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You are here: Home / Library / RBINS Staff Publications 2018 / Geological Economics: Economics, Geology and Ecosystem Earth

Kris Piessens and Tine Compernolle (2018)

Geological Economics: Economics, Geology and Ecosystem Earth

In: 6th Geologica Belgica Meeting 2018, Geologica Belgica, Geologica Belgica.

1. Society and the destabilisation of the ecosystem Earth An ecosystem consists of communities of interacting species and the physical environment on which they depend. Although it is well accepted that Earth consists of many different ecosystems, human societies much less readily recognize that Earth itself is an ecosystem, dependent on interacting species and consisting of finite resources (Vignieri & Fahrenkamp, 2018). Humans are part of this ecosystem, and have recently come forward as a dominant species in terms of their physical and biological impacts. These can mainly be related to waste production and land-use changes resulting from a rapid extraction of natural resources. 2. Geology fundamental to ecosystems and society Geology determines, together with latitude, the external conditions of ecosystems. Indeed, geological processes have shaped the surface of the Earth through tectonic uplift, subsidence, and erosion, while plate tectonics determines the distribution of land and oceans. Volcanism, tectonic uplift, and the cycles of sedimentation, burial and metamorphism, determine which rocks surface, forming the primary substrate. Access to water depends on the hydrogeological cycle, which runs fast in the atmosphere and through surface waters, but also includes infiltration and buffering in aquifers, forming reliable and long-lasting sources of water. In a similar way, also the carbon cycle spins fast in surficial gear, while the geological one is slow and fundamental. Part of the carbon bearing remains of life on Earth, such as carbonate shells or organic matter, were deeply buried and fossilised. This extraction of carbon from the atmosphere had a profound impact, reducing carbon dioxide to present-day levels. Compared to these natural processes, anthropogenic processes have immediate effects. Humans have found a particular way to distinguish themselves very recently from other, contemporary life forms, in that they have established societies that rely on the ability to access and use geological resources. 3. The unsustainable basis for current society Since humans learned to unlock geological resources at a large scale, population density increased and the impact since the industrial revolution has particularly been drastic. Starting from the 20th century, the environmental impact and depletion of natural resources were identified as side effects of the free-market driven, unlimited growth-focussed economy. However, as the Earth and its resources are finite, the physical dimensions of the economy and the waste streams it produces cannot expand continuously. In contrast to more traditional economic theories, Ecological Economics is an economic discipline that gives a central position to the issue of scale. It aims to determine how large the physical dimensions of the economy should be, relative to the ecosystem that sustains it (Daly, 1992). This is challenging mainly because of the associated uncertainties intrinsically linked to modelling highly complex systems and feedback loops between society and its environment. As a result, current assessments with regards to the optimal extraction of geological resources, often ignore scale and the distribution of costs and benefits within and across generations. Geology as a discipline and the experience that geology has with uncertainties in geologically complex and poorly known systems, is a useful basis to reveal the intimate links between the Earth’s natural resources and societal development. 4. Geology as the correct starting point Traditional economic assessments are not designed for looking deep into the future, for example to compare an immediate gain of an activity (e.g. coal mining) with indirect costs to society that it may have in the future (e.g. long-term consequences of subsidence). Being flexible in handling time is one of the first elements to master for students in geology. Equally well embedded and relevant is understanding how depth (as in distance) can change the nature of a problem. Two aspects are linked when considering depth. With depth, the amount of data and degree of understanding dramatically decreases, but also the degree to which the subsurface can be engineered to our needs. Already from a depth of several tens of meters, direct observations of the subsurface require drillings, but these are nearly point observations. Geophysical techniques may offer 2D or 3D visualisations, but are based on indirect data. With increasing depth, the effort for obtaining information increases rapidly. Hence, data generally becomes more spares as depth increases. This is essential to understand resources and reserves, but also development of the subsurface, because the challenge of realising deep applications comes from two sides: information decreases, but also the degree to which we can adjust the subsurface to our needs through engineering diminishes. The subsurface will have to be largely accepted as is. Nevertheless, computing power has allowed to shift from qualitative understanding of the subsurface, towards quantitative verification or justification. Binding geology into economic evaluations has been done successfully, but mainly at project level to simulate or optimise project decisions of investors. The step towards interdisciplinary and system wide evaluations needed to analyse the complex interaction of societies and their environment is certainly unprecedented. 5. Theory to practice: Sustainable choices in the Campine Basin To demonstrate an Ecological Economics approach to a practical case, the setting of the Campine Basin is chosen. As a geological unit, the Campine Basin can be used for storage of nuclear waste or CO2 geological storage, it is being developed for deep hydrothermal energy production, and is in use for the seasonal storage of natural gas. Historically it has been mined for coal, with significant reserves remaining for potential future valorisation, and has potential for gas or oil shale. It is also an area with active groundwater production. The Campine Basin is certainly small compared to the potential subsurface demand, while large parts have only moderately been explored. This makes it a-priori challenging to estimate the impact radius of different subsurface activities, or their environmental economic and long-term effects. For this area, the construction of a model will be attempted using economic and semi-analytical geological techniques to integrate the economy, geology, and ecology into one realistic system. The model will integrate over a decade of experience with simulating and forecasting highly uncertain systems. This interdisciplinary model for the Campine Basin then becomes the starting point for the actual analysis, which will ultimately allow to determine the optimal scale and ranking at which subsurface activities are developed. As such, geology will provide the expertise to handle system complexity in such a way that the development can be optimised from a societal point of view. This deeply engraining of geology into other disciplines is fundamental and opens completely new paths to scientifically based future policy. It is referred to as Geological Economics.
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