computing energy water

Big data habits

Dr Ben Anderson is Principal Research Fellow in the Energy & Climate Change Division of the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton, UK . We ask what big data can tell us about habitual energy and water consumption.

Living beyond our means. We are currently living outside of our day-to-day means as a global population, because we are digging up the past and burning it. So I would define sustainability as living within our day-to-day energy means such that we can continue to continue living on the planet.

Ask yourself how can New Zealand be a shining light in terms of research, innovation and building capacity in a future way of living?

Try to burn less, try to consume less, have a think about what you are doing and when you are doing it.

engineering geography water

Proactive natural engineering

Paul Quinn

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

Dr Paul Quinn is a Senior Lecturer in Catchment Hydrology at Newcastle University. His work focusses on the future of landscape. The long term goal is integrated catchment management bodies capable of solving pollution and flooding problems. Paul calls his research “Proactive” – as in getting stuff done. And he has been proactive in creating systems of natural engineering in flood prone areas such as Belford.

Talking points

We’re pressurising systems – taking climate change as read, we’re moving into hotter, more drought, more floods, more landslides – we have to get the food for everyone on the earth, enough water for everyone on earth, and everybody needs a safe place to live.

We’ve spent a 1000 years getting rid of all the trees, now in the last 200 years we’ve been trying to exploit all our soil for food. I’m a big fan of food, but it has really changed our hydrological balance – our soil is not really soil any more, it’s just the place where we grow our food. When water hits the soil it mostly tends to run quite quickly off the surface -it doesn’t interact with the soil so much, we don’t get the recharge,

The fact that we’ve really changed our system everywhere…changing the whole world into a food factory. And it has these spin-off side effects that we get more floods and more droughts.

As one of my colleagues said, if you kill your soil you kill the world. And people haven’t realised how much we’ve changed the soil…and the rest of the world we cover with concrete.

If we look at nature it gives us some indication of how the world should be functioning, and the world system now is out of balance.

We’ve been compressing the soil for 200 years, it has no porosity any more, especially in the UK with so much clay, we’ve got a big block of plasticine. There’s no structure to the soil, the rain can’t get in, and kills all the worms and biology. So we cultivate and irrigate the top layer, but it doesn’t take long to overwhelm that.

It’s still a green and pleasant land…I’m a big fan of farming…but people haven’t noticed this big change in the water balance: both droughts and floods.

People always talk about this wall of water – so we work to slow down the water before it gets there.

Take all the opportunities that you can.

We can’t build the walls higher and higher.

The best place to store water is always in the aquifer

The old understanding that the water should be in balance with the soil, and the soil with the ecosystem – there’s some very basic natural concepts – and you break these rules at your jeopardy.

We need to chose what we want our landscape to look like and what we want it to supply to us. It has to provide us with clean water, it has to supply us with all our food, and it has to supply us with a safe place to live. So we’ve been looking at how much of the land do we have to give back to nature.

If we can use the main flow pathways that the water is following, then we can create corridors of green, where we can store water, we can strip out the sediment, we can accumulate carbon, we can let all the bugs come back…this corridor of green that will bring the whole catchment back into balance. We can mitigate for the farming, by getting the farmers to give back some land, and that land is best in the riparian area…maybe 5% of the land. Not abandoning to nature, but managing it to get all those things that we need – clean the flow, slow the flow, recharge the aquifer and create a healthy place for pollinators, birds and fish. In a way, to engineer the system back into balance.

It’s very different from the hydrophobic approach to water and land management – of paying to get rid of water then paying to put it back with irrigation.

(Is this the future of British landscape?) We’ve got to do something, we can’t just keeping pouring concrete around our towns, a bit of protection is good, but eventually it will be over-topped. We can build walls higher, but we can’t keep building them higher.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

We don want to make it clear that if we are going to build something then it’s got to work – it has to be engineered. So we have guidelines, you need to know hydraulics, you need to know how to build something that will last – it might be natural engineering, but it is still engineering.

