Institute on the Environment http://environment.umn.edu Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Thu, 29 Jan 2015 20:07:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Manson http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-geographer-steven-manson/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-geographer-steven-manson/#comments Mon, 26 Jan 2015 18:22:08 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4917 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Manson ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

While I believe sustaining humanity in the face of gradual climate change is probably the biggest challenge we face overall, I am particularly concerned about the potential for rapid shifts in climate-related systems that catch us by surprise.

Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of S. Manson.
Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of S. Manson.

Who was your most influential mentor?

B. L. Turner II, the Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society at Arizona State University. Dr. Turner studies human-environment relationships or how humans utilize and transform the environment and, in turn, how these changes affect the Earth’s system and people.

What is your current favorite project?

A project that’s in the beta testing phase called Terra Populus, or TerraPop, which seeks to integrate the world’s population and environmental data. TerraPop, an NSF-funded project for which the Institute on the Environment is a partner, integrates data such as population census data, land cover information and land use records, climate records from weather stations and more to make it easier for researchers to describe people and the places they inhabit. TerraPop will significantly reduce the amount of time researchers working on human-environment issues need to spend collecting, processing and integrating data from a variety of sources.

You can see examples of how natural and social scientists save hundreds of hours by using Terra Pop on our website.

What gives you hope?

The future as seen by my students and my children.

What’s the thorniest question on your mind?

Is it really possible to model the future of human-environment interaction?  We are getting good at some things, like broad-stroke estimates of climate change into the future or short term weather forecasts. We do less well in projecting the future of many important systems, ranging from coastal community responses to sea-level rise to the nature of agriculture in a warming world, because so many different groups of stakeholders are involved.

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Climate has a big say in crop yield variability http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/climate-has-a-big-say-in-crop-yield-variability/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/climate-has-a-big-say-in-crop-yield-variability/#comments Thu, 22 Jan 2015 22:18:17 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=5064 Continue reading Climate has a big say in crop yield variability ]]> What impact will future climate change have on food supply? That depends in part on the extent to which variations in crop yield are attributable to variations in climate. A new report from researchers at IonE’s Gobal Landscapes Initiative has found that climate variability historically accounts for one-third of yield variability for maize, rice, wheat and soybeans worldwide — the equivalent of 36 million metric tons of food each year. This provides valuable information planners and policy makers can use to target efforts to stabilize farmer income and food supply and so boost food security in a warming world.

  • The work was published today in the journal Nature Communications by Deepak Ray, James Gerber, Graham MacDonald and Paul West of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.
  • The researchers looked at newly available production statistics for maize, rice, wheat and soybean from 13,500 political units around the world between 1979 and 2008, along with precipitation and temperature data. The team used these data to calculate year-to-year fluctuations and estimate how much of the yield variability could be attributed to climate variability.
  • About 32 to 39 percent of year-to-year variability for the four crops could be explained by climate variability. This is substantial — the equivalent of 22 million metric tons of maize, 3 million metric tons of rice, 9 million metric tons of wheat, and 2 million metric tons of soybeans per year.
  • The links between climate and yield variability differed among regions. Climate variability explained much of yield variability in some of the most productive regions, but far less in low-yielding regions. “This means that really productive areas contribute to food security by having a bumper crop when the weather is favorable but can be hit really hard when the weather is bad and contribute disproportionately to global food insecurity,” says Ray. “At the other end of the spectrum, low-yielding regions seem to be more resilient to bad-weather years but don’t see big gains when the weather is ideal.” Some regions, such as in parts of Asia and Africa, showed little correlation between climate variability and yield variability.
  • More than 60 percent of the yield variability can be explained by climate variability in regions that are important producers of major crops, including the Midwestern U.S., the North China Plains, western Europe and Japan.
  • Depicted as global maps, the results show where and how much climate variability explains yield variability.
The connection between climate and yield variability differs around the world. It is strongest in the red areas and weakest in the light green and gray areas.
The connection between climate and yield variability differs around the world. It is strongest in the red areas and weakest in the light green and gray areas.

The research team is now looking at historical records to see whether the variability attributable to climate has changed over time — and if so, what aspects of climate are most pertinent.

“Yield variability can be a big problem from both economic and food supply standpoints,” Ray said. “The results of this study and our follow-up work can be used to improve food system stability around the world by identifying hot spots of food insecurity today as well as those likely to be exacerbated by climate change in the future.”

Banner photo © Avalon_Studio/iStockphoto.com

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Measuring carbon & water footprints just got easier http://environment.umn.edu/business/measuring-carbon-water-footprints-just-got-easier/ http://environment.umn.edu/business/measuring-carbon-water-footprints-just-got-easier/#comments Thu, 22 Jan 2015 22:17:03 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=5001 Continue reading Measuring carbon & water footprints just got easier ]]> Which bag of coffee is more sustainable? Which television emits the lowest levels of greenhouse gases over its lifetime? Does a grass-fed beef hamburger use less water? For many who want to do right by the environment, these questions are not easily answered. Now, imagine that you buy hundreds of thousands of products every year. How would you decide which make the most difference from an environmental standpoint? Whether suppliers’ environmental performance claims hold water? What combination of environmentally preferred purchases is most cost-effective?

These questions are increasingly being asked by sourcing and supply chain managers at the largest global corporations and governments — arguably, some of the biggest buyers in the world. Today, the Global Environmental Management Initiative, in collaboration with the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and Climate Earth, introduced a tool that takes a first step at helping answer some of these questions.

GEMI’s Supply Chain Sustainability tool helps businesses identify the purchased inputs that emit the highest levels of GHGs and use the most water in their production. It then helps supply chain managers assess, within three initial categories (paper packaging, plastic film and sheet packaging, and soap and cleaning compounds), strategies for reducing GHG emissions and water use.

“Although many have talked about the need for organizations to coordinate environmental improvement opportunities across sourced inputs, this is the first time that a user-based system has been developed to move the discussion into action,” said Tim Smith, NiSE director, in a news release. “We still have a long way to go before environmental performance can stand alongside price and quality at the scale of corporate and institutional sourcing, but this tool demonstrates that with improved information and coordination across supply chains, cost-effective environmental improvements can be found,” he added.

The NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise works with the private sector to develop sustainable solutions to production and consumption challenges — reducing adverse impacts and accelerating innovation to meet the growing demand for materials and energy. NiSE is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment.

Photo courtesy of Nick Saltmarsh (Creative Commons/Flickr)

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Investing in watersheds: Back to basics http://environment.umn.edu/water/investing-in-watersheds-back-to-basics/ http://environment.umn.edu/water/investing-in-watersheds-back-to-basics/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 16:10:02 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4951 Continue reading Investing in watersheds: Back to basics ]]> Investing in watersheds makes sense. Keeping water clean and flowing at the source is cheaper and more reliable than fixing problems downstream. It’s something people have been doing for a long time and in lots of places. Where I grew up in California there are lots of water supply reservoirs that are pretty to look at but off limits for swimming. Across the country in the Catskills watershed, New York City is paying folks to replace septic systems and keep cattle away from riverbanks instead of building a water filtration plant. And we’ve seen some pretty bad things happen when watersheds aren’t managed right, such as streams turning brown from sediment or drying up all together.

So watershed investments are hot. All over the world, governments, non-profits and businesses are getting excited about the possibility of paying residents upstream to take actions that will keep clean water flowing consistently downstream.

But are we getting what we’re paying for? And if we can improve water resources through watershed investment, what exactly should we be investing in?

We know that investments in water quality work pretty well: If you don’t let fertilizer runoff or human waste get into water, whether by restricting activities in a watershed or by building natural buffers around farms and toilets, you don’t have to remove excess nutrients or pathogens later on. There are still many questions that lots of scientists are working hard on — how big do buffers need to be, what should they be made of — but the benefits are pretty clear.

