Proceedings of a Workshop
U.S.-Iran Discussion on Environmental Trends
On December 4-6, 2017, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with the support of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), convened a workshop in Trieste, Italy, where American and Iranian researchers discussed global environmental trends. For more than a decade American and Iranian scientists have periodically met to consider different aspects of this topic. For details of these previous meetings, see Glenn E. Schweitzer, U.S.–Iran Engagement in Science, Engineering, and Health: A Resilient Program but an Uncertain Future: National Academies Press, 2017.
Yousef Sobouti, Professor of Physics and Founder of Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, Zanjan, presented Iran’s Commitments toward Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement. Sobouti reported on the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). He then explained an approach that a Working Group on Climate Change in Iran proposed to directly address impact of climate change in the country and how the recommended commitments fit within the COP21 agreements. Sobouti covered (a) the Working Group’s framework to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas (CGHG) emissions, (b) industrial production, (c) the collection of fugitive gasses from oil and natural gas fields, (d) hydropower capacity, and (e) renewable energy. The framework identifies challenges for each area and options to address and alleviate problems. Sobouti concluded the presentation by examining Iran’s geographical vulnerabilities to climate change and the importance of responding to anticipated growing challenges. See Figure 1 for baseline data that has been used in addressing the goals of the COP21 agreements.
The ensuing discussion explored the economic impacts of sanctions when addressing climate change and potential solutions to limitations on financial resources. The discussion then turned from the financial focus to groundwater depletion challenges. Sobouti discussed groundwater sources throughout Iran. He acknowledged that available information on the aquifer levels and depletion rates was not up to date and is of concern.
THE WATER, ENERGY, CLIMATE, AND FOOD NEXUS
Michael Clegg, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California at Irvine, discussed, The Water, Energy, Climate Nexus and Food Security in the Americas. Clegg contextualized the water, energy, climate, and food nexus by presenting the United Nations’ projection of a 9.8 billion global population by 2050, almost a 30 percent increase from the 7.6 billion population in 2017 (Nexus is defined herein as the conglomeration of overlapping environmental stresses from human activities undertaken to improve economic and social conditions).
Figure 1 GHGs Emission Inventory of Iran, 2010 (Kton).
Source: Iran’s third National Communication to UNFCCC.
*Global Warming Potential
Noting that the projected population growth will exacerbate food demand and increase energy demand, leading to increased stress on the environment. Clegg delved deeper into the nexus and explored not only the impacts of stressors but also proposed steps to address the anticipated strains. In B2: 2018, the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences published a food and nutrition security assessment to evaluate viable options that address the nexus in the future. Poor water quality, limited arable land, modern agriculture’s contribution to climate change, and deforestation were among the challenges examined by Clegg. In each area, he discussed opportunities and current successes in responding to the challenges. He concluded by summarizing key vulnerabilities of the food-related nexus, identifying key information required to properly respond to impending challenges, and emphasizing the importance of cooperative policy and international response. Figure 2 addresses impacts of agriculture.
Figure 2 Contributions to GHGs from agriculture.
Source: Michael Clegg.
In discussions, the participants focused on adaptability to climate change and positive responses to the growing challenges. Kevin Lansey, questioned the viability of shifting agriculture practices, crops, and locations. The shift is less viable when soil impacts limit the crops that are grown in specific places.
Barham Taheri, Adviser to Ministry of Energy and Adjunct Faculty, Amikabir University, further discussed the Nexus between and among Water, Food, Energy, Soil, Environment/Ecosystem, and Climate. He expanded on Clegg’s presentation by shifting the nexus perspective from the Americas to Iran. He discussed how responses to the nexus will change, depending on when and how the nexus is considered. For example, the response to the challenges facing the nexus in 2000 varied greatly from the response in 2017, since many variables change and evolve. Taheri identified solar cell installation, use of soil organic carbon, water use efficiency, lifestyle adjustment, and promotion of positive synergies between mitigation and adaptation policies as offering ways to strengthen how Iran responds to the challenges at the food nexus. Particularly, he identified reliance on soil organic carbon as a strong approach to sequester atmospheric carbon, mitigate growing climate change, and increase soil productivity for food. He further explained how the use of pesticides in agriculture can negatively impact the environment, particularly through bioaccumulation. Figure 3 exemplifies the complications in tracking the paths of chemicals throughout the environment.
Figure 3 Bioaccumulation, bioconcentration and biomagnification.
Source: G. Tyler Miller and Richard Brewer, Living in the Environment, 15th Edition. Cengage Learning, Boston, 2006.
