Operating under conditions of uncertainty places burdens on any business or enterprise. For electricity system operators, these burdens are compounded by a changing climate, uncertain demand, and the variable performance of conventional and renewable power generators."
–Dalia Patiño-Echeverri, Gendell Family Associate Professor of Energy Systems and Public Policy
Helping the Energy Sector Clean Up Its Act
A Nicholas School-led initiative to boost clean electricity production has received a $2.44 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The grant will support work to design an energy system management framework that enables U.S. electricity providers to improve the efficiency and reliability of conventional and renewable power generators in their systems while lowering operational costs and cutting emissions.
“Our goal is to make a meaningful and tangible contribution to the transformation of the U.S. electricity sector into a cleaner and more efficient system,” said Dalia Patiño-Echeverri, Gendell Family Associate Professor of Energy Systems and Public Policy, who will lead the three-year project.
“Operating under conditions of uncertainty places burdens on any business or enterprise. For electricity system operators, these burdens are compounded by a changing climate, uncertain demand, and the variable performance of conventional and renewable power generators,” she said.
To help relieve some of these burdens, the new model will include specially developed algorithms that let energy managers more effectively anticipate operational variables, such as when weather conditions decrease solar or wind power generation, or when short-term spikes in consumer demand require redirecting available power supplies, tapping reserves or bringing new resources on line.
The framework should be ready for integration into industry practice by summer 2023.
A More Precise Way to Predict Climate Impacts
Nicholas School researchers are harnessing the power of big data and geospatial analysis to create new ways to track the effects of climate change on species and food webs.
Their work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, began in 2018 and has already yielded two powerful new tools.
One is an interactive web portal that projects the future movements and ranges of species that are being forced to relocate to find suitable habitats in a warming world.
The other is a probabilistic framework that can be used to overcome gaps in data and identify direct and indirect impacts of environmental change on wildlife communities.
“These tools provide new approaches for assessing climate change’s impacts on biodiversity, including its effects over time on interacting species, which can be very difficult to quantify,” said James S. Clark, Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science, who is co-leading the project.
Understanding these interactions and anticipating their effects is essential for developing effective conservation policies and practices, said Jennifer Swenson, associate professor of the practice of geospatial analysis, who is also a project co-leader.
“We need to consider who’s living with whom to understand the larger impacts,” she said.
The new Predicting Biodiversity with a Generalized Joint Attribution Model (PBGJAM) web portal helps scientists, landowners and decision makers see those larger impacts. It synthesizes decades of satellite, airborne and ground-based data on multiple species, along with climate predictions and ecological forecasts, to track how species’ ranges are shifting in response to rising temperatures, more frequent droughts and other environmental changes.
“When fully implemented, PBGJAM will make it much easier to do that for a multitude of species or ecosystem types in North America,” Swenson said.
The new probabilistic framework that Clark and his students have developed further boosts scientists’ ability to account for such impacts by giving them a reliable statistical method for identifying the direct and indirect impacts of climate-species interactions across entire food webs or ecological communities – even when faced with gaps or disparities in species data.
Clark created the framework with Lane Scher and Margaret Swift, doctoral students in his Biodiversity and Global Change Lab. They published a peer-reviewed paper about their work in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Investing in Future Health
Governments might be able to prevent future pandemics by investing as little as $22 billion a year in programs that curb wildlife trafficking and stem the destruction of tropical forests, a new analysis led by the Nicholas School’s Stuart Pimm shows.
Compared to the more than $3 trillion already lost to COVID-19, and the nearly one million deaths the virus has caused so far, that annual investment represents an exceptional value, Pimm said.
“The total cost of the preventive measures we recommend over the next 10 years is only about 2% of the estimated eventual costs of the virus, which some economists predict could reach $10 to $20 trillion,” he noted.
Pimm and his colleagues were inspired to conduct their analysis, which they published this July in Science, after watching governments scramble and fail to slow COVID’s spread this spring.
While there is no failsafe method for preventing a pandemic, their analysis shows we could “significantly reduce the odds by making strategic investments in conservation, based on knowledge we already have about how and where these viruses emerge,” said Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology.
He noted that Covid, SARS, Ebola and many other viruses that have emerged in the last century are linked to close contact between people and live primates, bats or other wildlife – often through the legal or illegal sale of the animals as meat, pets or medicine. Locations near the edges of tropical forests tend to be hotbeds for animal-to-human virus transmissions, especially in areas where logging, farming and other human activities have caused forest loss.
Based on this knowledge, Pimm and his colleagues recommend:
- Spending $500 million a year to expand global wildlife-trade monitoring programs and technologies.
- Spending about $250 million a year on early detection and control measures, including the creation of a library of virus genetics that could be used to pinpoint the source of a new pathogen early enough to slow or stop its spread.
- Investing $19 billion each year on programs to end the wild meat trade in China and educate consumers and hunters about its potential risks.
- Investing $9.6 billion a year in programs and policies that would reduce tropical deforestation in critical areas by 50%.
- Allocating $852 million a year to reduce inter-species viral transmissions in livestock.
Pimm conducted the analysis with peers from Princeton University, Conservation International, Duke Kunshan University and 13 other institutions or nonprofits.
