How frontier research could be the answer to a more sustainable future

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More frequent extreme weather events, increasing political nationalism and growing economic inequality are making sustainable development goals harder to achieve. EURACTIV looked at the work of four frontier researchers to explore how a more sustainable future could look like.


‘Education effect’ on demography

“The education level of a population is critical to its future,” says Wolfgang Lutz from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, but is often overlooked in favour of focusing purely on age structure.

Lutz, who researches on adaptive capacities to climate change and demography of sustainable human well-being at the European Commission-funded Centre of Expertise on Population and Migration (CEPAM), says they were able to demonstrate “functional causality” between education and fertility.

In contrast to recent projections from the UN that world population could grow to 10 to 12 billion by the end of the century, according to the researchers, rapid economic growth, rising levels of educational attainment for both sexes, and technological advancement — all factors that tend to lower fertility – could lead to the world population peaking at about 9.4 billion by 2070 and then stabilize to 9 billion in 2100 due to the “education effect”.

The IIASA researchers argue that the UN does not take adequate account of the effects on fertility of increased levels of education, especially the schooling of girls and women.

According to him, the age structures of many sub-Saharan African countries, which are the youngest and most rapidly growing in the world, look less intimidating when you factor in strides in educational attainment.

But while decision-makers often assume that higher fertility or more migration will bring solutions to the EU’s demographic challenges, Lutz’s research team have found that even scenarios with unrealistically high increases in fertility (+50%) or double immigration (approximately 20 million every 5 years) do not have the ability to fundamentally change the European population’s age structure.

In their research, they also cover dynamics within the EU, including migration movements towards the West, which led some Southern and Eastern European member states to experienced marked population declines – and if such a trends continue, by 2060 the populations shrink by a substantial 30% or more.

“The main point is that national human resource management for sustainable development could be the main paradigm, the main rationale, of population policies in the 21st century,” Lutz recently stated.

Medicine of the future

While everyone knows someone living with cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or a similar illness, the good news is that research is progressing quickly to develop tools to battle them.

Charles Baroud of the CNRS in France, who researches the dynamics of microfluid droplets and their impact on our health, seeks to develop tools to manipulate the droplets and combine them into new tools for DNA analysis.

According to Baroud, with the new method, researchers will be able to reach a unique level of detail on cell interactions and produce large data-sets.

They could be applied in a whole range of new areas: in oncology to replace biopsies, in prenatal testing, when studying infectious diseases to measure the viral load, for the detection of traces and pathogens in food safety measures or test soil samples when examining environmental problems.

“If those processes are refined, maybe, one day, this could reduce, refine and replace animal testing,” Baroud believes.

Biodiversity threats

In December, EU member states pledged to increase efforts to protect endangered wildlife species and habitats and work towards a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

They also called upon the Commission to develop without delay an ambitious, realistic and coherent 2030 EU biodiversity strategy as a central element of the European Green Deal.

The move came amid serious concern about the alarming state of nature, with around one million species at risk of extinction globally.

“Biodiversity is changing, it’s not static anywhere and we need to take that into account in our analysis and attempts of conservation,” says Anne Magurran from the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom.

One such European example is the trends of fish populations around the West Coast of Scotland.

“The number of species constant of the time, but species become more alike to each other, which poses not only consequences for fisheries but impacts the functioning of ecosystems more generally,” she says.

The researcher works on biodiversity threats through insights of Victorian naturalists including Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, most recently surveying the biodiversity of Trinidadian rivers.

Magurran developed an open-access biodiversity database cataloguing changes in nearly 400 ecosystems around the globe and comprised of about 50,000 species.

The data has so far provided a clear indication that while the number of species found at each study site has not diminished over time, there has been “homogenisation” – a massive reorganisation of life across Earth’s ecosystems and a replacement of species.

“We need to do much more than just counting species, we need to see how species are changing through time to cope with change,” Magurran said, adding that extinction of species is so far limited and if the world takes appropriate action, the fallout could be contained.

Cloud factor in renewable energies

In 2019, the most powerful floating solar PV plant in Europe was inaugurated in southern France, marking another milestone in the development of solar energy.

But while the Rhône valley in southern France is best known for its fine wines and excellent weather, other regions cope with much worse weather conditions making efficient energy extraction difficult.

“The earth receives more energy from the sun in 1 hour than the world uses in one year,” says Sara McCormack of Trinity College in Ireland, adding this presents an issue for distribution, efficiency and cost calculations.

The ERC grantee is working on how to make cloudy skies more efficient for energy production by improving constellations of solar installations through for example luminescent solar concentrators, which even under very low light conditions are able to capture the light, trap it, bounce around and is caught for energy production.

One result developed within the project, a software called Ray Tracer, aims to improve to optimise solar devices which could help build larger, more efficient integrated components for buildings of the future.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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