Wayne Wurtsbaugh, began the general discussion with a question on how to shift from an academic assessment of the nexus to government-level enactment of appropriate measures. Taheri responded with an explanation of how the nexus could be examined to inform and create a clearer understanding for government decision-makers.
He acknowledged that a focus on the nexus could not fully direct individual decisions since the issues are too complex and interconnected. However, focusing on the nexus does clarify many different challenges that exist. Understanding those challenges and how they relate helps decision-makers create more comprehensive and accurate policies.
Don Wuebbles noted that a problem when responding to information about the food nexus existed because of the lack of understanding of all the risks and vulnerabilities that arise from the connections. He emphasized the need not only to respond to risks but also to understand all the vulnerabilities and their constraints. Others discussed the feasibility of identifying and isolating vulnerabilities. Taheri noted that robust methodologies to constantly improve understanding of the nexus approach could lead to approximate or proxy indicators and propel movement toward using the full potential of the nexus approach.
ASSESSMENTS AND MEASUREMENT CAPABILITIES
Donald Wuebbles, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, presented findings included in Climate Science Special Report: A New Assessment of Climate Science. This assessment authorized by the U.S. government and prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program examines climate-related impacts, risks, and adaptation, with a particular focus on developments in the United States. Wuebbles directed the group to a finding in the report that illustrates the strong evidence for the ongoing, rapid, human-caused warming of the global atmosphere and ocean B3: being symptoms of climate change.
Wuebbles presented findings and supporting evidence under nine different indicators linked to climate change: temperature change, extreme weather events, larger precipitation events, heat waves, drought, forest fires, atmospheric rivers, hurricanes, and sea-level rise. Under each indicator, he summarized the evidence to provide a foundational picture that supported the findings regarding the current state of climate change and the linkage between climate change and human activity. He concluded his presentation with projections for climate change over the next few decades. He stated that without significant reductions in emissions, annually averaged global temperatures will almost certainly increase more than 2°C by the end of the century, an amount generally accepted as an indicator of major concern.
Discussion focused on the use of paleo-science to provide evidence for global temperature rise over the past 1,000 years, sea level rise caused by ice cap melting and thermal expansion from the warming of dense colder water, climate monitors and how they are evaluated, and the melting of permafrost and ensuing hypothesized consequences. Figure 4 presents important datasets indicating warming in different environments.
Antonio Busalacchi, President of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, discussed Future of Forecasts: Earth System Prediction in the 21st Century. He began his presentation by describing the growth of and need for prediction capabilities since World War II. Prediction capabilities are needed to accurately monitor and model topical areas such as coastal areas, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, agriculture, air and water quality, regional CO2 and other chemical constituents, and environmental health parameters. Busalacchi demonstrated different software to measure and help model predictions for new areas. Specifically, he demonstrated the future of Earth System Prediction across the physical, natural, and social sciences.
During the discussion, several participants noted the difficulties in Iran in obtaining proper instruments for atmospheric monitoring.
Hamid Reza Khalesifard, Professor of Physics, Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, Zanjan, discussed Dust Activities over the Iran Plateau. He began by introducing the group to the Northern Hemisphere “dust belt.” The dust belt runs from Northwest Africa through Iran to East Asia. Dust storms are prevalent throughout the dust belt, with high velocity winds picking up small particulates and hurling them great distances. The arid landscape is covered with loose particulates. Decreased water sources increase the severity and frequency of the dust storms. Scientific monitoring tracks not only the transportation of dust through the African Sahara to the Iranian northwest but also
Figure 4 Indicators of warming from multiple datasets.
Source: USGCRP (2017); available at www.science2017.globalchange.gov.
the transportation of dust through the Mesopotamian area, the Arabian Peninsula, and the arid land between the Aral and Caspian seas. Figure 5 presents wind patterns that carry dust into Iran.
Khalesifard also explained different monitoring software and data sets concerning dust storms. Much of the ensuing discussion focused on specific data issues and definitions B5: and on the impact of dust storms on health.
Farid Moore, Professor of Earth Sciences, Shiraz University, addressed Impacts of Environmental Pollution on the Persian Gulf Ecosystem. Pollutants from the rapid industrialization and the disposal of chemical waste, sewage, and trash into the gulf provided the setting for Moore’s talk. The pollutants filling the world’s oceans and seas can remain in a solution or solid state and can either settle on the ocean or sea floor or be absorbed/consumed by local organisms.
Figure 5 Surface wind patterns over the Iran plateau.
Source: Farhad Abdi Vishkaee PhD Thesis 2011, authorized by Hamid Reza Khalesifard.
