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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Artificial Intelligence’s contribution to food security


Summary

To tackle food security challenges and feed a growing global population, research on AI contributions to food security is gaining traction. Nano-enabled agriculture might contribute to more sustainable agricultural systems by enabling farmers to respond in real time to crop or soil changes. 

Information

Climate change, population growth and competing demands on land use make it increasingly challenging to feed the world’s population. The UN estimates that by 2030, 840 million people will be affected by hunger and current estimates show nearly 690 million people or 9 per cent of the planet’s population suffer from food deprivation. Turning to new frontiers in food production, nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help reduce these numbers by enabling farmers to streamline their production processes. Approaches to precision agriculture enabled by nanotechnology and AI could support efficient applications of fertiliser to respond to changes in crop fertility and soil needs in real time. The approach links information about nutrient cycles and crop productivity with nano-informatics to boost crop and soil performance. 

Implications and opportunities

Practical solutions to tackle food security challenges will need to combine approaches from several fields and disciplines. Here, researchers are proposing to use AI to harness the capacities of nanomaterial to improve food production processes. To be successful, farmers, policy makers, and scientists need to understand the long-term impacts of nanomaterials in agricultural environments, including how these materials interact with roots, leaves and soils. Taking a systems-level approach to nano-enabled agriculture could contribute to practical approaches towards sustainable agricultural systems. These contributions could include raising production rates and crop yields, cultivating soil health and plant resilience, and improving the efficient use of resources such as fertilisers while simultaneously reducing the pollution potential from fertiliser run-offs and alerting farmers to real-time changes of crops in response to environmental stresses. 

Limitations

While there is increased interest in the application potential of AI and nanomaterials in agriculture, research on nano-enabled agriculture remains in its infancy. Further research is needed on computational approaches in agriculture to gain regulatory acceptance and ensure reliable safety assessments of nanomaterials to ensure the development of safe-by-design nanomaterials for consumer products. 

Sources

Zhang, P., Guo, Z., Ullah, S., Melagraki, G., Afantitis, A. and Lynch, I., 2021. Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to enable sustainable and precision agriculture. Nature Plants, pp.1-13.

Jefferson, R., (2021). How AI and nanotechnology offer solutions to global food security threats. Retrieved from https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/32097/20210705/ai-nanotechnology-o...

 

Tackling phosphate pollution in lakes, rivers, and other waterways


Summary

As farmers around the globe face shortages of phosphate-based fertilisers, these non-renewable resources can be found at excessive levels in waterways due to agricultural run-offs. This can often lead to algae blooms and oxygen depletion in waterways which threaten fish populations. In a paradigm shift away from simply removing phosphate from waterways to combat pollutions towards a more circular economy, researchers are testing novel ways of recovering phosphate from water and re-using it as fertiliser.

Information

Phosphate pollution in rivers, lakes, or other waterways from fertiliser run-off has reached excessive levels. Increased presence of phosphate in water can often lead to hyper-nutritious water which can cause algae blooms, a process known as eutrophication. Paradoxically, farmers around the globe are facing phosphate fertiliser procurement challenges, as phosphate is a non-renewable resource and its regular extraction has caused global reserves to steadily decline. As such, phosphorus underpins functions of global ecosystems and our current food system. To combat excessive levels of phosphate in waterways, an increasing number of researchers are turning their eye towards methods of recovering phosphate from waterways and redeploying it as fertiliser on crops and soils. For example, a new technology uses porous membranes in a flexible sponge to sequester phosphate from polluted water. By controlling the sponge’s PH levels, it either absorbs or releases phosphate for either recovery or reuse during many cycles. 

Implications and opportunities

As levels of phosphate and other minerals rise in waterways, these high levels of nutrients can often lead to widespread growth of aquatic plants and algae blooms. These algae blooms can deprive waterways of oxygen, leading to critical challenges for fish populations which rely on sufficiently oxygenated water to survive. In combination with increased temperatures and light penetrations, phosphate pollution has led to frequent pollution of drinking water. However, considering phosphate fertiliser shortages in agriculture, emphasis has recently shifted away from removing phosphate towards a circular economy approach, whereby phosphate is recovered for reuse to improve crop yields and soil fertility on land, improve drinking water quality, and restore habitat conditions for fish populations. 

Limitations

Researchers recommend controlled removal of phosphate from waterways as there is a fine balance between minimum levels of phosphate that are needed for ecosystems to survive and excessive levels of phosphate which lead to eutrophication on the other end of the scale. 

Sources

Ribet, S.M., Shindel, B., Dos Reis, R., Nandwana, V. and Dravid, V.P., 2021. Phosphate Elimination and Recovery Lightweight (PEARL) membrane: A sustainable environmental remediation approach. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(23).

Quraishi, A., (2021). Scientists removing phosphate contamination in water with sponge filtering. Retrieved from https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/national/scientists-removing-phosp...

