HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Eye on the prize

Director’s Almanac: Eye on the prize

Well, it’s official! After months of organizational redesign and an extensive job search, we just announced two new associate directors. I’m extremely excited to begin working with Melissa Kenney (Associate Director for Knowledge Initiatives) and Cathy Jordan (Associate Director for Leadership and Education). They’ll join our third AD, Todd Reubold, who is leading our newly formed J-Lab (“j” is for “journalism”). I’m thrilled with the outcome of these searches and humbled by the expertise and experience these women bring to our organization.

Appointing these ADs is a real milestone in IonE’s strategic planning process. We have worked over the past year to sharpen the institute’s focus on its three core capacities and focus those strengths on working toward shared goals.

It was an honor – and a big task – to spend 2018 repositioning and strengthening IonE, and I dedicated several blog posts last year to those pursuits. As we turn the corner into 2019, however, I’m going to turn my blogging attention back to sustainability science and to important ideas arising from my research and experiences as a sustainability leader. As we say in IonE’s new strategic plan, we must fill critical knowledge gaps to make progress on building a future where people and planet prosper together.

So back to the research bench I go, sharing this month two important findings published already this year that reveal how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow adaptation around the world and here in the Midwest.

1) It is incorrect to assume that countries need to grow emissions in order to make gains in climate change adaptation. Martina Grecequet, Eri Saikawa and I recently conducted some analyses that compared trends in greenhouse gas emissions with trends in the ability to adapt to climate change, for hundreds of countries around the world.

It’s a common assumption in international development that countries have to grow their economy (with greenhouse gas emissions) to build up assets and capacities that defend against the impacts of climate change. Some have even argued that it is unethical to deprive developing countries of economic development from fossil fuels, because they need that economic growth to face climate threats and climate-related disasters.

Our analysis, however, which draws on global emissions data and the Global Adaptation Index, shows 42 (23 percent) countries around the world bucking that assumption – these are countries that are decreasing their emissions while also increasing their adaptation to climate change. As a group, they are responsible – in 2015 – for 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This group includes countries that are increasing the use of renewable energy (e.g., countries in the EU such as Belgium and France) and also less developed countries including Gabon and Nigeria.

We can learn from the countries that are finding their way to greater climate protection while reducing their contribution to the climate change problem. As a group, they saw the greatest adaptation gains in the sectors of ecosystem services and human habitats. Adaptation in these sectors isn’t always expensive; protecting natural areas, for example, can be a lower-cost solution to climate protection.

If we are going to hold global emissions below 2 degrees C of warming (as the Paris Agreement aims to do), we will need to find new paths of economic development, and this paper suggests that examples of doing that are beginning to emerge. This is a hopeful pattern that needs to be rapidly spread around the world.

2) Just five financial mechanisms could reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to closing 12 coal-fired power plants. Agronomists and other agricultural scientists have known for some time that certain farm practices such as cover and perennial crops, no-till and crop rotation can decrease fertilizer run-off, increase soil health and store carbon. But these practices have failed to spread at a large scale, often because farmers lack incentives to use them.

In a recent paper, a group of agricultural experts convened at IonE identified a set of five financial mechanisms that could make a difference in the use of beneficial farm practices. Those mechanisms include: changes to crop insurance subsidies, changing the way that companies provide agricultural consulting services, expanding and targeting funding under the Farm Bill, developing new state funds, and directing disaster relief to floodplain restoration.

If all five of the mechanisms were applied in the U.S. Midwest – and beneficial farm practices adopted as a result – we estimated that fertilizer run-off to the Mississippi River would be reduced by 25 percent. And it would fight climate change on par with closing a bunch of coal plants, a well-understood source of greenhouse gas emissions. Adopting these mechanisms is feasible, though not easy to do politically, but knowing how much of a difference it would make is a step toward building political will.

In both of these new studies, we examine not how to do sustainability — specifying sustainability technologies or techniques — but how much those strategies are needed and what difference they can make. Working toward sustainability can seem daunting, but research like this is critical to keeping our eye on the prize and measuring our progress toward a future where people and planet prosper together.

Up next: In a future post, I’ll talk about a new venture that I’m part of called Geofinancial Analytics that is taking the methane emission world by storm. Stay tuned!

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