Moore discussed the impacts of heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), five plastic ocean gyres, and microplastics on the health of the aquatic community and environment. He explained how each exists and persists, how each interacts with marine life, and why each will continue to grow as a challenge. Moore’s examination of the disposal of microplastics guided the group through the potential pollutant lifecycle. He discussed five types of hydrophobic organic pollutants: for example, an organic pollutant that had absorbed and carried microplastics. Moore showed photographs of dissected seabirds and fish that had died because of the consumption of microplastics or organisms carrying microplastics.
The presentation concluded with a focus on the pollution challenges in the Persian Gulf. Major wars in the Gulf region, ongoing oil and natural gas activities, evaporation and increased water salinity, untreated urban and industrial discharges into the water, and disturbed water circulation are among the key contributors to pollution challenges in the Gulf. Bleaching of the coral reefs, microplastics in hydrophobic organic pollutants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in sediment and sea life exemplify the current impacts in the Gulf. Figure 6 shows an example of damage in the Persian Gulf.
Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Professor Emeritus, Department of Watershed Sciences/Ecology Center, Utah State University, focused his presentation on the desiccation of salt lakes. He queried whether climate change or excessive water usage was responsible for the desiccation of Lake Urmia and the Great Salt Lake. He explored the problems of Lake Urmia and the Great Salt Lake due to their similarities in shape, political partitions, presence of brine shrimp, and a causeway through each of their centers. Both lakes currently face challenges because of decreasing water volumes and increasing salinity.
Figure 6 Effects of toxic pollutants in the marine environment.
Source: Photograph provided by Farid Moore.
Figure 7 identifies trends in these and other salt-laden lakes of concern. Wurtsbaugh suggested that climate change might not be solely responsible for the problems facing the Great Salt Lake and Lake Urmia. Neither precipitation nor river flows in headwater streams in the Salt Lake basin have shown any long-term decline over the past 160 years. He argued that water-use in the basin for industry, human consumption, and particularly agriculture has played a greater role in the 39 percent decrease in water
Figure 7 Saline lakes are in trouble worldwide.
Source: Wurtsbaugh, W., C. Miller, S. Null, R. J. DeRose, P. Wilcock, M. Hahnenberger, F. Howe and J. Moore. 2017. Decline of the World’s Saline Lakes. Nature Geoscience 10 (11):816 – 821. doi:10.1038/ngeo3052.
entering the Great Salt Lake in recent years. For Lake Urmia, dam construction, expansion of agricultural irrigation, and illegal pumping wells have exacerbated its salinity increase and its decreased volume; but long-term drought and reduced water flow into the lake from climate change also have contributed to the water decline. Wurtsbaugh warned that without conservation efforts, climate change may facilitate a faster decline in the water volume and increased salinity in both lakes.
The salinity of both lakes impacts the local economies. In general, when salinity increases above 20 percent, the lakes will be unable to support brine shrimp, B6: important components at the base of the lakes’ food chains. Decreased water volumes in both lakes have led to increased number and intensity of dust storms in the region. Discussants warned that the Urmia basin is also in danger from the large number of illegal and legal shallow and deep-water pumping wells.
Glenn Schweitzer, Program Director, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, reviewed a number of the findings and conclusions of several recent U.S-Iran workshops on environmental issues, noting that these outcomes remain relevant. The importance of effective use of limited water resources, in particular, has been a clear theme of joint programs for more than a decade. Of special concern have been (a) drought management, (b) agricultural uses of water, including irrigation, crop selection, and the role of pricing, (c) municipal water use, including dual-water systems, (c) microbial and chemical contamination, (d) environmental uses of water that vary across a broad range of landscapes while alleviating specific health and welfare concerns, (e) the challenges of inter-basin water transfers, and (f) wetlands conservation and management.
Schweitzer noted the importance of many suggestions by participants in recent U.S.-Iran workshops as to areas for collaboration in the environmental field. They have included the following suggestions concerning activities in Iran.
- Expand regional modeling of pollution in specific areas of Iran and its geographic neighbors, including expansion of networks of air and water quality monitoring stations on both sides of the borders.
- Increase the number, frequency, and variety of international conferences in Iran devoted to the impacts of the changing climate.
- Give greater attention to controlled environmental agriculture (greenhouse and hydroponics approaches) in arid regions.
- Install water catchment tanks in mountains and valleys of wildlife parks and protected areas to collect water runoff, thereby saving costs of importing water by tankers for use by animals.
- Give increased attention to availability of essential meteorological parameters, particularly in remote areas where additional monitoring equipment is needed.