 

Nature based solutions: Partnering with nature to prevent fires and droughts


Summary

Approaches to NbS should shift from nature providing goods and services to an integrated view that allows dynamic human-environment relationships to form. An integrated view that looks to partner with nature—instead of benefitting from nature—could allow for cost and time efficient NbS that build resilience and address environmental and social challenges. For example, California has benefitted from an integrated approach to fire and drought prevention measures which placed beaver-assisted natural restoration at the heart of their strategies.

Information

Increasingly, organisations and governments are looking towards nature-based solutions (NbS) as strategies to mitigate climate change. In particular, NbS could play a key role in contributing to resilient natural infrastructures which can help address climate change, food and water insecurity, and biodiversity loss. NbS allow nature to become an integrated part of the response to environmental and social challenges, and researchers are advocating for NbS to be seen as dynamic relationships between people and nature. NbS should stretch beyond transactional approaches to nature’s contributions to mitigating climate change. Instead, NbS should foster interrelated connections between people and nature. Re-thinking the concept of NbS as expressions of human-nature relationships could help shape practical solutions that build resilience in nature and society. The reframing of NbS away from transactional solutions to dynamic and integrated relationships allows people to become part of NbS and opens space for nature to become more than providing goods and services. 

Implications and opportunities

When designing NbS as human-nature partnerships, NbS can significantly contribute to building resilience. For example, people and governments in California have been looking to beavers as an NbS for fire, drought, and flood prevention. Beaver-assisted restorations of desert floodplains to marshy floodplains allowed California to significantly improve its fire prevention strategies at a substantially cheaper price and faster pace than isolated human resaturation. As wildfires are becoming more intense and frequent, the cost of burnt agricultural land, displacement, disruption, re-building and associated insurance claims are increasing exponentially. In the case of beaver-assisted restoration, beavers that caused damage in other places are humanely relocated to build dams, forms ponds, and dig canals which irrigate stream corridors and create fireproof shelters for plants and animals. The relocated beavers further increase water quality, support local fish populations, carbon sequestration and eliminate invasive species after burns. As such, other approaches to beaver–assisted land revitalisation include the re-location of troublesome beavers to Utah to combat river degradation caused by excessive irrigation, pollution, and river mismanagement. Following the success of beaver-assisted restoration in the US, the UK is looking to beaver dams as an NbS to decrease the impacts and costs of flooding. By working with nature, NbS allow for dynamic solutions that increase resilience and address environmental and social challenges.

Limitations

Despite increasing advocacy and support for NbS, there is no universally accepted definition of NbS, their design, or implementation. Further work will be needed to explore guiding principles for policy makers and organisations to obtain a deeper understanding of NbS, their potential and their limitations.

Sources

Welden, E.A., et.al. (2021). Leveraging Nature-based Solutions for transformation: Reconnecting people and nature. People and Nature. DOI:10.1002/pan3.10212

Sheriff, L., (2021). The beavers returning to the desert. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210713-the-beavers-returning-to-the...

 

Trade-offs between Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and sustainable water management


Summary

Carbon negative technologies play a key role in mitigating climate change and reaching net zero. However, many technologies can have side-effects and trade-offs that require careful consideration prior to their application. For example, deploying BECCS at scale would cause severe water stress which would negate the technology’s benefits and should be considered by organisations.

Information

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a negative emissions technology that is widely seen as a key technology to curb carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. BECCS describes a process of extracting bioenergy from biomass, then capturing and storing emitted carbon in geological reservoirs. This process is seen as carbon negative as the biomass is produced from plants that uptake carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their growth process. However, there are increasing concerns that scaling up BECCS may cause challenges to water and resources needed to grow bio-energy crops. For example, the irrigation needed for crop production to scale up BECCS may lead to severe water stress, outweighing the benefits for climate change mitigation. New research finds that when taking water use sustainability into consideration, BECCS could only increase by 5-6% in order to ensure the continued availability of local and downstream water for conventional water use and environmental flow requirements.

Implications and opportunities

Using BECCS at scale with the goal of mitigating climate change could leave billions of people with difficulties in accessing water. Irrigating enough crops to fuel bioenergy process to stay under the 1.5°C limit would leave 4.58 billion people experiencing high water stress by 2100 – 300 million more than a 3°C temperature rise in which BECCS is not used. This highlights that the Earth is a holistic system and the consequent need for in-depth considerations of consequences or trade-offs from key technologies for mitigating climate change. As such, researchers are calling for a comprehensive assessment of technologies like BECCS to consider both potential benefits and adverse effects for achieving multiple and interrelated SDGs on climate, land, water, and people. Based on these assessments, the role of carbon negative technologies in achieving net zero may need to be reconsidered. Alternatively, researchers may need to explore more sustainable sources of biomass—such as biomass from industrial waste streams—as an alternative basis for BECCS. 

Limitations

Further work is needed to fully explore the potential impacts and trade-offs of carbon negative technologies. Additional research will be needed to investigate policy advice on how to best balance trade-off between technological solutions for SDGs. This includes different approaching to modelling the effects and trade-offs from carbon negative technologies. 

