development. The Gangetic plain, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, was formed by the great Himalayan river system to which soil is continually added by landslides and deposited at the base by rivers.  Mountain land changes via natural geo-tectonic and ecological processes has been happening for millions of years, but fast population growth and climate change in recent decades substantially altered the fate of these mountain landscapes. Road expansion, often in the name of development, plays a key role.

Many mountain areas in Nepal are physically and economically marginalized and efforts to improve access are common. Poverty, food insecurity, and social inequity are severe, and many rural laborers opt to migrate for better economic opportunities. This motivates road network expansion. Since the turn of the century, Nepalese road networks has almost quadrupled to the current level of ~50 km per 100 km2, among which rural roads (fair-weather roads) increased more than blacktop and gravel roads.

Figure 2: Mountains carved just above Jay Prithvi Highway in Bajhang district of Sudurpaschim province to build a road

Nepalese mountain roads are treacherous and subject to accidents and landslides. Rural roads, which are often called “dozer roads”, are constructed by bulldozer owners in collaboration with politicians at the request of communities (also as part of the election manifesto in which politicians promised road access in exchange for votes and support to win), often without proper technical guidance, surveying, drainage, or structural protection measures. In addition, mountains are sometimes damaged by heavy earthmovers (so-called “bulldozer terrorism”) that cut out roads that lead from nowhere to nowhere, or where no roads are needed, at the expense of economic and environmental degradation. Such rapid and ineffective road expansion happens throughout the country, particularly in the middle hills where roads are known to be the major manmade driver of landslides.

To tackle these complexities, we need to rethink how we approach development in light of climate change. This has to be done with sufficient investigation into our past actions. The Nepalese Community forestry management program, which emerged as one of the big success stories in the world, encompasses well defined policies, institutions, and practices. The program is hailed as a sustainable development success with almost one-third of the country’s forests (1.6 million hectares) currently managed by community forest user groups representing over a third of the country’s households. Another successful example is the innovation of ropeways and its introduction in the Bhattedanda region South of Kathmandu. The ropeways were instrumental in transforming farmers’ lives and livelihoods by connecting them with markets. Locals quickly mastered the operation and management of the ropeway technology, which was a lifesaver following the 2002 rainfall that washed away the road that had made the ropeway redundant until then.

These two examples show that it is possible to generate ecological livelihoods for several households in Nepal without adversely affecting land use and land cover, which in turn contributes to increased landslide risk in the country, as mentioned above.

A rugged landscape is the greatest hindrance to the remote communities in a mountainous country like Nepal. It cannot be denied that the country needs roads that serve as the main arteries for development, while local innovations like ropeways can well complement the roads with great benefits, by linking remote mountain villages to the markets to foster economic activities and reduce poverty. Such a hybrid transportation model is more sustainable economically as well as environmentally.

It is a pity that despite strong evidence of the cost-effectiveness of alternative local solutions, Nepal’s development is still mainly driven by “dozer constructed roads”.  Mountain lives and livelihoods will remain at risk of landslides until development tools become more diverse and compatible.

References:

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.

Exploring co-benefits of green cooling in China

By Xu Wang, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus and Assistant Professor at Beijing University of Technology and Pallav Purohit, researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

Xu Wang and Pallav Purohit write about their recent study in which they found that accelerating the transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient air conditioning in the Chinese residential building sector could expedite building a low-carbon society in China.

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China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000 and reaching nearly 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption in 2017. This growth was largely driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort. As a result, space cooling accounted for more than 10% of total electricity growth in China since 2010 and around 16% of peak electricity load in 2017. That share can reach as much as 50% of peak electricity demand on extremely hot days, as seen in recent summers. Cooling-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity consumption consequently increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, given the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China [1].

In our recent publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we used a bottom-up modeling approach to predict the penetration rate of room air conditioners in the residential building sector of China at the provincial level, taking urban-rural heterogeneity into account. Our results reveal that increasing income, growing demand for thermal comfort, and warmer climatic conditions, could drive an increase in the stock of room air conditioners in China from 568 million units in 2015 to 997 million units in 2030, and 1.1 billion units in 2050. In urban China, room air conditioner ownership per 100 households is expected to increase from 114 units in 2015 to 219 units in 2030, and 225 units in 2050, with slow growth after 2040 due to the saturation of room air conditioners in the country’s urban households. Ownership of room air conditioners per 100 households in rural China could increase from 48 units in 2015 to 147 units in 2030 and 208 units in 2050 [2].