The jury is out on cost, there are other options such as lower intense organic approaches to building up the soil, but can that feed everyone? if we are going to stay on the trajectory of sustainable intensification, then we have to increase crop yield and make the landscape safer at the same time.

The key to focus on soil health – not just soil productivity.

(Success?) Doing a whole catchment was pivotal. Not only the success of doing a catchment, but now it’s being taken up all over the country.

(Activist?) I’m passionate. I’m driven more by frustration than love. You see things going wrong and you think “that’s easy to fix” so you go and write proposals, and everyone ignores you for years, and laugh at you for years, and you say to yourself, “no, I’m right here”, so you surround yourself with like-minded people. We call ourselves the Proactive project because we say “let’s just get it done, and we’ll do it till it’s done”. And we’re back-fitting the science, we’re trying to invent something here…and the natural thing is back. I’ve tagged the term engineering on it, because engineering is doing things not just being inspired by it. If we can line up the funds, there’s no reason why we can’t bring whole landscapes back into balance.

(Motivation?) I’m paid quite well for what I do, so I always feel obliged to get some work done. But once I see that something can be solved, why wait for someone else to do it? Flooding is the most miserable thing, and it’s a no-brainer, if everything is running too quick, then slow it down a bit. Because it’s a system, the more good things you put into it, the system becomes more robust.

Stop observing, stop calling yourselves scientists and get stuff done.

(Challenges?) Getting other people to build these things.

(Miracle?) We need to work at much larger area and try this out. Healthy soils, healthy streams…do all this at a really big scale.

(Advice?) When I say go back to nature, don’t go too far, we’re not going back to the wild, but be inspired by nature and let it shape some of your thinking – if it’s too fast or there’s too much of a thing, it’s usually bad. So think about balance. Also, do you know where your local river is, if you’re in a city it’s probably buried or behind a fence. Reconnect with nature: find out where your food comes from, where your water comes from, find out why you were flooded, what the cause of the drought is – get to the kids and train as many people as you can to think that way.

This was conversation was recorded at Newcastle University in September 2015. It was published on World Water Day, 2016.

agriculture ecology water

Intensive agriculture: an industrialised town turned upside down

Mike  Joy

My analogy is saying that you’re going to do something about the road toll, that you’re addressing road safety, and shifting the speed limit from 50 km/h to 690 km/h. And conning the country that this is a fresh start for fresh water. That’s wrong in so many ways, but this is the reality for freshwater management.

He wades in rivers so fish (and you) can swim in them. And he isn’t afraid to talk about who is to blame for what he finds there. Dr Mike Joy is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology in Massey University’s Institute of Agriculture and Environment.

Talking points

Our rivers are special – sadly really special now as we have the highest proportion of freshwater fish species of any country in the world.

More and more of our species are threatened species, yet we have this bizarre situation where they are threatened species but we commercially harvest them and we eat them. Most New Zealanders don’t realise that when you eat your whitebait fritter you’re eating threatened species. It kind of doesn’t fit with the New Zealand way. We get all upset with Japanese whalers and people shooting tigers, but for some reason – may be because we don’t know – we harvest and expert them, we sell our threatened species to other countries.

As indicators, fish integrate the health of the whole river, the whole ecosystem.

There are really clear patterns in relation to land use – intensively farmed areas, lowland rivers…really really bad.

The best habitats are the least available.

Because they are mostly migratory, most of the fish species are found closer to the sea, but that is the area where we have done most of the damage. Most of the conservation estate is unavailable to the fish.

We do have invasive species spreading through. In a pristine NZ river these invasive species wouldn’t do well at all, it is because we have changed our lakes and rivers to be much more like the kind of degraded, eutrophic, highly nutrient enriched habitats that these fish came from – we made it like that.

It’s a death by a 1000 cuts.

A combination of multiple impacts that accumulate down river. That’s the thing with rivers, all of the impacts just pile up – everything that happens on the land, eventually gravity takes it down to the river.