Sources

Ai, Z., Hanasaki, N., Heck, V., Hasegawa, T. and Fujimori, S., 2021. Global bioenergy with carbon capture and storage potential is largely constrained by sustainable irrigation. Nature Sustainability, pp.1-8.

Vaughn, A., (2021). Carbon-negative crops may mean water shortages for 4.5 billion people. Retrieved from https://institutions.newscientist.com/article/2270227-carbon-negative-cr...

 

Conflicts between global energy use and decent standards of living 


Summary

In our current economic system, countries with the highest standard of living have the highest levels of energy consumption. It suggests that high levels of energy use are necessary to achieve decent standards of living. To address this challenge, researchers are calling on governments to make fundamental changes to the current economic systems. This includes moving away from economic growth and resource extraction while prioritising public services and fair income distribution.  

Information

To reach the aspirations of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the current global energy use will need to be cut in half. However, limiting global energy use to 27 gigajoules per person will require some affluent countries—such as the UK—to cut their average energy use by as much as 65 per cent while energy use is set to rise in developing countries. This is due to required improvements to achieve decent living standards for all and end material poverty. In the current economic system, reducing the energy use in affluent countries could undermine living standards while improving living standards in developing countries would require large increases in energy consumption. To address this potentially paradoxical development, research is calling for fundamental changes to our economic system which stretch beyond the reduction of energy use. 

Implications and opportunities

As countries with high standards of living have the highest level of energy consumption, researchers are exploring new ways to raise standards of living while reducing global energy use. To achieve this goal, governments could improve public service, develop basic infrastructures, reduce income disparities, scale back resource extraction, and shift to the pursuit of alternative objectives to economic growth. This includes improved access to health, education, and public transport to raise living standards and reduce energy consumption. Mechanisms to increase living standards could include high minimum wages, Universal Basic Income, or maximum income levels while energy use could be lowered by ensuring access to affordable and reliable electricity and modern fuels. These fundamental changes to our current economic system could promote human well-being, climate justice, energy security, and aid the eradication of poverty.

Limitations

Changes to our economic system will need to be driven at the international, national, and local level. Therefore, the above listed measures serve as guidelines that require careful adaption and tailoring to local contexts prior to their application.

Sources

Vogel, J., Steinberger, J.K., O'Neill, D.W., Lamb, W.F. and Krishnakumar, J., 2021, April. Socio-economic conditions for satisfying human needs at low energy use: an international analysis of provisioning factors. In EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts (pp. EGU21-13703).

Eurasia Review (2021). Securing decent living standards for all while reducing global energy use. Available at: https://www.eurasiareview.com/30062021-securing-decent-living-standards-...

 

Financing a sustainable ocean economy


Summary

Achieving a sustainable ocean economy will be key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the required transitions often lack resourcing and financing. To address this challenge, scientists are calling on governments to create enabling environments for investors and insurance organisations to invest in a sustainable ocean economy.

Information

Ocean pollution is amongst the most urgent pollution challenges of the 21st century, with increasingly high levels of public awareness and negative consequences for the ocean economy. Between 1990 and 2015 alone, an estimated 100 million metric tons of mostly plastic waste entered the oceans and incentivised the UN to announce a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development at the start of 2021. This coincides with recent estimates valuing the ocean economy at approximately USD $1.5 trillion in 2010 with estimates projected to increase to USD $3 trillion in 2030. However, ocean pollution, alongside anthropogenic and climate pressures, is eroding the health and resilience of marine ecosystems and transitioning to more sustainable practices is expensive. To enable a sustainable ocean economy, scientists are calling on policy makers and the investment community to create a positive environment for attracting sustainable ocean finance. 

Implications and opportunities

Achieving a sustainable ocean economy that benefits society and business in both the Global North and Global South will depend on attracting sufficient public and private investments in the ocean economy. This includes creating higher quality and investible projects with appropriate deal sizes, risk-return ratios to match available capital, and risk mitigation procedures. These projects could include all ocean-based industries, including seafood production, shipping, renewable energy, and ecosystem goods and services like climate regulation or costal protection. Achieving sustainable oceans may require an effort akin to the Paris Agreement to close the current gap in blue financing, and scientists are calling for stronger public-private partnerships to foster positive environments for investment and insurance communities to invest in sustainable ocean economies. 

Limitations

The referenced papers provide a theoretical framework of action for a sustainable ocean economy. However, political realities and sensitivities may prevent fast action on creating enabling environments that attract sufficient finance.

Sources

Bellou, N., Gambardella, C., Karantzalos, K., Monteiro, J.G., Canning-Clode, J., Kemna, S., Arrieta-Giron, C.A. and Lemmen, C., 2021. Global assessment of innovative solutions to tackle marine litter. Nature Sustainability, 4(6), pp.516-524.

Sumaila, U.R., Walsh, M., Hoareau, K., Cox, A., Teh, L., Abdallah, P., Akpalu, W., Anna, Z., Benzaken, D., Crona, B. and Fitzgerald, T., 2021. Financing a sustainable ocean economy. Nature communications, 12(1), pp.1-11.