Category Archives: Environmental

Digital twins ‘the final frontier’

Digital twin technology means a lot for flood preparedness, drainage and wastewater management and a host of other things in the water sector and beyond. It also has a lot to do with running business differently as the knowledge obtained from digital twins, including how to aggregate and visualise data, has large potential to shape the future of decision-making and data.

For those unaware, digital twin is a bit of buzzword that is catching on in academic, industry and policy worlds that refers to a live real time digital counterpart of physical systems we encounter in the real world. It’s closely related to what people in academia and industry also call ‘cyber-physical’ (more about this in our podcast on ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’). Continue reading Digital twins ‘the final frontier’

Moving towards a circular economy

What we waste has the potential to aid or severely harm us. As a species, we have the tendency to waste material resources at a scale that is unprecedented, especially plastics.

Many countries (mostly richer ones), live in a culture of excess or so called ‘throwaway culture’. The fashion industry as a whole doesn’t seem to even attempt to acknowledge this, probably not unlike the injustice of sweatshop labour in factories that produce their clothing. Similar to transparency in the garment industry, we need transparency on waste too.

But there are of course exceptions and likely many more are growing in response to planetary pressures. One of them is Sea Pigs based in Newcastle who make footwear designed to be recycled. I actually ran into their CEO once on Northumberland Street while giving a public survey on climate change, so thought it worth mentioning them.

Textiles as I learned at the Ending Waste event at Newcastle Helix, have a high carbon footprint, one that is easily ignored by consumers (I have many cloth bags too, just remember to use them for shopping at least 300 times). To really value materials, we need to move to something better – use less and do more with what we have.

A circular economy begins and ends with resource instead of waste, in fact, it doesn’t really end at all. It valorises products derived from natural resources that we otherwise throw away, and which inevitably clog the ecological systems we depend upon for survival. Cities throughout the world are doing more to embrace or at least help along mainly linear modes of material disposal and recycling, shaping them into circular ones. Continue reading Moving towards a circular economy

Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy

Professor Giles Budge & Brett Cherry

There are between 25,000 to 30,000 bee species living today that affect 35% of global agricultural land. Therefore, we need an international understanding of honeybee health, both in terms of the pathogens and environmental factors that affect them, and what beekeepers can do to improve the health and ecological status of bees.

Bees are threatened by a range of factors: from diseases to pesticides. Being an especially sensitive species of insect, it is no surprise that climate change also affects bees. The primary culprits threatening bee survival include habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and pathogens.

Previous research found that local species are more likely to survive than non-local ones in Europe. In South Africa, the location of the colony strongly influenced the prevalence of autumn mites and viruses.

Research on beekeeper education and disease control published in Plos One, identified key risk factors that lead to the death of honeybee colonies. It was the first surveillance programme done on randomly selected participants and used standardised methods to monitor the health of the honeybee colony, pests, diseases and management practices across 17 European countries from 2012-14.

While there is variation in colony losses across EU member states, and between years of the study, the role of beekeepers in protecting honeybee colonies appears indispensable. Continue reading Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy

Tools for making cities better prepared for disasters

If cities are to overcome the numerous challenges they are currently facing, including disasters, then it requires an array of sustainable techniques, methods and approaches for managing them. Cities are robust, often resilient but also fragile in the wake of perplexing environmental problems, such as climate change.

To clarify things a bit – hazards themselves are not disasters until they harm or eliminate life. A large-scale asteroid impact is most certainly a hazard but it will not be a disaster unless it harms life or damages the processes that support it. Earthquakes and flood hazards may be potentially disastrous but only in reference to the living things they are at risk of destroying.

The good news about disasters is that while they are not always preventable, it is possible to reduce their impacts through human means. In this geological epoch, climate change will persist regardless of human intervention, but its future impacts remain an open question – and humans have a strong role to play.

The people involved are as, if not more important, than the technical and scientific tools employed. Now is the time for cities to move forward in using the many available  tools for improving cities, some of which are created and demonstrated through publicly-funded research. Continue reading Tools for making cities better prepared for disasters

Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

How do you ensure that no one is left behind in making clean water and sanitation available to all? The water cycle is not a bad place to start and it can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Water is an integral part of life, and we interact with it often, including the infrastructure that delivers water to the places we live in.

To come to grips with how water exists on this planet no one part of the water cycle can be studied in complete isolation from the other. There are simply too many factors involved that affect water such as climate, pollution, water usage, wastewater treatment, water catchments and so forth.

This graphic illustrates how research in different areas of water are important to the whole picture of the water system which involves human activities like industry and policy as much as ‘natural’ or non-anthropogenic ones. It provides a holistic representation of some of the key research areas at Newcastle University in water, particularly from the School of Engineering.