Casting Light on the Hidden Fishers
Women contribute to the success of small-scale fisheries worldwide, playing central roles in generating income and providing protein-rich sustenance for their communities. But you’d never know it if you looked at most statistics.
“Within governments, the role of women in fisheries is generally not recognized. When we ask how many men and women are involved, they don’t know,” said Xavier Basurto, associate professor of sustainability science at the Duke University Marine Lab.
Much of the work women do in small-scale fisheries falls outside the traditional, narrow definition of fishing as an economic activity that occurs on boats, Basurto explained. These jobs include harvesting fish in estuaries, collecting clams and oysters, drying fish on the beach, selling fish in the market, making and repairing fishing gear, and providing a long list of essential services before and after harvests, from preparing meals to managing shops and fisheries finances.
Because governments don’t view these activities as fishing in the traditional sense, they don’t collect data on them and the women’s contributions go largely unrecorded.
This undercuts economic and social equity and hinders efforts to devise and enforce policies to protect the environmental and economic sustainability of the fisheries, which—though individually small—are a primary source of protein for around 3 billion people and provide livelihoods for more than 90% percent of all fishers worldwide.
Basurto and his team of students and postdocs at the Marine Lab’s Coasts and Commons Co-Laboratory are working to level the playing field.
In partnership with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the international research organization WorldFish, they’re heading a study called Illuminating Hidden Harvests (IHH) to document small-scale fisheries’ global contributions to sustainable development through their impacts and benefits on incomes, livelihoods, nutrition and food security.
A big part of IHH, which will culminate in a major report to policymakers in February 2021, is shedding light on the contributions of women in small-scale fisheries and making the case that they deserve greater recognition and fair compensation for their work.
Collecting and presenting updated and accurate data to fill the current gaps in government statistics is an essential step in that process, said Sarah Harper, a fisheries economist affiliated with the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and co-lead for IHH’s gender equity study.
“We’ll have greater buy-in for policies that advance effective management and governance of these fisheries if women’s efforts are acknowledged and their voices represented,” she said. “More diversity leads to better management and more innovative strategies.”
John Virdin, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, is Basurto’s co-IHH lead at Duke. Ten students – doctoral, masters and undergraduate alike – in Basurto’s lab have contributed to the project, which so far has tapped the expertise of more than 300 experts from over 50 countries.
Conservation that Benefits Both Fish and Humans
Marine protected areas benefit both humans and fish by reducing stress on vulnerable species and allowing stocks to build back up as fishers redirect their efforts to more plentiful species in nearby waters.
That’s the theory, anyway. But hard proof has been hard to come by.
David Gill is working on it.
Gill, assistant professor of marine conservation, studies how people and the environment interact in marine spaces. Much of his work focuses on understanding the impacts of conservation, especially marine protected areas (MPAs), on humans that depend on ocean resources.
In recent decades, MPAs have proliferated across the globe. More than 7 percent of the world’s oceans – almost 9.7 million square miles – is now under some type of protection.
“You want the impacts of these areas to be positive and equitable for all affected communities, but the marine environment is complex,” Gill said. Species move around. Conditions change. Community values and practices vary. Data is limited and challenging to collect. Long-term monitoring can be spotty or nonexistent, and funding to expand it is scarce and unevenly distributed.
Because of all of this and more, establishing cause and effect – knowing for sure that an MPA is helping or harming local communities – is tricky.
As climates change, human population growth, pollution and other pressures mount on coastal communities and marine resources. Thus, resolving this uncertainty and understanding how we can design and manage MPAs to yield the outcomes we hope for is increasingly urgent.
Some answers could come from a pioneering research collaboration Gill is helping spearhead across a network of MPAs in eastern Indonesia’s Sunda Banda Seascape region.
Funded by a $150,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, he’s working with researchers from the World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs, government agencies, as well as the University of Papua New Guinea and other universities to collect data from sites inside and outside the region’s protected areas and see what changes – good or bad – are happening, and if the MPAs are driving those trends.
“We’re cutting through the noise and disentangling the data so we can see more clearly what’s causing what,” Gill said.
It’s an ideal site for the study, he said, because it’s one of few MPA networks anywhere with species counts and stakeholder interviews showing what marine and human life there was like before the MPAs were created, and with long-term social and ecological monitoring in place to document how things have changed over the five years since.
Results are still preliminary but so far they show that having core principles like fairness and transparency in place from the get go boost positive outcomes. Remembering that there is no “one size fits all” solution in conservation is also paramount; sites must be designed and managed with local conditions in mind and with input from local stakeholders. Clear communications about stakeholder rights and effective conflict-resolution practices are also essential.
“These sound like common sense ideas, and to some extent they are – but what’s different is we now have evidence-based insights to show why they work and understand how they work,” Gill said.
A long-term monitoring program like the one at Sunda Banda, which has cost more than $1 million so far, would be too costly to implement broadly, he said, “but aspects of it can easily be applied at MPAs worldwide to make sure we’re getting the outcomes we hope for.”
Read more stories featured in the Duke Environment Magazine Fall 2020 issue.