Agricultural intensification not a “blueprint” for sustainable development

Social and ecological results of increased agricultural intensification are not as positive as expected.

Tracking the battles for environmental justice: here are the world’s top 10

Today is World Environment Day. Environmental conflicts should not be seen as disruptions to smooth governance, fixable with market solutions, technology or police bullets.

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The ICTA-UAB alerts of a new invasive Asian beetle pest in Catalonia that kills mulberry trees

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More than 120 ICTA-UAB researchers addressed environmental challenges at a symposium, especially those arising from global and...

The Institut of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) organized its 1st Spring Symposium with the aim of addressing some of the main environmental and sustainability challenges.

Call for 2 Post-doc Fellowships for Climate Change Research

Call for 2 Post-doc Fellowships for Climate Change Research.

Spain: Industry sides with science

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Low-carbon energy transition requires more renewables than previously thought

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Are Farmers Who Belong to Local User Associations Better Adapted to Climate Change?

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Se prevén niveles de polen altos para esta primavera

 Investigadores de la Red Aerobiològica de Catalunya del ICTA-UAB y del Departamento de Biología Animal, Biología Vegetal y Ecología de la UAB han presentado hoy las previsiones de los niveles de polen y esporas en la atmósfera en Catalunya para la primavera y el verano.

Climate Change Threatens World's Largest Seagrass Carbon Stores

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Amazon's indigenous people hunt animals feeding in areas contaminated by oil spills

A study by the ICTA-UAB and the UAB Department of Animal Health and Anatomy demonstrates that the main species hunted by the indigenous popoulations of the Peruvian Amazon ingest water and soil contaminated with hidrocarbons and heavy metals.

The new Planttes app warns of allergy risks in different urban areas

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Global climate treaty easier to negotiate if guided by Human Development Index

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New Project to Link Extreme Weather Events, Atmospheric Biodiversity and Human Health

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Bolivian Amazon on road to deforestation

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ICTA-UAB’s success: five ERC grants in two years

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Scientists Alert of Swift Degradation of Marine Ecosystems and Grave Consequences for the Planet

A book edited by researchers from the ICTA-UAB, the UB, the CNRS and the IEO addresses the concept of "animal forest" and highlights the importance of the role seas and oceans have in combating climate change.

ICTA-UAB researcher Victoria Reyes-García receives an ERC Consolidator Grant

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Research to study the health effects of forests

The ICTA-UAB, CREAF and the "la Caixa" Bank Foundation recently presented the project "Healthy Forests for a Healthy Society".

Launch of the Alliance of Severo Ochoa Centres and Maria de Maeztu Units of Excellence

​ The Secretary of State for R&D+i, Carmen Vela, chaired the kickoff meeting of the new Severo Ochoa and Maria Maeztu Alliance of Excellence.

EJAtlas Includes 2,100 Case Studies on Socio-Environmental Conflicts Around the World

The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas), created by researchers of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), currently includes 2,100 cases of ecological distribution conflicts identified in different parts of the world.

Ice age thermostat prevented extreme climate cooling

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New ICTA-UAB 'Welcome Guide'

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What If Solar Energy Becomes Really Cheap? A Thought Experiment on 'Environmental Problem Shifting'

Date: 2016-04-29

A study on the development of future energy has shown the need to consider the ultimate consequences of these. For this, it addresses three possible scenarios: business-as-usual, developing cheap solar energy and gradually changing to a new renewable technology. It concludes which would be the least intrusive overall and suggests a more integrated research on the subject to obtain more complete and balanced data, since the solution to certain problems could lead to the aggravation of others.

Solving one environmental problem may often invoke or intensify another. Such environmental problem shifting (EPS) is a neglected topic in global sustainability research. Our paper identifies relevant studies, and provides an illustration and guidelines for the systematic study of EPS.
The issue of shifting problems has been under-investigated, perhaps because the study of environmental science and policy is divided into so many disciplines and specializations. Models that are good in describing environmental component linkages tend to have a very simple representation of behavioral and economic dimensions, or are missing altogether. This means that it is difficult to trace problem shifting due to behavioral or economic mechanisms. We qualitatively assess the likely environmental problem shifting of three hypothetical energy futures to highlight the possibility that as we resolve energy-climate problems, others may be aggravated.
A business-as-usual (BAU) scenario is an extrapolation of the current situation, with weak policies that do not considerably reduce carbon dioxide emissions and with a serious risk of peak oil leading to rising prices of oil in the long term. The second scenario, cheap solar energy due to innovation policy (CSE), sketches a technological-breakthrough scenario of low-cost availability of solar energy in the short-run, which is the hope of many participants in the scientific and political debates on energy and climate change. It is often seen as a possible consequence of giving much direct support to renewable energy technologies, in the form of public R&D as well as subsidies to private R&D and market applications, and thus avoiding the need of strict environmental regulation – through carbon prices or otherwise. The latter is the focus of the third scenario, expensive fossil energy due to carbon pricing (EFE). Here a gradual rather than a radical improvement in the performance of renewable energy technologies like solar PV is most likely.
The BAU scenario performs the worst in that it magnifies negative environmental impacts and moreover does not generate a favorable economic performance. The CSE scenario shows a more mixed pattern of effects (see Figure 1). Here one can see a clear environmental shifting effect in the sense that climate and ocean acidification problems are likely to be solved while other problems related to pollution, land appropriation, and nutrient cycles may get worse or will not significantly improve, largely because of the economic scale effects of cheap energy. The impact on biodiversity is uncertain and may vary in space. The EFE scenario performs well with regard to all environmental problems. The reason is that here energy efficiency is higher and the scale of the economy is smaller, implying a lower demand for energy than under the second scenario of cheap solar energy availability, and thus less need for renewable energy supply.
Cheap solar energy means a shift from greenhouse gas emissions with climate change and ocean acidification consequences to land use, biodiversity impacts and chemical pollution. The many socioeconomic mediating factors contributing to this can be summarized as changes in the scale and environmental intensity of economic activities, notably agriculture. We have focused the second scenario here on solar PV as we feel a strong fall in cost due to a technological breakthrough is most realistic for this particular technological option.
To study environmental problem shifting in a more focused and systematic way, we might extend existing integrated assessment models with a module that roughly assesses impacts on the widely recognized nine planetary boundaries (Rockström et al.). A more in-depth analysis of particular environmental problem shifting hypotheses – in biophysical terms as well as mediated by socioeconomic mechanisms – requires a genuine multidisciplinary effort involving natural and social sciences. System dynamics models may need to receive renewed attention as they provide a method that allows to address problem shifting in a complete, continuous, quantitative and balanced way – an idea that goes back to the original Limits to Growth study for the Club of Rome.

Jeroen Van den Bergh
Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA)

Carl Folke
Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University)
Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Stephen Polasky
Department of Applied Economics & Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (University of Minnesota)

Marten Scheffer
Environmental Sciences Group (Wageningen Agricultural University)

Will Steffen
Fenner School of Environment and Society (Australian National University, Canberra)

Van den Bergh, Jeroen; Folke, Carl; Polasky, Stephen; Scheffer, Marten; Steffen, Will. What if solar energy becomes really cheap? A thought experiment on environmental problem shifting. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 2015, vol. 14, p. 170-179. doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2015.05.007.

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