We think this diagram provides a useful metaphor for how water research is integrated. For example, what is done for climate impacts and adaptation is directly applicable to water resources management, including managing flood risks. Continue reading Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

Achieving water security for all

Water security is a major challenge for countries throughout the world, especially urban and rural communities in developing countries. Water related disease kills more than 3.4 million people every year, making it the leading cause of death.

While water is a human right according to the United Nations, for everyone to have access to safe, potable drinking water and adequate sanitation requires significant advancement in water infrastructure, governance and education.

To provide the 2.1 billion people on the planet who lack readily available drinking water at home requires more than technological innovation, it demands collaborations that may appear ambitious in scope, but nevertheless are necessary for resolving deep rooted problems of water security.

The GCRF Water Security Hub led by Newcastle University makes possible the collaborations needed to address water security in the developing world in a holistic way. I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the key researchers in the Hub from Newcastle in engineering and the social sciences.

In Part 2 of this episode of the Science Perspective podcast they explain the importance of water security, and how the Hub is working with multiple stakeholders to achieve SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

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You can also catch up on Part 1.

 

Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond

Looking to the near future — 2019 — there are four topics, four ideas I wish to highlight that could revolutionise not only how we tackle climate change, but many other global challenges the world is facing for sustainable development.

  • Revolutionise the energy system
  • Make circular economy a reality
  • Clean water and sanitation infrastructure for all
  • Spread electric vehicles

Revolutionise energy

Energy? On this planet it all begins with the sun really.

It’s a simple yet powerful (no pun intended) scientific fact that energy underlies everything. If we didn’t have it we wouldn’t exist and without the concept our lives would be radically different from what they are today. But let’s keep it to things like electricity and heat for the moment.

We need to generate more of them and use what we have more wisely, but the energy dense yet carbon heavy materials we’ve relied on since prior to the industrial revolution are a no go for the future. Embarrassingly, they’re on the rise despite progress made in renewables and decarbonisation.

Beyond emissions there were already in place good reasons NOT to burn fossil fuels. Remember acid rain? How about air pollution? Which cities finally seem to be paying attention to again because people are dropping like flies because of air contamination. Did you know that communities downwind of coal fired power stations are more likely to have children with birth defects? How about the impacts coal has on landscapes, water and air, all resources we cannot live without?

Continue reading Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond

Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

Humans and animals share a deep relationship going back to early homo sapiens. With the exception of pets, in many cases we eat each other, but since humans have dominated the planet — normally we eat them. This has not been more the case than in livestock farming where animals are raised for food and are depended on for survival, not only for nutrition, but people’s livelihoods.

Many of the farms in the UK produce cattle and sheep for food. Endemic disease in livestock is a major global challenge, and could likely continue in future if something isn’t done to prevent livestock disease from growing and spreading in the first place.

While TB and foot and mouth catch the headlines, endemic diseases like Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) have been a major problem. 11% of BVD cases in Europe have been in the UK and the national cost has been estimated as high as £61m per year.

Whether livestock disease becomes a problem largely depends upon the practices of farmers and their advisers. Not all farming systems are the same and many of them have a history that goes back a long time. This means solving the problem of disease may not be solely down to applying the ‘right’ scientific or technological solution.

Continue reading Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

Testing green approaches for urban flooding

“Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! I was caught In the middle of a railroad track, I looked round and I knew there was no turning back”

From the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

In June 2012 the city of Newcastle endured one of its greatest floods in history, infamously named the ‘Toon Monsoon’. It unleased 50mm of rainfall, the equivalent of one month’s rain falling within the span of two hours, and most of the flooding took place in the first 30 minutes. I remember it well, particularly people canoeing down Chillingham Road in the nearby neighbourhood of Heaton.

I watched most of the carnage ensue from my upper floor flat on the top of Shields Road in Byker. At the time I was safe, many were not. More than 500 homes were flooded in the city and 1200 properties in total were affected. The collective damages caused by the deluge were large and the impact of ‘Thunder Thursday’ was felt throughout the city. Now Newcastle is a demonstrator city for blue-green infrastructure focusing on practical solutions to reducing flood risk. Times have changed.

Flooding is a major problem for many cities, particularly in the wake of climate change. It is generally agreed that rainfall has and will increase as a result of the anthropogenic warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. What is less clear is how we prepare urban areas for flooding caused by intense heavy rainfall, especially if it occurs suddenly without warning. Cities are actually ideal test beds for new sustainable ways to mitigate flooding because they are usually densely populated, with mostly paved surfaces and have many buildings which are vulnerable to flooding.

Continue reading Testing green approaches for urban flooding