- Collaborate in improving desulfurization technologies. Develop demonstration projects for enhancing the effectiveness of recycling waste-water through infiltration basins.
Kevin Lansey, Professor of Civil Engineering and Department Head, University of Arizona, made a presentation titled Finding the Next Bucket of Water: Desalination, Its Roadblocks and Opportunities. He addressed the growing depletion of water that is usable for human consumption and for agricultural needs in many regions. With freshwater aquifer and surface water supplies fully utilized, waters with higher concentrations of salt provide alternative sources to fulfill the continued and growing need for water. To make the water usable, alternative water sources (ocean and brackish waters) frequently undergo a desalination process: thermally activated, pressure-activated or chemically activated. Figure 8 compares desalination approaches in the Middle East.
While desalination alleviates some pressure on growing water needs, the process may create severe problems on future marine life and other water sources associated with the disposal of high concentrate water or solid-salt and low-salt concentration water. For areas undergoing desalination with high concentrations of salt (e.g., coastal areas), the high concentrate byproduct is often discharged back into the original water source, increasing the salt levels and endangering marine life.
Figure 8 Desalination capacity distribution by technology used in the Persian Gulf region.
Source: Raw data from Global Water Intelligence, IDA 2012.
Inland areas relying on brackish water require low energy levels for the desalination due to the lower initial salt concentrate. However, the desalination high-concentrate byproduct is often returned to local streams and waterways, rapidly increasing the salinity levels in a less diluted area while quickly endangering marine and local plant life.
Lansey concluded the presentation by recognizing the opportunity to alleviate water demands in communities without access to water. New engineering technologies reduce the energy requirements and increase the affordability to desalinate previously unusable water. However, the disposal of the desalination byproducts remains an issue, potentially exacerbating depletion of available water in the future.
Mohammad Mehdi Ghaffari, Solar Energy Engineer, Iranian Academy of Sciences, presented a Measurable, Reportable, Verifiable (MRV) Framework for Climate Mitigation in Iran. He introduced the policies influencing the creation of an MRV framework for climate mitigation. Three types of MRV frameworks exist in Iran. The first gathers information on greenhouse gas emissions at a national and/or organizational level to develop an emissions profile. Typically, the MRV report includes an emissions inventory. The second framework focuses on mitigation actions to assess an organization’s or nation’s greenhouse gas effects. The third framework examines support actions, such as climate-related finance, technology transfer, and capacity-building to track and assess impacts.
Ghaffari described the MRV framework types and the steps and procedures to use each. He then emphasized that the national MRV systems depend on unique circumstances and challenges of each individual nation, the nation’s governing structure, and the concerned institutions.
He noted that despite challenges in coordinating different groups and agencies when collecting and compiling emissions data in Iran, momentum continued to develop an MRV system based on a state-driven arrangement. Figure 9 summarizes the linkages between MRV framework components.
Figure 9 Key elements of the MRV framework.
Source: Handbook on Measurement, Reporting and Verification. 2014 United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, UNFCCC.
CONCLUDING GROUP DISCUSSIONS
During the final discussion, the participants addressed graduate student exchanges. Kevin Lansey mentioned reluctance among American professors to engage Iranian graduate students as research assistants because of the uncertainty of U.S. visa approval. Both Iran and the United States have been reluctant to support Iranian graduate students working abroad because of the increasing number of students not returning to Iran. The group considered alternative ways for Iranians to receive graduate-level education in the United States and how to encourage students to return to Iran after graduation. The problem of alternative sources of funding was discussed, but good solutions could not be identified.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Glenn Schweitzer and Gwynne Evans-Lomayesva, with assistance from Nina Ward, as a factual record of what occurred at the meeting. The statements made are those of the author or individual meeting participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all meeting participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Peter McGrath, The World Academy of Sciences and Barbara Slavin, Atlantic Council. Marilyn Baker, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, served as the review coordinator.
PLANING COMMITTEE: Michael Clegg (Chair), University of California, Irvine; Yousef Sobouti, Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences; Donald Wuebbles, University of Illinois. STAFF: Glenn Schweitzer, Program Director (firstname.lastname@example.org); Cynthia Getner, Financial Associate; Nina Ward, Associate Program Officer; Gwynne Evans-Lomayesva, Senior Program Assistant.
SPONSORS: This workshop was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the U.S. Department of State.
For additional information regarding the workshop, visit http://www.nationalacademies.org/PGA/DSC.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. U.S.-Iran Discussion on Environmental Trends: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25155.
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