Project Ideas

My interests are in systems analysis and spatio-temporal modeling and how they can help in solving the pressing issues of sustainability science (climate change, alternative energy, de-growth, lower consumption, etc.). To manage our resources properly and make the right decisions it is important to study the system as a whole and learn to identify the main drivers and factors that matter for systems dynamics. It is further important to engage the stakeholders, those who are really part of the system you study, to understand what is really important for them, and which decisions are realistic and can be implemented. Systems evolve in time and space - both these dimensions are important to account for.

Below are several examples of projects that I would be interested to support.



Biofuel potential of Overijssel province

Among various alternative sources of energy, the University of Twente is focusing on biofuels. The province of Overijssel and the University have established the Overijssel Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) in bio-energy. Bioenergy is broadly defined as use of biomass to produce heat, electricity, fuels, chemicals and materials. The main objective of OCRI is to promote and enhance the use of bioenergy in the province.

We could contribute to this project by using remote sensing and mapping to estimate the bioenergy potential for the province. There is a growing number of estimates around the world of what can be possibly achieved by using bioenergy. For example in a recent report it was shown that forest biomass could replace as much as one quarter of the liquid fossil fuel now being used for industrial and commercial heating in the Northeastern United States.

What can we get from bioenergy in where we live? In a recent study Ling Qin (MSc, 2011, see below) has looked at what can be produced if we used the roadside areas to produce biomass. But there are many other lands and ways to generate energy that can be used in our province. Can we figure out how much bioenergy is there and what could it give us? A lot can be derived from analyzing the land use and land cover maps of the province. A lot more can be found if we zoom into particular areas and conduct surveys and interviews of farmers, citizens and other stakeholders.


http://www.echtoverijssel.nl/NR/rdonlyres/F2439FB5-482D-4AFC-9175-57EAAA7FDFF9/74594/PosterEGF2.pdf


The goods and bads from biofuels

There has been substantial controversy about biofuels. At some point they were considered as a viable solution for the looming energy crisis, and there was much excitement about corn ethanol. Under Bush administration in USA, huge subsidies were handed out to corn producers and vast areas of agricultural production were converted to growing corn.

In other countries, instead of corn, it were other crops, such as palm oil for example.

Then studies appeared that showed that in fact if we take into account all the energy that is required to produce corn ethanol the added value is very small. According to some estimates, corn ethanol produces barely 30% more energy than used, and if all the social and environmental impacts are taken into account, the result looks almost negative. In poorer countries biofuel production resulted in soaring food prices.

A recent Ecological Society of America (ESA) report looks at implications of biofuels for land use and biodiversity .

Similar research in Netherlands on identifying the indirect effects of bio-energy production focuses on such factors as land use (changes in land cover or land management), GHG emissions, water use, jobs (change in labour market, impact on health of workers), and profits.

The Independent calls palm oil 'a threat to the rainforest'.

The Guardian indicates that there is less interest in blending biofuels into gasoline.

A recent article in Times puts it quite bluntly: "Green fuels cause more harm than fossil fuels". A picture that they post shows that most of the area in Europe will have to be covered by biofuel crops if we are to meet the existing targets.

So do we really need biofuels? What are the real costs of their production in Europe? Is it sustainable? What are the spatial variations that we should be aware of? Is it more profitable to produce biofuels in, say, Poland than in Italy? What is the overall potential for biofuel production in various European countries?

These are some of the questions that you are invited to explore. For example, in Europe, rapeseed oil is used to produce biodiesel. Poland, Germany, France and UK are among the top rapeseed producers. Is this a sustainable agricultural practice? An important first step in this study was made by Melese Tesfaye (MSc, 2011), who has compared the efficiency of rapeseed production in Netherlands and Poland and also produced an map of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) for rapeseed production in Europe. This study can be continued and enhanced.
Energy Return on Energy Invested for rapeseed production in Europe. Not that areas with EROEI close to and less than 1 are useless as a source of energy.


Can we get more out of our roads?

There are many roads and all of them have easements - that is, stripes of land on both sides, which are part of the road and are usually paved or covered by grass. Here is the idea: can we plant brushes at least on some part of the these stripes?

Normally trees are not allowed any closer than 15m to the pavement. This makes sense: you won't want to hit a tree if you move off the pavement. But if there were brushes - small tress or bushes - that would actually be even a safety benefit, since they could absorb the impact and help you stop the car faster without much damage to it.

There is yet another benefit: if we plant some fast growing small trees, such as willow, we could sequester carbon, and we could then harvest them every 4-6 years for wood chips. The wood chip can be a source of energy.