Brauman downloads measurements (relative humidity, temperature, solar radiation) from a weather station near her research site.

Having enough water, especially in the dry season, is the big question everybody wants answered, though. And this one’s a lot tougher. The amount of water available is determined by how much rain or snow there is in the current month or year. Vegetation can and does affect this, changing how fast water moves over the ground surface, whether it ends up in surface or groundwater, and whether it gets used up by plants or moved downstream. But since the amount of water coming into a watershed via rain or snow changes from year to year, it takes a lot of measuring and modeling to figure out how the amount of water downstream would have been different, given the particular weather conditions of the current year, if the land management had been different — especially because the effect plants have on water is often small compared to the big variations in rain and snow between years.

So I set out to measure how much changes in land cover change water availability and to calculate how much that change is worth. I did my fieldwork on the dry side of the Big Island of Hawai’i. What started as a summer project turned into a six-year Ph.D. project, the results of which were recently published in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

In this very peculiar place — an active volcano on which the ground is only about a 1,000 years old — in the places that are most important for groundwater recharge, dense forest recharges groundwater more than pasture land does, but sparse forest recharges groundwater less than pasture. But the differences in recharge are small compared to the total amount of recharge under all of those land covers. Very small.

How do I know the effects of land cover are small? We also estimated differences in the value of landowner income, carbon storage, and bird habitat given these different land cover types, and those differences were a lot bigger. Sometimes 50 times bigger. So it’s not that managing the landscape doesn’t matter, it’s just that here it might matter more for benefits other than water. And not only that, some changes in land cover would improve bird habitat and carbon storage but reduce groundwater recharge while other changes had other combos of ups and downs, so it’s hard to optimize all three.

While not exactly the sexiest or most accessible research in the world, I think it’s cool for two reasons. First, we actually did a fully integrated, interdisciplinary ecosystem services study for water, quantifying biophysical impact and connecting it to economic value, which is pretty rare.

Second, quantifying the benefits of land management for water showed that it’s complicated! And while the specific findings from Hawai’i may not be easily transferable, the takeaway is how important it is to understand the unique biophysical and social particulars of a watershed investment project — rather than slapping on a one-size-fits-all pronouncement like “more forest.”

So what about those watershed investment projects? Colleagues and I published some guidelines in November 2014 in the science journal Ambio. In the paper, we advocate that, when considering a watershed investment, one should evaluate how the proposed change will affect key hydrologic fluxes like infiltration, evapotranspiration or erosion, whatever matters in that particular place, keeping in mind how all the weird and important peculiarities of that place could affect those fluxes The best way to evaluate a watershed investment is to take lots of measurements, to build a model and to keep track of how changes in each hydrologic flux show up downstream. But when that’s not possible, keeping track of the fluxes at the site of intervention will, at the very least, make sure the dial is being pushed in the right direction!

It’s more like getting back to basics than rocket science, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Kate Brauman is the lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative and frequently collaborates with the Natural Capital Project. Both are strategic initiatives of the Institute on the Environment . 

 Banner photo by Steve Dunleavy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura Musacchio http://environment.umn.edu/design/featured-fellow-landscape-ecologist-laura-musacchio/ http://environment.umn.edu/design/featured-fellow-landscape-ecologist-laura-musacchio/#comments Fri, 16 Jan 2015 15:37:00 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4927 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura Musacchio ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work fit into the transdisciplinary framework of IonE?

With my IonE resident fellowship, I am working on how to enhance theory-to-practice integration of landscape stewardship and ecosystem services. There is a vast storehouse of academic knowledge that is waiting to be translated to real-world problems in professional practice. It is a key opportunity to enhance knowledge and action across the numerous disciplines at universities. However, one of the challenges is the multiple steps needed to decode the language of scientific research into the language of professional application and then back again.

Associate professor Laura Musacchio, College of Design. Image courtesy of L. Musacchio.
Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Image by Warren Bruland.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

More and more college students, who work on environmental and conservation issues, will find part of their professional roles will include being intermediaries between experts and the public. They will need to successfully navigate across the boundaries of groups with different perspectives about the environment, conservation, and development. I call this process “translational landscape research and practice” because its goal is to prepare future professionals to leverage their disciplinary knowledge by building new skills to connect to decision makers and the public.

For example, I enjoy working with scientists to help them understand how their scientific research about ecosystem services can be connected to new audiences such as designers, planners, managers, and policy makers.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

When I was in the early 20s, one of my mentors recommended that I pursue a Ph.D. At that time, very few people in landscape architecture had Ph.D.s — just a few professors in the whole United States. It took me a few years to decide that a Ph.D. was the right direction for me. The pivotal moment came when I got introduced to landscape ecology, which at the time was a relatively new discipline in the United States. I was particularly interested in how the knowledge of landscape ecology could be applied to design, planning, policy and management.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

One of the books I am reading right now is Our Once and Future Planet by Paddy Woodworth, which has a lot of intriguing case studies about ecological restoration throughout the world. Ecological restoration is very popular with students across campus because it is a practical way to integrate scientific knowledge into their projects.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

One of my big ah-ha moments was coming to the Twin Cities in 2003 to teach at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Landscape Architecture. In the Twin Cities, green infrastructure design was more than just a concept on paper, but it was actually being implemented in a number of innovative ways in urban design, planning and policy. Many green infrastructure projects provide important ecosystem services such as stormwater management, habitat restoration and recreational amenities.

Moreover, these projects can also integrate the principles of ecological restoration, which builds on the work of pioneers such as Aldo Leopold. With my research, I am very interested in how such innovations can be used to inform the next generation of scientific research about landscape stewardship and ecosystem services.

Photo by Ryan Blyth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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New video for a new year http://environment.umn.edu/news/new-video-for-a-new-year/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/new-video-for-a-new-year/#comments Wed, 14 Jan 2015 16:11:55 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4969 The Institute on the Environment cultivates collaboration across disciplines among scientists, academics, and business, government and community leaders. This new video highlights how we work together to solve some of humankind’s grand challenges. Enjoy it and pass it along!

 

Banner photo © kamisoka (iStock)

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Inquiry’s top 10 overflows with IonE folks http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/inquirys-top-10-overflows-with-ione-folks/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/inquirys-top-10-overflows-with-ione-folks/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 21:57:35 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4944 Continue reading Inquiry’s top 10 overflows with IonE folks ]]> What a year! Of the University of Minnesota Office of the Vice President’s Top 10 Inquiry stories of 2014, six feature IonE-related people and projects.

At number 10, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering and IonE resident fellow Jian-Ping Wang’s disease-detecting device is a noted example in “How to create a successful start-up – a university’s perspective.”

Number eight, “Patent roll call, fall 2014,” lists CSE professor and IonE resident fellow Martin Saar among the U of M faculty who won patents for their inventions. Saar and his team developed a geothermal energy system powered by carbon dioxide.

Seventh on the list is “A Q&A with Carissa Slotterback.” Slotterback, Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor and IonE resident fellow, discusses her involvement with the Twin Cities strategic plan and her new role as director of research engagement at OVPR, among other topics.

At number six, three IonE resident fellows are named in “Collaboration seeks to boost renewable energy in Minnesota,” a feature about a MnDrive-funded project that seeks new ways to integrate renewable energy into the rural Minnesota power grid.  Elizabeth Wilson, Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor, is the lead investigator of the project. Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Development and associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Peter Seiler, assistant professor in CSE, are co-investigators.

Transdisciplinary awards fund projects targeting grand challenges,” at number five, doesn’t mention researchers by name, but describes the MnDRIVE research programs in which many IonE resident fellows are involved. Awards in this category were given to four projects on which nine IonE resident fellows are principal or co-investigators. Get the list and read about the projects here.

Finally, “University start-up develops fast, accurate early disease detection,” comes in at number two on Inquiry’s top 10 list of 2014, delving more deeply into Jian-Ping Wang’s research.