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer will help protect the climate by phasing down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants in cooling technologies [3]. Promoting energy efficiency of cooling technologies together with HFC phase-down under the amendment can significantly increase those climate co-benefits. It is in this context that we assessed the co-benefits associated with enhanced energy efficiency improvement of room air conditioners (e.g., using efficient compressors, heat exchangers, valves, etc.) and the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in air conditioning systems. The annual electricity saving from switching to more efficient room air conditioners using low-GWP refrigerants is estimated at almost 1000 TWh in 2050 when taking account of the full technical energy efficiency potential. This is equivalent to approximately 4% of the expected total energy consumption in the Chinese building sector in 2050, or the avoidance of 284 new coal-fired power plants of 500 MW each.

Our results indicate that the cumulative greenhouse gas mitigation associated with both the electricity savings and the substitution of high-GWP refrigerants makes up 2.6% of total business-as-usual CO2 equivalent emissions in China over the period 2020 to 2050. Therefore, the transition towards the uptake of low-GWP refrigerants is as vital as the energy efficiency improvement of new room air conditioners, which can help and accelerate the ultimate objective of building a low-carbon society in China. The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 8.8% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 9.4% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 2050 compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.

China can deliver significant energy savings and associated reductions in greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the building sector by developing and implementing a comprehensive national policy framework, including legislation and regulation, information programs, and incentives for industry. Energy efficiency and refrigerant standards for room air conditioning systems should be an integral part of such a framework. Training and awareness raising can also ensure proper installation, operation, and maintenance of air conditioning equipment and systems, and mandatory good practice with leakage control of the refrigerant during the use and end-of-life recovery. Improved data collection, research, and cooperation with manufacturers can equally help to identify emerging trends, technology needs, and energy efficiency opportunities that enable sustainable cooling.

References:

[1] IEA (2019). The Future of Cooling in China: Delivering on Action Plans for Sustainable Air Conditioning, International Energy agency (IEA), Paris.

[2] Wang X, Purohit P, Höglund Isaksson L, Zhang S, Fang H (2020). Co-benefits of energy-efficient air conditioners in the residential building sector of China, Environmental Science & Technology, 54 (20): 13217–13227 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16823]

[3] Purohit P, Höglund-Isaksson L, Dulac J, Shah N, Wei M, Rafaj P, Schöpp W (2020). Electricity savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions from global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 20 (19): 11305-11327 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16768]

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 (IIASA).

How to advance climate policies towards a low-carbon economy

By Shorouk Elkobros, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Assessing energy-related choices and the behaviors of households can help us transition to a low-carbon economy. How can research provide more effective decision-making tools to policymakers for better climate change mitigation policies?

We live at a defining moment for climate change, where today’s actions affect tomorrow’s reality. Every little climate-friendly decision counts. Whether we decide to insulate our houses, put solar panels on our rooftops, or invest in energy-efficient appliances. However, our personal and energy-related decisions vary based on our awareness, age, education, income, energy provider services, social norms, culture, and many other factors. Researchers are starting to pay attention to how this diversity is not well represented in the economic models that politicians use to plan climate change policies.

@ VectorMine | Dreamstime.com

Designing policies inspired by people

Households contribute an average of 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting global emissions requires holistic policy approaches that take households’ behaviors and lifestyle decisions into account. Adding such a dimension can potentially upscale low carbon behavioral and social changes to national and global levels, which is fundamental to tackling climate change.

Worried about the future of the planet and motivated to support policymakers in designing better climate change mitigation policies, the authors of a recent study published in the journal Environmental Modeling & Software aspired to build bridges through interdisciplinary research. The study presented a novel interdisciplinary method that aims to integrate households’ energy behavior and social dynamics in climate-energy-economy models and thus help politicians design policies inspired by people.

“I have always been interested in the science-policy-society aspect of mitigating climate change. Climate change is a collective challenge that we need to address together to come up with better solutions for future generations,” notes study lead author Leila Niamir, a researcher jointly associated with the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Berlin and the IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program.

Better models for a better future

Climate change mitigation policies play a pivotal role in achieving ambitious environmental targets like the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To be able to formulate appropriate mitigation policies, decision makers need assessment tools to measure complex systems quantitatively. In the past decade, a variety of assessment tools have emerged, which have since been predominantly used to support climate change policy debates. In the study, Niamir argues that current assessment models are missing bottom-up and grassroots dynamics, they cannot project realistic variables of what households’ lifestyles and social movement are, and they therefore may not be sufficient to provide reliable information for policymakers.

There is a gap between what policymakers’ current assessment tools can offer and what social scientists and behavioral economists highlight as pro-environmental behavior and climate change mitigation movements. By adding this complex behavior and social perspective to the models, the researchers make it easier for policymakers to design future policies to accommodate different societal behaviors and lifestyles.

