In search of smart climate solutions

Wageningen Climate Solutions

Photography: Shutterstock

BY Hanny Roskamp - September 2019


Wageningen could easily acquire a global reputation as the leading university for climate questions. Its holistic approach means that Wageningen University & Research has built up a wealth of knowledge about the climate, believes Tim van Hattum, the Green Climate Solutions programme manager at Wageningen University & Research. “WUR can play a pioneering role.”

“We’re a wealthy country in a densely populated river delta and we will be among the first to feel the consequences of climate change. It’s time to make changes down to the lowest levels of our system. Changes in our energy supplies, our food supply, how we design our cities and how we deal with nature so that we can restore biodiversity. The Netherlands could be the testing ground for smart innovations that you can then apply around the world. That is a great opportunity. Wageningen’s strength is that we can take a holistic look at systems and their interactions. That’s why WUR could play a pioneering role,” says Tim van Hattum.

Tim van Hattum, the Green Climate Solutions programme manager at WUR. Photo: Judith Jockel

Van Hattum was appointed by Wageningen two years ago as the Green Climate Solutions programme manager at the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG). He also brings people together from all over the campus who are working on the climate. That is because Wageningen researchers cannot avoid ‘the climate’ no matter what field they are working in, whether they are soil scientists, livestock breeders or spatial planners. That has led to a wealth of knowledge about the climate. Combining forces will help draw attention to Wageningen’s climate expertise.

WUR works on integrated climate solutions that combine knowledge about the climate system and the impact of climate change (climate services), nature-based solutions, climate-smart food systems, bio-based solutions, energy plus space, and climate-proof, liveable cities. Infographic: Content Animators

WUR works on integrated climate solutions that combine knowledge about the climate system and the impact of climate change (climate services), nature-based solutions, climate-smart food systems, bio-based solutions, energy plus space, and climate-proof, liveable cities. Infographic: Content Animators

WIN-WIN SITUATION IN SOIL MANAGEMENT

Van Hattum says, “Our current food system is a significant factor in the climate problem. At the same time, agriculture around the world is suffering hugely from water shortages, excess water and an increasing risk of diseases and pests. Smart solutions are needed to reduce emissions due to agriculture and we also need to adapt to a changing climate. WUR is working on climate-smart agriculture solutions. A good example is improved soil management. Adding organic materials to agricultural soils sequesters carbon, improves the moisture content and soil fertility and results in higher production levels. That is a win-win situation.”

Nature-based solutions are solutions designed to meet the climate challenge by making use of nature and natural processes. An example is a Wageningen Marine Research project where oyster reefs were constructed off the coast of Bangladesh. Van Hattum: “Bangladesh is a densely populated, low-lying delta and a very poor country so they have less money available for water defences. The oyster reefs protect the coast from flooding and sand erosion. They also attract fish and crabs, thus helping boost food supplies. What is more, they grow two centimetres a year, which means they can keep pace with rising sea levels.”

No matter whether they are soil scientists or spatial planners, Wageningen researchers cannot avoid ‘the climate’

Floods in Bangladesh require a nature-based solution. Photo: Shutterstock

CLIMATE ADAPTATION IS ESSENTIAL

We say we are the safest delta in the world but we won’t get away with that if sea levels rise by two metres

Populations are concentrated in cities in low-lying deltas along the coasts not just in Bangladesh but all around the world. Even if we manage to limit the increase in temperature to the two degrees that was agreed in the UN Climate Agreement in Paris, that still poses a huge challenge. What is more, Van Hattum thinks there is a big risk that we will not stay within that two-degree limit because countries are not acting fast enough. “Indonesia has already decided that Jakarta cannot remain the capital because it is running into too many problems. The city is on the coast and is sinking by 25 centimetres a year due to poor water management. The air is polluted, the roads are congested and it has become an unliveable city. You will see that happening more often due to climate change. That is why it is so important to focus on climate adaptation in addition to rigorously cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions. That applies to the Netherlands as a low-lying country but even more to developing countries where they don’t have the means to build dykes and so on.”