“We are deeply proud of our resident fellows and the role the Institute on the Environment plays in providing infrastructure for their innovative, transdisciplinary knowledge ventures,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE interim director. “Their projects aim to create a better future for us all.”

Photo © Robert Churchill (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Chemist Marc Hillmyer http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-chemist-marc-hillmyer/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-chemist-marc-hillmyer/#comments Fri, 09 Jan 2015 16:30:49 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4910 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Chemist Marc Hillmyer ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Marc Hillmyer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Nonrenewable plastics that contribute to land and water pollution. And the global water crisis.

Professor Marc Hillmyer, College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of M. Hillmyer.

Which of your projects addresses these concerns?

I lead a team of researchers in the Center for Sustainable Polymers working on efficient and precision conversions of renewable raw materials into innovative polymeric products that outperform the current suite of nonsustainable polymers from performance, environmental and cost perspectives.

Who was your most influential mentor?

My Ph.D. mentor Robert H. Grubbs at Caltech and my postdoctoral mentor Frank S. Bates at the University of Minnesota.

What’s the most useful thing in your backpack?

A USB drive (with some free space on it)!

What makes you happy?

Getting grants, publishing papers (in that order), and learning a new (difficult) song on guitar.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson.

Banner photo: Shaun Amey (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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A new tool for dam planning http://environment.umn.edu/water/a-new-tool-for-dam-planning/ http://environment.umn.edu/water/a-new-tool-for-dam-planning/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 15:05:59 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4897 Continue reading A new tool for dam planning ]]> Nearly half of the world’s river volume is moderately to severely altered by dams today — a figure that could double by 2030 if all dams planned or under construction are completed, according to a report published online Jan. 6 in Environmental Research Letters.

An international team led by McGill University researchers overlaid data from nearly 6,500 existing large dams on a high-resolution map of the world’s rivers to create a detailed picture of how the dams alter the connections among rivers and their tributaries and interrupt natural fluctuations in water and sediment flowing downstream.

The result of this novel approach is a “framework that can be used by water resource managers, government agencies and other stakeholders to assess the complex effects of dam construction on disparate river systems,” says Graham MacDonald, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative who helped prepare the article for publication. “Learning how dams alter the hydrology of rivers is the first piece of the puzzle in understanding the broader impact of dams on local communities and ecosystems. It can help guide decisions about the social, ecological and economic trade-offs associated with dams at different scales.”

Combined impacts for the future scenario of 2030 in which all large hydropower dams currently planned or under construction are built. Image courtesy of study authors.

Where you put dams on a waterway matters, the study found. “Not all dams are equal,” Günther Grill, a McGill postdoctoral fellow and the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “Our research assumes that it is not only the size of the dam but also where it is placed along the river that makes a difference. So depending on whether a dam is high up in the mountain headwaters or further down close to the delta, if it is on the main stem of the river or on a small tributary, all of these factors will have varying effects on the rivers and their surrounding ecosystems.”

The Global Landscapes Initiative is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment. GLI is developing and applying tools needed to characterize global land use, understand land use changes, assess trends in global agricultural supply and demand, improve our ability to balance human needs with environmental stewardship, and promote secure landscapes across the globe.

Read McGill’s news release.

Banner photo by RightBrainPhotography (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Fungal biologist Jonathan Schilling http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-fungal-biologist-jonathan-schilling/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-fungal-biologist-jonathan-schilling/#comments Mon, 29 Dec 2014 18:05:03 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4818 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Fungal biologist Jonathan Schilling ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jonathan Schilling, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does IonE facilitate your work?

My IonE resident fellowship has focused on applying the tools from one area of my work (microbial biotechnology) to another area where I think they are useful (forest ecology). I study mechanisms of plant decomposition, particularly among fungi. Exploring the potential to apply these mechanisms to deconstruct plant biomass industrially has been a significant effort in my lab group since our first Department of Energy grant in 2007. These efforts have been fruitful, as planned, but I have learned that the same methods have impressive traction beyond the targets I’ve laid out in my proposals. This cross-pollination is efficient, it is fun, and it wouldn’t happen without collaborative spaces like IonE.

Jonathan Schilling, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Photo courtesy of J. Schilling.
Jonathan Schilling, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Photo courtesy of J. Schilling.

Who is your most influential mentor? 

This may sound corny, but it is my wife, Emily. We’ve been together for 14 years, and, over that time, Emily taught me how to pursue what I want with confidence in my ideas. She does not settle for second best, and I had a tendency to accept things as being set in stone before I met her.

The “optimizer” approach to things that are important to us as individuals — this is integrated into every interaction I have with my lab group and students.

What is the thorniest question on your mind? 

Is there room in the American Dream for downsizing?

What makes you happy? 

Packing light, hiking hard, leaving trail, setting camp, cooking in one pot and staring thoughtless into the woods . . . in that order.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment? 

During grad school, I was using a chromatography method published by peers and well-respected by my adviser. I could not get it to work and spent about three months poring over what I might be doing wrong. A chance conversation at a meeting with someone far beyond my field led me to consider whether the published method itself was wrong. He also had an idea for a solution. I went into the lab at 2:30 a.m., ran a sample following his advice — and it worked. This, in a nutshell, showed me how science works.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 

Humor.

Banner photo by Jonathan Schilling

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Big questions are us http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/big-questions-are-us/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/big-questions-are-us/#comments Tue, 23 Dec 2014 18:18:02 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4842 Continue reading Big questions are us ]]> How do we feed all the people of the world while reducing food-borne illness? Why is it important that kids get out into nature? Does it make sense for environmental and corporate leaders to put their heads together? These are a few of the questions explored during IonE’s Frontiers in the Environment Big Questions series this fall. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hour-long conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.

We’ve summarized each talk into a quick, easy read as well as archived the videos for you to watch on your own schedule. Review the entire list or peruse these picks:

Minnesota is the most water-rich state in the nation. While this fact may not come as a surprise to natives, we note some other things that may give you pause in “8 things we learned about a clean water future.”

With more than 50 percent of the global population living in cities, creating a sustainable planet will require building sustainable cities. How can the Twin Cities lead the effort? Here are “5 things we learned about urban development.”

More is expected from our croplands than ever — from food to fuel to ecosystem services. Learn about new technology helping ag keep up and read a success story in “7 things we learned about the ag transformation.”

Frontiers will resume in February with more thought leaders grappling with the big questions of the day. Join us on Wednesdays at noon through spring semester 2015. All are welcome!

Photo by Always Shooting (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Computer scientist Shashi Shekhar http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-computer-scientist-shashi-shekhar/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-computer-scientist-shashi-shekhar/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:52:23 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4798 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Computer scientist Shashi Shekhar ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

It is hard to believe that paper maps were used for routing and navigation until the early 1990s, when we worked on research projects exploring spatial computational questions underlying envisaged handheld and in-vehicle GPS-based navigation devices. It was challenging since large road maps challenged the conventional wisdom that “640K (bytes of computer memory) ought to be enough for anyone.” Today, GPS-based navigation apps are commonplace and have transformed our society. They have also reduced fuel waste — and related greenhouse gas emissions — due to fewer drivers getting lost in unfamiliar areas.

This experience has strengthened my interest in potentially transformative research by envisioning better futures for our society and taking the first steps toward that by exploring promising approaches.

Shekhar Shashi_RF_inline
Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the College of Science & Engineering and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of S. Shekhar

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

The water, energy and food security nexus in face of climate change and population growth.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

What was so special about early the 1990s to trigger our journey towards ubiquitous navigation apps like Google Maps? I believe that it was a confluence of critical disruptive technologies. Spatial data — GPS signals and accurate digital road maps — became available to the public. Popular computers grew powerful enough to crunch large (gigabyte) national road maps to find the shortest paths in a few seconds. The Internet and World Wide Web allowed aggregation of large audiences even for niche services such as routing and navigation.