Niamir and her team presented a novel method for systematically upscaling grassroots dynamics by linking the best of both “top-down” macroeconomic computable general equilibrium (CGE) models and “bottom-up” empirical agent-based models (ABM). Their approach demonstrates that with computational ABM directly linked to survey data and macroeconomic CGE models, individual behavioral diversity and social influences can be considered when designing implementable and politically feasible policy options.

“We need better assessment tools to quantitatively explore the complex climate-energy-economy system, and reveal the potential of demand-side mitigation strategies. To see substantial changes, we need a mix of external interventions, from soft information policies aimed at raising awareness bottom-up, to financial incentives altering the macro landscape of energy markets and technological transitions. Only modular and integrated models can help policymakers quantitatively explore this complex system and plan for changes in the coming decades,” says Niamir.

Towards a low-carbon economy

We cannot tackle what we do not know. Pathways to a low-carbon economy future entail diminishing the growing discrepancy between mitigation policies and individual and collective behaviors. When redesigning our socio-environmental systems to mitigate climate change, we need to start looking at people as case studies rather than numbers. To transition to a low-carbon economy and accelerate decarbonization, policymakers must adopt novel models that integrate energy consumption, individual behavior, heterogeneity, and social influence into current assessment tools.

In 2019, IIASA and the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE), Japan co-organized an international workshop towards improved understanding, concepts, policies, and models of energy demand, where Niamir presented her research and received the young scientist award to continue and extend her research.

“Mitigating climate change indeed requires a massive effort from individual and social movements to advance national and international collaboration. Each individual small step towards shrinking our carbon footprint creates cascading changes in social behavior and consequently mitigates climate change,” Niamir concludes.

Reference:

Niamir L, Ivanova O, & Filatova T (2020). Economy-wide impacts of behavioral climate change mitigation: linking agent-based and computable general equilibrium models. Environmental Modelling & Software 134: e104839. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16671]

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Modeling ancient history to inform the future

By Marcus Thomson, IIASA alumnus and a researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), the University of California, Santa Barbara

IIASA alumnus Marcus Thomson explains how what we have learnt about prehistoric farming cultures can be used to provide useful insights on human societal responses to climate change.

The climate of the western half of the North American continent, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastal region, is dry by European standards. The American Southwest, in particular, centered roughly on the intersection of the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, is predominantly desert between high mountain plateaus. It is, and has always been, a challenging environment for farmers. Yet the prehistoric Southwest was home to complex maize-based agricultural societies. In fact, until the 19th century growth of industrial cities like New York, the Southwest contained ruins of the largest buildings north of Mexico — and these had been abandoned centuries before the Spanish arrived in the Americas.

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For more than a century, researchers have pored over data, from proxies of paleo-environmental change, to historiographies collected by explorers, to archaeology and computational models of human occupation, and produced a detailed picture of the socio-environmental, economic, and climatic conditions that could explain why these sites were abandoned. While details vary in fine-grained analyses of the various sub-groupings of peoples in the region, the big picture is one of societal transformation in adapting to climate change.

Also important is just how the climate changed during the period, because similar dynamics are expected to emerge in the future as a consequence of global warming. European historians point to a medieval era with generally warmer mean annual temperatures. In the Southwestern United States however, which is more sensitive to changes in drought than temperature, the period between roughly AD 850 to 1350 is known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA). The warm, dry MCA was followed by a long stretch of increased changes in the availability of water, known as the Little Ice Age (LIA). More frequent “warm droughts” at the end of the MCA, and generally increasing changes in water resources at the onset of the LIA, is thought to be a good analogy for future conditions in western North America.

When I had the good fortune to visit IIASA as a participant of the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in 2016, I worked with research scholars Juraj Balkovič and Tamás Krisztin to develop a model of ancient Fremont Native American maize. The Fremont were an ancient forager-farmer people who lived in the vicinity of modern Utah. We used a climate model reconstruction of the temperature and rainfall between AD 850 and 1450 to drive this maize crop model, and compared modeled crop yields against changes in radiocarbon-derived occupations – in other words, the information gathered from carbon dated artifacts that show that an area was occupied by a particular people – from a few archaeological areas in Utah.

© Galyna Andrushko | Dreamstime.com

Among our findings was that changes in local temperatures appeared to play a larger role in the lives, practices and habits of the people who lived there than changes in regional, long-term temperature conditions [1]. Later, while a researcher at IIASA myself, I returned to the subject with one of our coauthors, professor Glen MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles, using an expanded geographic range and a more sophisticated treatment of radiocarbon dated occupation likelihoods.

We used the climate model to reconstruct prehistoric maize growing season lengths and mean annual rainfall for Fremont sites. We found that the most populous and resilient Fremont communities were at sites with low-variability season lengths; and low populations coincided with, or followed, periods of variable season lengths. This study confirmed the important dependence on climate variability; and more importantly, our results are in line with others on modern smallholder farming contexts.