I used to have a chemistry lecturer that said “the solution to pollution is dilution”, but that is such an old dinosaur view of the world. Now that we dominate the planet we can see that dilution isn’t a reality – it doesn’t just go away, it accumulates somewhere. What I tell my students is “the solution to pollution is assimilation”. If the ecosystem can’t assimilate it, then you’ve got to stop putting it in.

Massive costs to engineer solutions to do what the river would have done for you if you hadn’t messed with it in the first place. It costs us so much more to do what nature would have done for us for nothing.

I realised that I was publishing well cited papers…but all I would end up doing is cataloguing the decline. I wasn’t just going to do that.

The only way to change is if public are aware of what is going on.

I use disaster (in the title of 2015 article “NZ Freshwater Disaster”) because if you look at the facts, there’s no way you could call it anything other than a disaster. If you look at the statistics then that’s quite moderate language, probably an understatement.

But at the same time as the public awareness is going up, we haven’t seen any improvement in the decisions that they’re making.

It’s getting worse, and we’ve had a big backdown on the protection as well. You can characterise what’s happening in freshwater as more and more money and more and more effort goes into public relations and communications staff – making things sound good. And hidden underneath all that is the reality that things are getting worse and the protections are being weakened.

People claim improvement (in the state of rivers), but that is wrong. There is no net improvement, there’s a couple of rivers that point-source discharges have come out of – pipes from meat works – improvement there but at the same time a net worsening.

Forget drinking water, most of our rivers you can’t drink, but even swimming – 62% of all of our rivers are unsafe to swim in.

The government response to that has been to shift from a Ministry of Health standard called “contact recreation”, that’s to protect you from getting sick if you get some water in your mouth, that’s 260 coliform units per litre of water. Now, it’s 1000, and they call it “wadeable”…you’re safe if you’re in a boat or have got waders on is the new norm.

They’ve shifted the goalposts to go from a map that’s mostly red to a map that’s mostly green. Shift the baseline…they did the same thing with nitrogen – from a protection of half a milligram of nitrogen per litre, and they’ve shifted it to 6.9mg/l. My analogy is saying that you’re going to do something about the road toll, that you’re addressing road safety, and shifting the speed limit from 50 km/h to 690 km/h. And conning the country that this is a fresh start for fresh water. That’s wrong in so many ways, but this is the reality for freshwater management.

Almost every industry, if it had to cover the true cost of clean up, it would be more than it purports to make. We’ve covered that up for generations, but it’s all coming home now because we are paying the price.

Dairy is the major driver on the health of the waterways.

It is so dependent on external inputs.

Just think about how unsustainable it is to make make milk out fossil fuels.

Planetary Boundaries – at a global level the planetary boundaries are exceeded seven fold when it comes to global nitrogen use.

We’re all part of that sad unfortunate sad reality that we’re feeding this massive population by using energy that was stored over the millennia. We’re living way past what the earth can handle.

Just counting the dairy cows, we’ve got a population of 90 million people equivalents. This puts it into balance, sure there are impacts of cities and so on, but it is tiny compared to just the dairy cows.

It’s like an industrial town turned upside down. Imagine Victorian England – all those chimneys pumping out smoke and the issues that came from that – flip that upside down, it’s the nutrients that leak out of the bottom of our farms through the soil that are the problems, but we don’t see them. If it were smoke coming over us we would all be so aware of it, but because it just goes down and through our waters we don’t see it.

It shocked me, waking up to hear John Key on National Radio saying that swimming in our rivers is aspirational. If someone says something that we take for granted and think part of being a New Zealander is suddenly aspirational , then where will we go next? Breathing without a respirator be aspirational? It’s a slippery slope.

Farms could make more money with half the cows, for a third of the pollution.

From an individual farmer’s profit point of view, they are losing money through overstocking. But they’re being driven by the industry to maximise production, not maximise profit.

You can see the limits of biological system, that production have gone up but profits haven’t.

There is a huge cost being paid here, but it is being paid by someone else.