Recently, I co-organized a workshop titled “From GPS and Virtual Globes to Spatial Computing 2020″ at the National Academies to catalyze community research visions. Listening to the industry, government and academic leaders at the workshop, I had a moment of sudden insight. As Yogi Berra would said, “Deja vu all over again.”

I felt that we are witnessing another crucial confluence of disruptive technologies, such as Uber, WAZE, smart cities, and connected and automated vehicles. These technologies provide spatial big data describing our movements in unprecedented detail and can provide fundamental new insights towards shaping the future. For example, it may reshape our aging cities and transportation services to not only reduce our carbon footprints but also improve our mobility and quality of life. It may even change our social and economic life by providing new ways to connect mobile people to other people, goods and services during commute and travel.

 What is your current favorite project?

With NSF support, we are investigating spatial big data toward next-generation navigation services such as eco-routing. Imagine the next version of a navigation app (successors of Siri or Google Maps) that recommends routes to minimize fuel consumption or greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding engine idling at left turns, unnecessary elevation changes, etc. We are also investigating data-driven approaches to understand climate change and starting a collaboration with a major automobile company to reimagine mobility services in our increasingly urbanized future.

 What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

Philip Andrews-Speed and Raimund Bleischwitz, Want, Waste or War?: The Global Resource Nexus and the Struggle for Land, Energy, Food, Water and Minerals, Routledge, 2014.

Banner photo: iStock © elenaleonova 

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Clean fuel, cleaner air http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/clean-fuel-cleaner-air/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/clean-fuel-cleaner-air/#comments Mon, 15 Dec 2014 15:49:59 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4793 Continue reading Clean fuel, cleaner air ]]> Cars powered by wind-, water- or solar-generated electricity reduce air quality–related health impacts by up to 70 percent compared with gasoline, according to a life-cycle analysis of conventional and alternative vehicles and their fuels.

The findings were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study authors are Christopher W. Tessum and Julian D. Marshall, College of Science and Engineering; and Jason D. Hill, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Marshall and Hill are also Institute on the Environment resident fellows.

Using state-of-the-science modeling, the University of Minnesota team compared annual-average concentrations of particulate matter and ground-level ozone emissions from the total life cycle — production to consumption — of 10 different types of fuels burned in 11 types of passenger cars, including those fueled by liquid biofuels, diesel, compressed natural gas, and electricity from a range of conventional and renewable sources.

The study found that vehicles powered by corn ethanol, coal-based or “grid average” electricity generate 80 percent greater air quality–related health impacts than cars that use conventional, petroleum-based gasoline.

Air pollution–related health impacts range from 230 deaths per year from wind-, water- or solar-powered vehicles to 3,200 per year from cars burning conventional gasoline. The research revealed that, relative to gasoline, health impacts:

  • decrease in gasoline hybrids (30 percent), electric vehicles powered by natural gas (50 percent) and wind-, water- or solar-generated electricity (70 percent)
  • increase in cars fueled by corn ethanol (80 percent) and electric vehicles powered by grid average (200 percent) or coal (300 percent).

This short video explains the findings.

Read the full news release.

Banner photo © wodeweitu

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Featured Fellow: Engineer Matteo Convertino http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-engineer-matteo-convertino/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-engineer-matteo-convertino/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 17:32:20 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4709 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Engineer Matteo Convertino ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I would say that the food system project I am involved in is very interesting because it integrates agriculture, public health, veterinary medicine and ecology via engineering models for understanding how foodborne outbreaks and other food-related emerging infectious diseases arise globally. The ultimate goal is to provide a tool for the food industry and public health authorities for designing food supply chains that diminish the risk of foodborne outbreaks, and for building surveillance systems that detect early signs of contamination and enable more rapid response to incipient outbreaks.

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Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of M. Convertino.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

I am currently reading Consilience by E.O. Wilson. The book is tremendously interesting because it clearly shows the unity of knowledge though a variety of examples in which common concepts and methods are shared by different disciplines. The book emphasizes that evidence should come from a systemic view of problems versus piecemeal approaches, integrates art and science, and puts human development into an evolutionary perspective at multiple scales. In some ways, the book is IonE to the third power!

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

Any time I figure out a cool application applying a mathematical model to a new problem and field where that model was never applied before! Any time I read something new that uses the combination of knowledge I have already. Ah-ha moments are at the interface of knowledge!

What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you?

Things that I dream at night; those are really the most interesting, strange and creative things [that] can happen to me. I am a dreamer, I dream a lot, and you have no idea about how much creativity there is in my dream. I have used them as sources of inspiration, too. The brain is really the most fantastic computer!

What’s the oddest thing in your briefcase?

The most curious thing I have in my briefcase is a little golden ball that was part of my Master of Science laurel wreath at the University of Padova. In most Italian universities a laurel wreath with golden balls and red bows is given as a gift and worn the day of graduation, resembling the festivities of high-profile people of the Roman Empire. The golden balls are donated by graduates to young kids as a sign of perseverance and luck and to stimulate them to pursue the same. I guess that ball is still inspiring me and bringing me luck!

Banner photo by Michael Foley (Flickr/Creative Commons) 

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Project to create sustainable magnets wins $10K prize http://environment.umn.edu/event/project-to-create-more-sustainable-magnets-wins-10k-prize/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/project-to-create-more-sustainable-magnets-wins-10k-prize/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 18:45:52 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4757 Continue reading Project to create sustainable magnets wins $10K prize ]]> A project aimed at developing magnets that don’t require the use of rare earth elements captured the $10,000 top prize in a Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) competition held Dec. 4 at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.

  • The winning project, “Rare Earth–Free Permanent Magnets,” was presented by Md Al Mehedi, a doctoral student of chemical engineering and material science in the College of Science and Engineering. The project described a new process for making magnets out of iron and nitrogen that obviates the need to use rare earth elements that are integral to standard magnets used for applications such as motors and generators, but that depend upon extraction processes that are energy intensive, technologically challenging, environmentally hazardous and threatening to human health and agriculture.
  • The Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) is a program of the Institute on the Environment and the Dow Chemical Company. SISCA recognizes and rewards students and universities for innovation and research that encourages and promotes sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. The competition is open to full-time graduate and professional students enrolled at all campuses of the University of Minnesota.
  • The objective of the challenge is to develop practical and innovative solutions that address global environmental challenges. It encourages action from students — action to reach out and understand how to apply their knowledge to solve important problems in the world. This means identifying and understanding a real problem. It means developing not only a solution but also a plan for implementing that solution.
  • The winning project was one of 12 submitted to the Dow SISCA challenge at the University of Minnesota, one of 17 colleges around the world participating in the competition.
  • Runner-up recipients Christoph Krumm and Katherine Vinter (chemical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) received $2,500 to pursue the application of a novel dehydration technique to improve the sustainability of production of industrial chemicals from biomass.
  • Judges were from Dow Chemical, 3M, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services and the University of Minnesota. The awards are financial scholarships to the students to allow them to further develop their ideas.
  • Other finalists were:

Dustin Johnson (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – A Compact, Portable Compressed Air Power Supply for Human Assistive Devices

Daniel Nigon (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Reducing Fossil Fuel Use in Water and Space Heating: Thermotropic Materials for Low-Cost Solar Thermal Collectors

Georgiy V. Vozhdayev (microbial engineering, College of Biological Sciences) – Large Scale Cultivation of Phytoplankton via Novel Photo-Bioreactor Technology

Chao Zhang (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Novel Thermal Energy Storage Approach with Application to Solar Energy and Waste Heat Recovery

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information on IonE, visit environment.umn.edu. For more information on the Dow SISCA program, see dow.com/sustainability/studentchallenge.

Photo courtesy of Todd Reubold.