Adaptation means that we have to make changes to our roads, cities, agriculture and even entire regions in order to cope better with the consequences of climate change. Climate mitigation, on the other hand, means limiting climate change, which usually boils down to reducing CO2. Adaptation and mitigation are currently two separate worlds: the Paris Agreement focuses on mitigation whereas the Delta Plan, the Dutch plan to improve the Netherlands’ sea defences, is about the adaptation aspect. An integrated approach is crucial, though, thinks Van Hattum. “The pressure on land around the world is enormous. We need every square metre we can get. From a mitigation perspective, you will want to set up solar farms but we also need to produce food and store water, and we want nature too. How are we going to fit all that in?”

Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier is the largest of the Delta Works series of dams and storm surge barriers, designed to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea. Photo: Shutterstock

MOVING EASTWARDS

Mitigation is currently getting even more attention than adaptation, but that is not tenable in the long run, says Van Hattum. It is surprising, to put it mildly, that most of the one million houses that are set to be built in the Netherlands in the near future are planned for the Randstad metropolitan area in the west. If sea levels rise as much as is expected, that will cause problems in the longer term. “The emphasis at present is on having sustainable homes and on being CO2 neutral, but you also need to allow for extreme weather such as heavy downpours and heatwaves. These things are not being taken into account in construction at the moment. You also need to think hard about where to put those homes.”

He is currently working with colleagues on a vision for the future of the Netherlands that incorporates everything we now know about the climate and biodiversity. This is a nature-based vision that answers the question of how we can arrive at a smarter layout for the Netherlands. “Physical infrastructure that you build now — motorways, buildings —has to last for at least a century so you want to take everything we know now into account. Perhaps we should spread government buildings or employment out towards different areas? Of course we aren’t going to demolish Amsterdam but if you were to build the Netherlands from scratch, you would focus more on the east and make sure that is where the jobs come.”

The Netherlands can be the testing ground for smart innovations

STORE RAINWATER RATHER THAN DRAINING IT

It is not just rising seas that are a problem, drought is another threat. Cities depend on water from the drainage basins of rivers. But farming is a major user of water in the same drainage areas. Regions are running huge risks if they fail to give this proper consideration. “Cape Town’s water supply, for example, depends on one single reservoir that collects rainwater. Last year, the South African city nearly ran dry because hardly any rain had fallen in three years. We should stop trying to drain rainwater away from cities via the sewers but instead start storing it. We need to think in terms of systems and look at interrelationships — something we are good at in Wageningen.”

International investors are increasingly starting to ask questions about the Netherlands’ famous status as a country lying metres below sea level. “We tell them that we are the safest delta in the world and that we have the know-how and the money to keep it that way. We can get away with that story now but we won’t if sea levels rise by two metres.”

As a country lying in a delta, the Netherlands is famous for its efforts to control the rivers and the sea. Photo: Shutterstock

MAKING MORE CLIMATE-SMART INVESTMENTS

Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes a Global Risks report. Climate change, water shortages and extreme weather are among the biggest threats to the world economy. “The financial sector is beginning to realize that it needs to change the way it invests. They come to Wageningen for advice because they want a better picture of the consequences for the sectors they invest in and they want to know what solutions they should be putting their money into. You usually find that nature-based solutions in combination with smart technology offer a lot of advantages: they are resilient systems and improve wellbeing and public health. But how can you determine that value and how can you quantify the benefits, both in terms of money and in terms of wellbeing? How can you persuade investors to opt for a nature-based solution rather than the civil engineering solutions that they have been investing in for a century because that is what they are used to?”

Water management at Rotterdam Europoort. Photo: Shutterstock

Van Hattum sometimes hears people say with a sigh that they do not have high hopes — the climate is nothing but trouble and it eats up money — but he thinks we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by it all. “If we can use nature-based solutions to get a grip on the problems, we will end up with cities where the air is purer and a greener world with a better quality of life. And biodiversity will increase again. We will get so much out of this.”

For more information about Wageningen’s Climate Solutions, please visit our website.

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