What we are doing now is not conventional, it is very unconventional industrialised farming. Sustainable farming…backing off from the intensity, thinking about soil health, animal health, pasture health…biological farming, and the profits are much much higher.

Commodity market…the competition globally to make the cheapest product…the competition to have the weakest labour laws, the weakest environmental laws…we don’t want to win that race.

We need to maximise value by ensuring that people pay a premium for high quality food that is sustainably farmed. In the longer term animals have to come out of the human food chain.

A government that wanted to make a change would have to price externalities. We talk about this market economy, we supposedly have a market economy, so if we want a market economy the costs have to be borne by the people and organisations who are making the impacts.

(Success) I’m excited about Landcorp’s Environmental Reference Group. Industry has to lead the way.

(Motivation) A sense of injustice and anger.

(Activist) Yes I am, I give the Alice Walker quote at the end of my talks – that’s the price we all pay for living on the planet is to be active. We can’t sit back any more. If we sit back and think someone else is going to fix it for us, then we’re doomed. We have to all become active to change this. There’s some pretty big powers that are doing very well out of this and its hard work to take them on, so we all have to be active to do that.

As an academic it is part of my job. I have a role under the Education Act to be a “critic and conscience of society”.

(Alan Mark describes lobbying to remove him as an academic). I do know from the Vice Chancellor that Federated Farmers have regularly called for me to be sacked. But I’m still here. It is crucial for society that we have the ability to speak out.

(Challenge) Trying to get change, trying to show the way.

We get portrayed as a Luddite “you want us to go backwards”. But the reality is a sustainable world would be so much more fun, so much more exciting than a dirty world.

(Miracle) A government that actually had legislation for the people not for a few. And that would mean prioritising environmental protection over the profits of a few.

(Advice) The most effect you could have as an individual is to try and take animal agriculture out of your diet. But that is not enough, you have to be active, you have to stand up for your future and your children’s future, which means stopping the destruction.

Note. This interview was recorded just before the release of the NZ State of the Environment Report. Mike’s comments on that report, along with other leading scientists, can be found here.


Saving lakes and rivers

Limnologist Marc Schallenberg knows lakes. And rivers. He also knows the terrible state they are in. And why. And what we have to do about it. He tells us all these things on a fascinating session with Sustainable Lens.

Shane’s number of the week: 1,000,000,000,000. That is over $1 trillion in subsidies for areas ranging from fisheries to fertilisers and fossil fuels, wrote Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP in the OECD’s Development Cooperation Report: Lessons in linking sustainability and development

Much of this money is actually fuelling environmental decay, such as climate change; engendering collapse of fish stocks and damage to coastal systems and aggravating social and economic challenges.

The report goes on to say that

Removing these distorting, environmentally harmful and socially under-performing subsidies would completely change the incentive structure, promoting sustainable consumption and production and freeing up to 1-2% of global GDP every year.”

The report published this week by the OECD says that green growth is the only way forward for rich and poor countries alike to achieve sustainable development because of tremendous economic and livelihood losses from severe climate change and the depletion of natural resources and that climate change is hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest.

What is striking though is the report is using language like “collosal” and “collision ‘and ‘alarming’. Angel Gurria, the OECD secretary General uses surprisingly strong words:

We are on a collision course with nature

(OCED 2012)

“It is time for a radical change. If we fail to transform our policies and behaviour now, the picture is more than grim, Our current demographic and economic trends, if left unchecked, will have alarming effects in four key areas of global concern – climate change, biodiversity, water and health. The costs and consequences of inaction would be colossal, both in economic and human terms.”

What is so frustrating – and when I say that I mean tear your hair out this is totally insane frustration – is that more and more organisations and groups are saying that we are on a path to utter disaster and yet our leaders do nothing…

So that is my number $1 trillion pa in subsidies to things that are actively destroying our world.

Development Co-operation Report 2012 | OECD Free preview | Powered by Keepeek Digital Asset Management Solution