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Featured Fellow: Architect/artist Jonee Kulman Brigham http://environment.umn.edu/design/featured-fellow-architect-artist-jonee-kulman-brigham/ http://environment.umn.edu/design/featured-fellow-architect-artist-jonee-kulman-brigham/#comments Wed, 03 Dec 2014 18:06:29 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4690 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Architect/artist Jonee Kulman Brigham ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a sustainable design program faculty member in the College of  Design and visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development. Let the conversation begin!

Which of your projects relates to the transdisciplinary mission of IonE?

Through my fellowship at IonE, I’m working on a project called “River Journey: Exploring the Value of the Mississippi.” This project is taking place at River’s Edge Academy Charter Environmental High School, where I am collaborating with teachers, staff and students on a yearlong art-led environmental exploration of water through their school, tracing the flows to the Mississippi River both upstream and downstream. With the assistance of project partner U-Spatial, students will use online mapping software (ArcGIS online) to share their learning about the water cycle and increase public awareness. Community contributors include the National Park Service, St. Paul Regional Water Services, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, the Lower Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization and others. You can read more about it on the River Journey blog.

Jonee Kuhlman Brigham
Jonee Kulman Brigham is a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development, a faculty member in the College of Design, and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of JKB.

What pivotal experiences led you to the work you’re doing today?  

During my architecture school thesis at the U I discovered my deep interest in how we perceive support systems of buildings — things like water pipes, heating registers and storage of supplies. In my Master of Liberal Studies thesis I designed an art-led environmental education model to help kids see and experience their interdependence by exploring the water infrastructure that connects their school to the wider human-engineered and natural surroundings. These academic programs nurtured turning points in my path because they provided transformational combinations of freedom, challenge and intellectual inspiration.

What gives you hope?

The increasing awareness and value placed on our environment from across subcultures.

What makes you happy?

The adventure of imagining/learning/collaborating/creating/faltering-remaking/discovering/realizing/contributing.

What’s the one talent you rely on most often?

I make connections between people, ideas and disciplines.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I’d choose Donella Meadows because her work, and particularly her article on “Places to Intervene in a System,” inspires and guides me. I’d love to spend hours talking about changing (and transcending) paradigms as a strategy for sustainability.

Banner photo by Teresa Boardman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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7 things about environmentalist-corporate partnerships http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/7-things-we-learned-about-environmentalist-corporate-partnerships/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/7-things-we-learned-about-environmentalist-corporate-partnerships/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 18:55:37 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4714 Continue reading 7 things about environmentalist-corporate partnerships ]]> In the final Frontiers presentation of the semester, Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, Natural Capital Project lead scientist and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, moderated a discussion on the relationship between environmentalists and corporations. Participants included Amy Skoczlas Cole, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Pentair; J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; and Chris P. Lambe, managing director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The panel members shared their thoughts on the role of the private sector as stewards of the environment and left us with the understanding that environmentalists and corporations may not be such strange bedfellows after all. Here are seven other things we learned:

Times have changed. A few decades ago, environmental organizations and corporations barely talked to each other and sustainability was a term not often used in corporate vernacular. Now, we see many companies accepting environmental challenges and recognizing the links between themselves and the environment. In some respects, large companies have embraced environmental challenges more than have governments or society as a whole. Don’t get too excited, though — there is still a lot of work to do. Companies have started with the low-hanging fruit, but now they need to amplify their actions and tackle bigger challenges.

It’s the dawn of the collaboration age. Increasingly, environmentalists and corporations are realizing that they want many of the same things. It’s becoming ever more evident that climate change will influence business practices — for example, through energy costs. Born out of necessity, there are more and more examples of these two worlds working together. So far, we’ve only skimmed the surface of what needs to be done, and there will be many opportunities going forward.

Time to scale up. The collaboration between environmentalists and corporations works at more than one level. First, there are the changes that are easier for companies to implement because they present win-win scenarios for themselves and for the environment. These are the types of changes many companies have tackled so far. However, the next level of challenges is more difficult because, while they provide gains in the long term, they are less desirable in the short term. This is especially important for corporate investors to realize because they have a lot of influence over these changes. A third level is made up of challenges that represent questions about the public good. They are not profitable in the traditional sense for companies but they have benefits that go beyond the tangible and should be considered as well.

Profound change has yet to occur. This is not because corporations don’t want to change but because they are restrained in what they are able to do. Our private sector system puts pressure on companies to prioritize quarterly earnings and short-term progress over long-term goals. But there are other challenges as well. Turnover rates in companies can prevent lasting progress. Thus, while one CEO might make significant changes within a company, , old patterns can emerge after he or she leaves.

Sustainability is not a line of work, it’s a way of thinking. All panelists agreed that the time constraints put on middle management at a corporation can be a barrier to sustainability. Employees may be so bogged down in the day-to-day they can only be reactive without enough time to think how sustainability can benefit the company in the long term. Because of this, it can be easy for sustainability goals to stall. Therefore, we need to reframe our sustainability goals to better address business problems. It would behoove businesses to view their needs and solutions through an environmental lens. In this way, sustainability can be used as a tool to solve a problem instead of being viewed as an additional problem.

The message matters. Part of the problem is that the discourse of sustainability is not being presented effectively. We need to frame environmental problems as stories to get the message out to policy makers in effective ways. Great messengers are needed to present the problems to relevant stakeholders and to demonstrate that big things are happening. This could help create a path to scale up action to an effective level.

True change requires a change in our thinking. We have come to understand capitalism as continuous growth. But growth cannot come at the expense of natural resources. To reap the benefits of cooperation between corporations and environmentalists, we will need to rethink our definition of capitalism.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.

Photo by Roy Bisschops (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Biochemist Lawrence Wackett http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-biochemist-lawrence-wackett/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-biochemist-lawrence-wackett/#comments Wed, 26 Nov 2014 17:36:47 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4637 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Biochemist Lawrence Wackett ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Lawrence Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

What project are you focused on now?

I am working on developing broad-based computer and practical methods for cleaning problem chemicals from the environment and setting up conditions whereby there is a business incentive to use the methods. The latter goal is typically outside the domain of academic research. But to really make an impact on the environment, I have come to believe we must go beyond publishing journal articles and op-ed pieces for people to read. It takes enormous creativity to think of environmental solutions that many people will be incentivized to implement. However, lasting environmental benefits will only accrue when business and the majority of citizens are driven by self-interest to eagerly adopt environmentally responsible practices. The carrot is more powerful than the stick!

Lawrence Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesty of L.Wackett.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Maintaining sufficient quantities of clean water for human consumption, ecosystem health, agriculture and industry.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

“How Pleasure Works” is written by Paul Bloom, a neuropsychologist who asks such questions as, “Why would someone pay millions for an original piece of art and nothing for a copy that is so apparently identical that even an art expert could not discern the copy from the original?” The answer is much deeper than you would expect.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

Meeting my Ph.D. mentor, David T. Gibson. It also has a special meaning to me that David Gibson did his Ph.D. thesis at Leeds University working with Stanley Dagley, who later became a Regents Professor of biochemistry at Minnesota. So Dagley is, in a sense, my academic grandfather. I now work in Dagley’s former office and laboratory here in Gortner Laboratories at the University. This makes me feel like the research I am doing today is part of an important historical continuum. Even as we seek to do novel and creative things, we need to heed the best lessons of the past and pass them on.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

When I was a graduate student, I discovered how genetically-engineered bacteria make the blue jean dye indigo, a finding that was highlighted on the cover of the journal Science and developed commercially by the company Genencor International.

Photo by Mickey Zlimen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Energy Transition Lab will be hub of innovation http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/energy-transition-lab-will-be-hub-of-innovation/ http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/energy-transition-lab-will-be-hub-of-innovation/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 02:31:01 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4616 Continue reading Energy Transition Lab will be hub of innovation ]]> Reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Our energy system is in the midst of a major transition. Power sources are shifting from coal to more natural gas and renewables. The aging grid needs to adapt, becoming “smarter,” more flexible and resilient. New greenhouse gas emissions regulations and a changing climate add further complexities.