In 2009-10 a MSc project has been conducted at ITC by Brandon Wysowski, who looked at the vegetation in the vicinity of the roads in the Netherlands. Some maps were produced and good contacts were established with the road authorities. In 2010-11 Ling Qin has done her research to map and quantify the area along the roads that is available for biomass production. She has also produced estimates on the energy return on energy invested for willow as a source of bioenergy.

Further work can be conducted to optimize biomass production in these areas, choosing a mix of plants and locations and finding the best management strategies. We could also take into account other factors such as carbon sequestration, esthetics, social acceptance, etc. What we need is a kind of EIA that would take into account all the components and weigh the possible implications.


Comparing intensive and natural agricultural production

All things considered, what is better: to grow livestock in confined areas where they grow and fatten faster or to encourage free-roaming, grass-fed cattle production?

Syngenta does not like Organics

Green Inc. - November 25, 2009, 8:15 am Agribusiness Chief Slams Organics

Syngenta Michael Mack, the chief executive of the Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta, says organic farming is "categorically worse" for the planet. When Michael Mack, the chief executive of Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness giant that makes pesticides and seeds, hears people say that organic food is better for the planet, he has one response: "Au contraire."

"If the whole planet were to suddenly switch to organic farming tomorrow, it would be an ecological disaster."

"Organic food is not only not better for the planet," he said, in an interview at The New York Times building on Tuesday. "It is categorically worse."

The problem, Mr. Mack said, is that organic farming takes up about 30 percent more land, on average, than nonorganic farming for the same yield (though this varies by crop, of course). Pesticides that help crops to grow more efficiently "have been proven safe and effective and absolutely not harmful to the environment or to humans".

Similarly: how do we grow our crops? In greenhouses or land intensively treated with fertilizers and pesticides? or organically, using natural pest control, compost and manure?

There are many factors we may want to take into account. First, how much land we can afford to use. How much land we have available? how productive it is? how is it used?

Second, you may wish to consider the inputs: what fertilizers are required and what is their cost? how much energy are we using? While intensive agriculture may seem indeed a better choice, things may change if we realize that no intensive agriculture is possible without high energy inputs, including those that come from fossil fuels.

And third, let's look at the outputs: what kind of pollution is generated and how do we deal with it? Is intensive farming really more 'ecologically friendly'? I don't know. Let's find out.

Prof debunks 'green' food myths

Although many consumers believe eating grass-fed meat or locally grown food are environmentally friendly decisions, that's not always the truth, according to a paper presented at the 71st Cornell Nutrition Conference. The time needed to grow an animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn, which means that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold in grass-fed beef cattle. In total, having the current U.S. population of 9.8 million fed-cattle on pasture would require an extra 60 million acres of land.

The desire to protect the environment and to do so, in part, by altering personal behaviors, is admirable, however, those decisions must be based on logic rather than intuition.


Scooters in Netherlands

Netherlands is certainly a biking paradise. However these days there are more and more scooters on the roads. What kind of environmental impact can this have. There are two issues here:

  1. air quaility and health;
  2. safety

In many cases scooters are compared to cars, and it is argued that because of lower gasoline consumptions, scooters are much more benefitial for the environment. However this comparison certainly does not hold if we look at scooters versus bicycles.

Moreover, most of the scooters are powered by a 2-stroke engine, which are notorious for producing a lot of air pollution. According to the California Air Resources Board: "We are seeing increasing numbers of scooters being sold as an inexpensive alternative to cars, as well as for recreational use. On a mile per mile basis, they actually create more smog than passenger cars."

"It's true. The cleanest scooter is still dirtier than a car," says John Swanton, air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board." While scooters and motorcycles use less gasoline, they create more smog due to their lack of emissions controls. The article further states: "Some motorcycles emit as much hydrocarbon in 10 miles as a car driven 850 miles, according to Environmental Protection Agency studies."

"The cleanest motorcycle engine is far dirtier than the dirtiest car," says Warren Milner, Honda Canada's senior motorcycle manager. In fact, two-wheelers appear to be so dirty that it is hardly possible to convince a local dealer to run a Drive Clean test on them because the emissions could seriously damage the testing machines.

Similar assessment is provided here , and also here .

What is most disturbing is that in Netherlands scooters are allowed to share the lanes with bicycles. This means that all the pollution is spewed directly into the lungs of the cyclists. And there is certainly the safety issue, when you have vehicles with very different velocities sharing the same space.

What we would like to see is a spatial assessment of the major scooter pathways in a certain area, say, Enschede and an estimate of the overall amounts of pollution that is produced. This we would like to compare to the sales trends and make some projections. Finally it would be interesting to see what can be the health and safety implications of various scenarios. And finally, whar are the best socially accepted solutions?


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