More details on our latest study [2] have just been published online in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). It will become part of an ERL special issue looking at societal resilience drawing lessons from the past 5000 years. Studies like these can give useful insights on human societal responses to climate change because these ancient civilizations are, in a sense, completed experiments with complex human-environmental systems. For decision makers, who must plan early to commit resources to offset the effects of future climate change on smallholder farmers in similarly drought-sensitive, marginally productive environments, these studies indicate that year-to-year climatic variability drives occupation change more than long-term temperature change.

References:

[1] Thomson MJ, Balkovič J, Krisztin T, & MacDonald GM (2019). Simulated impact of paleoclimate change on Fremont Native American maize farming in Utah, 850–1449 CE, using crop and climate models. Quaternary International, 507, pp.95-107 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15472]

[2] Thomson MJ, & MacDonald GM (In press). Climate and growing season variability impacted the intensity and distribution of Fremont maize farmers during and after the Medieval Climate Anomaly based on a statistically downscaled climate model. Environmental Research Letters.

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.

How COVID-19 complicates the journey for climate migrants

By Lisa Thalheimer, 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant in the Risk and Resilience and World Population Programs

Lisa Thalheimer shares her journey in researching climate-related migration in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of taking mental health issues into account in climate science and the policy realm.

© Raul Mellado Ortiz | Dreamstime.com

COVID-19 has changed our idea of normal. These unprecedented, stressful times affect us all – some of us more than others. Fear and anxiety over a new disease without any promise of a vaccine anytime soon, global economic downturn, along with feelings of loneliness and emotional exhaustion due to the lockdown, can leave us mentally exhausted. Rates of depression and addiction-related suicide are in fact already on the rise among young people like myself.

Now imagine you are advised to stay at home, but you cannot do so because climate change has turned your entire life upside down: your house is no longer there, you have lost your job, your family or friends – you are likely to feel unhinged. This is a reality for many migrants across the globe. It is inevitable that existing migration patterns will be shifted beyond disasters alone. Cascading impacts form the still unfolding pandemic could compound. No matter if you are a migrant yourself or not, agency and the choice over the decision whether to leave your house or not, and the luxury to socially distance could potentially not be an option with a systemic shock like COVID-19.

These changes in circumstances have also affected me as a young scientist. I would have been in Laxenburg, getting to know my YSSP peers and IIASA colleagues, but this year’s journey has been rewritten – courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was living in Oxford in the UK when I came to realise that mental health is a game changer in the way I manage my day, make decisions, my ability to care for my partner who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and making progress on my PhD thesis. Everything felt more difficult. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to understand why this is the case. My interest soon evolved into researching the links between mental health and my PhD topic of climate-related migration.

For the article “The hidden burden of pandemics, climate change and migration on mental health”, I teamed up with an epidemiologist who specialises in mental health at my old university home, the Earth Institute in New York City. This research experience was an eye-opener, both personally and scientifically.

In our article, we focused on the US, as it has been hit hardest by COVID-19 – in mid-August, the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded five million. On top of this, depression and anxiety are already prominent among Americans, as is costly impacts from disasters. Hurricanes cost the US around US$ 17 billion every year, but estimates show a higher probability of extremely damaging hurricane seasons with climate change. We may know the impact of climate change on assets and on physical health, but what about mental health impacts?

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Although my coauthor and I come from different scientific disciplines, I soon came to realize that our scientific approach has a common denominator: systems thinking. Accounting for interconnections and cascading effects, our article shed light on different systems affected by COVID-19 and situations where mental health issues are likely to become increasingly prevalent in a changing climate. The article focuses on already vulnerable parts of the population, for example those who have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Harvey – the latter of which has been made worse by climate change. The article illustrates how COVID-19 becomes a risk multiplier for climate migrants in three distinct case studies: key workers in New York as urban setting, seasonal migration dynamics, and disproportionate effects on black and Latino communities. Unrelenting effects include loss of employment, and a lower likelihood of being able to work from home or to have health insurance than white people.

A better understanding of the mental health-migration-climate change nexus can help absorb adverse mental health outcomes from COVID-19, which would otherwise compound. We however need to tackle systemic risks affecting mental health through synergies in research and policy, and an integrated intervention approach. Free mental health support for key workers through tele-therapy and mental health hotlines provide a practical way forward. Personally, I learned that climate migrants have been relentlessly resilient to systemic shocks. Nevertheless, with mental health issues, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain such resilience. With this commentary, I hope that mental health and interdisciplinary research finds its way in climate science and in the policy realm. We all need a clear mind to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.

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.