This transition has the potential to spark innovation in business and government, leading to new jobs and a cleaner environment, and the University of Minnesota has launched the Energy Transition Lab to help turn this potential into reality. Ellen Anderson, a former state senator and energy advisor to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, is the ETL’s inaugural executive director; its faculty director is Law School professor Hari Osofsky, an expert in energy law and an IonE resident fellow.

A strategic initiative of IonE with funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the ETL will bring together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways and advance needed reform. Anderson and Osofsky plan to build collaborations and develop the lab into a hub for innovative solutions.

Osofsky says she was thrilled to recruit Anderson to the University as the ETL’s executive director. “Ellen Anderson has been a leader in Minnesota’s energy transition for more than two decades, and I cannot imagine anyone more qualified to help this lab make a major impact,” Osofsky says. “Her experience — as a legislator crafting key renewable energy legislation, as chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission and as a senior energy advisor to Governor Dayton — will be invalu­able. She’s also a U of M Law School graduate who has taught energy policy and sustainability courses at the University.”

“We need the University of Minnesota’s great researchers and thought leaders to help our energy system transition to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Anderson says. “I am excited to lead this critical endeavor, and look forward to working with the public, private, and community sectors to catalyze innovative solutions.”

As faculty director, Osofsky brings a decade and a half of academic research, policy project leadership and litigation experience to the ETL. Before entering academia she litigated environmental justice cases, and she has continued to work with non-governmental organizations and government agencies on energy policy projects throughout her time as a law professor. Her books and articles — more than 40 in all — on energy and climate change issues have received peer awards, and include a new energy law textbook.

The ETL will focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric­ity and transportation systems, and energy and environmental justice. Specific products will include white papers and other policy reports, legislative testimony, model legislation and regulations, conferences and workshops convening key stakehold­ers, and other public events.

The lab will provide valuable learning opportunities for students, who will participate in shaping solutions through their research and course­work. The ETL aims to become the “go-to” place for experts and leaders to work with University faculty, students and staff toward solutions to energy challenges.

The ETL has embarked on a high-impact set of collaborative projects for 2014:

  • develop regional climate mitiga­tion/adaptation and energy strategies and action steps for the entire Twin Cities region, which encompasses 183 cities and more than half the state’s population
  • develop legislative and policy recommendations that will help the state scale up renewable energy and energy efficiency, reduce energy-re­lated emissions, advance energy justice, and plan its energy future
  • collaborate with key corporate and indigenous stakeholders, government leaders, and academics on recommendations for improving regulation of and standard-setting for Arctic offshore energy development as part of the U.S.’s assumption of leadership of the Arctic Council in 2015
  • create a clearinghouse/communi­cation network for energy informa­tion and resources to connect leading researchers, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and community and civic leaders.

Photo: Hari Osofsky and Ellen Anderson, courtesy of U of M Law School

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Featured Fellow: Computer Scientist Tian He http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-tian-he/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/featured-fellow-tian-he/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 15:07:26 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4596 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Computer Scientist Tian He ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Tian He, a McKnight Distinguished Land-Grant professor and associate professor in the College of Science & Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

I am interested in utilizing the latest metropolitan-scale taxi networks for urban pollution monitoring and reduction. Currently, smart vehicles are equipped with sensors such as GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes. This enables crowd-based sensing, a new technique for gathering information that offers unprecedented flexibility, scale and resolution. Crowd-based sensing has the potential to generate a comprehensive view of phenomena such as urban traffic patterns, real-time city pollution maps and the micro-scale monitoring of land use that is difficult or impossible for previous techniques to produce. It also can offer direct benefits to individuals, such as faster and more fuel efficient commuting. 

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

Tian He is a McKnight Distinguished Land-Grant professor, an associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of Tian He.

Our previous work was focusing on how to improve efficiency and reduce the cost of public transportation systems, especially the taxi network. Now I am also interested in improving bike-sharing networks by utilizing human mobility patterns observed through cellular networks.

What is your current favorite project?

We propose to model behaviors of urban transportation systems with massive multi-modal online feeds and to apply effective local and global cyber-control.  Recently we made some progress in this direction. For example, my group has started investigating the Capital BikeShare system in Washington D.C. With the online data feed provided by Arlington County, we found a few key control issues, such as imbalanced bike usage leading to faster bike deterioration (high maintenance cost) and high overhead in rebalancing bikes with trucks. Through a data-driven approach, we were able to identify issues in existing transportation systems and aim to provide solutions for these systems.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Albert Einstein. I would like to ask him why he could think dramatically out of the box.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

It is science fiction, The Three-Body Problem.  It is a sci-fi story grounded with fascinating laws of physics. In my opinion, no other sci-fi book can compare.

Photo by Never House (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Study: Ag production contributes to CO2 spikes http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-ag-production-contributes-to-co2-spikes/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-ag-production-contributes-to-co2-spikes/#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 18:13:06 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4602 Continue reading Study: Ag production contributes to CO2 spikes ]]> MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/19/14) The application of a recently developed crop statistics database at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in conjunction with a carbon accounting model developed at Boston University has shown that intensified agricultural production in the northern hemisphere is generating up to a quarter of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality, reports a paper published in the November 5 issue of the journal Nature.

Deepak Ray, research associate at IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, who led the development of the dataset and contributed to this study, said, “This is the perfect example of assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of experts tackling an intractable problem of why the atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality is intensifying.”

Each year in the northern hemisphere, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide drop in the summer as plants inhale (absorb it for photosynthesis), and then climb again after their growing season. Over the past 50 years, the size of this seasonal swing has increased by as much as half, for reasons that aren’t fully understood. “Most of the explanations put forward to date involve climate warming, particularly at high latitudes, a longer growing season and enhanced photosynthetic activity, and greater plant productivity due to increasing atmospheric CO2,” says study co-author Steve Frolking of the University of New Hampshire.

The multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Boston University scientists has shown that agricultural production may generate up to a quarter of the increase in this seasonal carbon cycle, with corn playing a leading role. GLI’s crop database allowed the scientists to find that production of four leading crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans — that represent about 64 percent of all calories consumed worldwide in the northern hemisphere above the tropics has more than doubled since 1961, and after accounting for the carbon translates to about a billion metric tons of carbon captured and released each year.

These croplands are “ecosystems on steroids,” says Josh Gray, BU research assistant professor and lead author on the paper, noting that they occupy about 6 percent of the vegetative land area in the northern hemisphere but are responsible for up to a quarter of the total increase in seasonal carbon exchange of atmospheric CO2. “The fact that such a small land area can actually affect the composition of the atmosphere is an amazing fingerprint of human activity on the planet,” notes Mark Friedl, a professor in Boston University’s department of Earth and environment and senior author of the paper.

While increased crop production does not have much impact on the long-term increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, understanding the effects of agricultural production, the researchers say, will help to improve models of global climate, which currently do not represent agricultural management very well.

The paper, titled “Direct human influence on atmospheric CO2 seasonality from increased cropland productivity” can be viewed online at the journal Nature.

The research team includes lead authors Mark Friedl and Josh Gray of Boston University; Eric Kort, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire at Durham; Christopher Kucharik, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Navin Ramankutty, then at McGill University and now at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver; and Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment.

The research was funded primarily though programs supported by the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Deepak Ray was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and IonE.

Photo by James Clear (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Can computers protect us from swine flu? http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/can-computers-protect-us-from-swine-flu/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/can-computers-protect-us-from-swine-flu/#comments Tue, 18 Nov 2014 19:59:50 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4420 Continue reading Can computers protect us from swine flu? ]]> This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

What can computer models tell us about disease transmission in animals?

A lot, says Meggan Craft, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine who is working to reduce the toll of animal disease by improving our ability to understand disease transmission.

Craft uses computer modeling as an efficient and ethical tool for figuring out how diseases spread within animal populations — and between animals and humans — and beginning to understand how to control them.

Photo by Liam James Doyle, courtesy of the Minnesota Daily
Photo by Liam James Doyle, courtesy of the Minnesota Daily.

“I am interested in two fundamental questions,” says Craft, who earned an ecology, evolution and behavior Ph.D. at the U of M studying disease dynamics in African lions. “How are pathogens that infect multiple animal species maintained? And how does animal social structure and movement affect the spread of infectious disease?” The movement of animals, their social structure and the diseases transmitted among them is strongly influenced by the environment in which they live. Animal disease in turn can influence the environment as well — not the least by affecting our ability to produce food sustainably.

Take the influenza virus, which can spread between animals such as pigs, evolving into different strains as it gets passed back and forth between pigs, from pigs to people and from people to pigs. All human influenzas in recent history have originated in birds or swine. The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was a wake-up call that heralded the need for closer scrutiny and control of influenza in swine production, says Craft.

In a study supported by IonE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Craft and a University of Minnesota team used mathematical models to explore the dynamics of influenza at the farm level in “the first theoretical description of influenza dynamics in swine at the population level,” according to the study, published last August in PLoS ONE.

“Most swine in farms have the flu,” says Craft. “Pigs are mixing vessels for influenza. It gets mixed up and passed back and forth between pigs and can go back to humans. For pigs it’s not a huge problem, but it’s a public health concern.” Using data from previous experimental studies, the team examined various scenarios in the production process of an average commercial farm, where pigs are routinely vaccinated against influenza. They constructed two models: a breeding farm, where piglets acquire influenza infections and/or immunities from the mothers, and wean-to-finish farms, where pigs of all ages are housed together with varying degrees of immunity and susceptibility to disease.

“We found that vaccination is not as effective as was previously thought,” says Craft, adding that “no matter which type of vaccination strategy we used in the model, we found consistently high levels of infection in the piglet population. We will want to focus future research efforts on reducing infection in the piglets.”

“Working with Dr. Craft we were able to maximize the value of our data obtained under field and experimental conditions,” says Monserrat Torremorel, a co-author of the study. “We were able to build models to test options that will help producers and veterinarians to make better decisions. The study also illustrated gaps in our knowledge of swine influenza and serves as an instigator for new questions to be addressed.”

Throughout her career, Craft has paired knowledge of ecological processes with computer modeling skills to examine the spread and control of infectious diseases in carnivores in the Serengeti, raccoons in the midwestern U.S., and moose in northern Minnesota. She is currently collaborating with scientists on a cross-continental, cross disciplinary study of disease transmission in panthers, which currently receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

As an IonE resident fellow, Craft advances IonE’s mission of cross disciplinary collaboration to address environmental challenges and stresses the importance of research that incorporates mathematical modeling.

“Mathematical models are critical tools in the fight against infectious diseases – they allow for experiments that would otherwise be unethical or unachievable in the real world,” she says. “The Institute on the Environment helps us put ‘health’ into the broader context of the environment. The health of humans, animals and the environment is intricately connected.”

Banner photo by Steven & Claire Farnsworth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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U of M students attend national sustainability summit http://environment.umn.edu/news/u-of-m-students-participate-in-national-sustainability-summit/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/u-of-m-students-participate-in-national-sustainability-summit/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 21:30:51 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4586 Continue reading U of M students attend national sustainability summit ]]> Five students represented the University of Minnesota Sustainability Education at the largest conference on campus sustainability in North America last month. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Portland attracted sustainability thought leaders from every state and 12 countries to share strategies, research and leadership initiatives, and included a keynote address by Annie Leonard, creator of “The Story of Stuff.” Read the full story.

Photo by David Grant (Flickr /Creative Commons)

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6 things we learned about connecting kids with nature http://environment.umn.edu/event/6-things-we-learned-about-connecting-kids-with-nature/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/6-things-we-learned-about-connecting-kids-with-nature/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 18:26:48 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4567 Continue reading 6 things we learned about connecting kids with nature ]]> Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:

Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside.

Nature is important. Nature has been proven to be beneficial for children in almost all parts of their life. Not only does it help prevent obesity, reduce stress and build self-esteem, it can also help increase focus inside of the classroom. Moreover, cognitive functions, social skills, leadership and collaboration can all be improved by spending time outside. But the list doesn’t stop there. These are just some of the many benefits that children can gain by being connected with the natural world around them.

Never underestimate the benefit of a scraped knee. As a society, we’ve shifted our perception of risk. We’ve traded the physical risks of the outdoors in favor of the safety of the indoors. But it is important to recognize that this type of lifestyle carries its own types of risk, such as a reduced sense of community, lowered levels of self-confidence and many other psychological impacts. By spending less time outside, children are losing the opportunity to experience what they’re capable of. Falling and scraping your knee may hurt, but it also plays a fundamental role in childhood development by teaching kids about limits, danger and consequences.

Parental choices matter. Parents can help by getting outside and playing with their children. They can encourage free play and continue to emphasize play as children age. These experiences don’t always have to be adventurous trips to national parks. A trip to a local park or even playing in the backyard can be just as effective. Parents can also make intentional choices in other parts of life, such as where they send their children to school. They can also bond together to create groups that encourage outdoor play, such as the Family Nature Club.

Education and the environment don’t have to be an either-or. Instead of simply teaching about the environment, educators can use the environment to teach about all everything else. Known as the Environment as an Integrating Context model, this approach gets students actively engaged in what they’re learning. Students could read about a park while they’re sitting in it, or they could take inspiration from the outdoors to journal. Using the environment in this way also promotes transdisciplinary work, where teachers can work collaboratively across class boundaries.

It takes a village. True connections between children and nature will need more than individual actions. It will take a community effort. Policy-makers and planners can help by promoting green spaces. For example, Minneapolis has a goal of having every resident live within six blocks, or a 10-minute walk, from a park. This type of thinking and development can help re-create the bond between children and nature.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.

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A healthier diet could save you and the planet http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/a-healthier-diet-could-save-you-and-the-planet/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/a-healthier-diet-could-save-you-and-the-planet/#comments Wed, 12 Nov 2014 19:45:55 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4500 Continue reading A healthier diet could save you and the planet ]]> Eating less meat and fewer empty calories can help people live longer, healthier lives and also dramatically reduce environmental degradation, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

David Tilman, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and graduate student Michael Clark synthesized data on environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth. They found that adopting variations on three common diets — Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian — on a global scale would not only boost health, but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to the current emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships on Earth and prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas equivalent to half of the United States. Read the full news release.

Banner photo by Michel Bish (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Plants will soak up less CO2 than expected in the future http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/plants-will-soak-up-less-co2-than-expected-in-warming-world/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/plants-will-soak-up-less-co2-than-expected-in-warming-world/#comments Mon, 10 Nov 2014 22:00:32 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4527 Continue reading Plants will soak up less CO2 than expected in the future ]]> Scientists have long believed that plants’ ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the air will help mitigate the effects of global warming. But a new a study by Institute on the Environment resident fellows has uncovered limits to that assumption.

IonE resident fellows Peter Reich, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences professor; and Sarah Hobbie, College of Biological Sciences professor, are co-authors with Tali Lee of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire on the study, which was published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. In a five-year field experiment, the researchers found that plants grown in poor soils and with less-than-average rainfall lost their ability to use extra CO2. Read the full press release.

Photo by Free Photos & Art (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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7 things we learned about the ag transformation http://environment.umn.edu/event/7-things-we-learned-about-the-ag-transformation/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/7-things-we-learned-about-the-ag-transformation/#comments Thu, 06 Nov 2014 21:06:14 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4520 Continue reading 7 things we learned about the ag transformation ]]> What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by  IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:

Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity.

Continuous living cover is the first step. Continuous living cover involves the use of winter crops or coverings so large fields don’t remain barren during winter. Options include cover crops, green manures, agroforestry and polycultures. These crops can produce multiple benefits, such as being turned into biofuels.

Remember the economy. Continuous living cover may sound great, but unless it’s economically competitive it will not succeed. Luckily, new technologies have allowed for an expansion of bioeconomy into new foods, animal feeds and biofuels, and have boosted potential for local markets.

Expect new technology. New advances will be necessary to optimize sustainable intensification and utilize its products. Some are already well on their way to development, including the AFEX method (a biomass treatment process developed at Michigan State University) and advances in genome editing. Technology also has played a crucial role through geodesign technologies.

We’re already on our way. Through a series of workshops over the course of several months, researchers taught residents of the Seven Mile Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota about sustainable intensification and provided them with tools to apply this knowledge through geodesign. The results were positive.

Success involves collaboration. Collaboration played a key role in the workshop process and will be crucial in broader applications of the agricultural transformation. Successful implementation of sustainable intensification will require participation from all relevant stakeholders, including community members, governments, conservation groups and the agricultural industry.

Win + win + win + win. These concepts are especially exciting because they can benefit people across the board. Not only can they increase the productive capacity of agriculture and save money, they also have the potential to reduce environmental wrongs while utilizing local knowledge.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.

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Big opportunity for cereal manufacturers http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/big-opportunity-for-cereal-manufacturers/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/big-opportunity-for-cereal-manufacturers/#comments Thu, 06 Nov 2014 07:13:04 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4488 Continue reading Big opportunity for cereal manufacturers ]]> Manufacturers of breakfast cereal have a far greater opportunity to reduce their supply chain carbon footprint than do the farmers who produce the grain, according to a new study by IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

Agriculture, a leading emitter of greenhouse gas, is often the main target of carbon reduction strategies, leaving food manufacturers off the hook. But not so fast, says the NiSE study. Examining cereal’s supply chain, NiSE researchers  found that manufacturing has more than six times more opportunity than ag to reduce the carbon footprint of corn cereal products and more than three times the ability for wheat cereal products. Read the full press release

Photo by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

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4 things we learned about the environment and elections http://environment.umn.edu/news/4-things-we-learned-about-the-environment-and-elections/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/4-things-we-learned-about-the-environment-and-elections/#comments Mon, 03 Nov 2014 23:00:09 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4493 Continue reading 4 things we learned about the environment and elections ]]> Voters don’t always rank the environment high on their list of priorities during elections. With midterms coming up, Frontiers in the Environment took the problem head on and asked some local experts about the role of the environment in this year’s elections in Minnesota. David Gillette, special correspondent for Twin Cities Public Television, moderated a lively debate between Amy Koch, small business owner and former Minnesota Senate Republican majority leader, and Mark Andrew, a Democrat and former Hennepin County commissioner and president of GreenMark. Here are four things we learned.

Don’t underestimate PolyMet. What is the biggest environmental challenge facing Minnesota this year? Koch said it’s the proposed PolyMet mine. Andrew countered that this proposed copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota promises to bring hundreds of jobs, but at what cost? Toxic waste and pollution from the mine could pose a real threat to the natural areas of northern Minnesota, especially to the watersheds that feed into Lake Superior. This wedge issue could mean a lot for the future of Minnesota and could influence future decisions as well.

Energy is big. In addition to the PolyMet mine, the debate focused heavily on the topic of energy efficiency. Koch said Republicans tend to see the issue through an affordability and reliability lens; Andrew argued that renewables are actually the more economical choice if you take into account the life cycle costs of traditional energy sources. Is solar competitive? Does nuclear have a future in Minnesota? These are among the types of questions that face politicians and the public.

Politics continue to be politics. From energy efficiency to campaign spending, Andrew and Koch didn’t agree on much. Despite the polarization, as the debate shifted to questions about water quantity, both sides agreed that the system was flawed and inefficient, providing a glimmer of hope of possible cooperation in the future.

“Emails, calls, visits to politicians do matter.” These wise words are from the insider’s perspective Koch received during her time in office. If you don’t like how things are being handled, then you have to make your voice heard, she said. That means voting and getting to know your representatives. You can’t complain if you aren’t acting.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.

Photo by Animesh Kumar (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

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Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonE http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/pandas-and-agricultural-best-practices-at-ione/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/pandas-and-agricultural-best-practices-at-ione/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 17:24:38 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=4425 Continue reading Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonE ]]> There’s a panda at the Institute on the Environment — a World Wildlife Fund “panda,” that is. Derric Pennington, a senior conservation scientist with WWF and part of Natural Capital Project–WWF, has taken up residency here and is collaborating with IonE on several research projects, including one with The Coca-Cola Company and the Luc Hoffman Institute to assess just how effective sustainability certification standards are at improving our environmental footprint.

Sustainability certification of a commodity is like a best-management-practices treaty among stakeholders in the commodity’s supply chain. Take the Bonsucro certification standard, for example. A worldwide sugar cooperative, Bonsucro requires “producers, buyers and others involved in sugar and ethanol businesses to obtain products derived from sugarcane that have been produced according to agreed, credible, transparent and measurable criteria . . .  that promote measurable improvements in the key economic, environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production,” according to its website. 

In the case of sugar, as in most commodities, the environmental impacts include those affecting ecosystem services such as water use, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

This is where WWF comes in. One of the world’s largest conservation groups is expanding their scope to research how ecosystem services can benefit both people and wildlife. Pennington is helping inform the organization about whether certification can help agribusinesses that buy agricultural commodities such as sugar, palm oil, soy and timber influence the sustainability of their production. If so, it could greatly improve conservation outcomes.

“We want to know, what are the environmental implications of adopting commodity certification?” says Pennington. “If we did adopt 100 percent of certification requirements, what are the expected outcomes?” The answer to those questions can help inform the management decisions of the businesses that produce or purchase the commodities or the policy decisions of the governments that regulate them, he says.

Pennington working with Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Keeler.

To get at these answers, Pennington is teaming up with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and Natural Capital Project strategic initiatives to develop computer models that will map and quantify the influence of commodity standards on things such as species habitat, water quality and carbon sequestration.

“IonE has the opportunity to distill big questions and illuminate ways going forward. They bring excellence and relevance to scientific study – that’s why you partner with IonE,” says Pennington. His team will apply the models to future land use scenarios (such as alternative climates and differing demand levels for food and fuel) as well as varying adoption rates of commodity standards to predict what the net change in environmental, economic and social outcomes would be in 2050.

How does The Coca-Cola Company fit in? The company purchases commodities for its soft drinks and other products from suppliers all over the world. The company has a goal to source sustainably produced agricultural commodities and actively encourages the adoption of sustainable best practices throughout its supply chain.

Ensuring the sustainable production of corn, which The Coca-Cola Company uses in many of its beverages, is of particular interest. To zoom in on the local impacts of sustainable corn production on ecosystem services and how adoption of best management practices could improve the sustainability of corn’s supply chain, the team will conduct an on-the-ground case study with farmers and others in the supply chain in the Middle Cedar Watershed in Iowa. The Nature Conservancy and DuPont Pioneer are also partners on the project.

“We’ll be looking at spatially explicit practices and measuring things like water quality and carbon sequestration, mapping and assessing a value for those ecosystem services,” says Pennington. He predicts the project will show that incorporating the value of ecosystem services into our food system will likely come with a higher price tag because these values are not currently included in the commodity marketplace.

Pennington says there are several questions to consider. “Are prices too low for commodities? Should consumers or companies pay more for commodities that maintain or improve ecosystem services? Or should incentives to producers come from the federal and local government?”

There are more questions than answers, Pennington admits, but he expects the project to be influential. “Corporations have leverage. If they all made a commitment to only purchase commodities grown with certain BMPs, it could have a major impact on conservation.”

Banner photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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