Category Archives: Opinions

Studying Sustainability in Norway  

The Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council is an academic collective comprised of NTNU students Danielle Hallé, Myranda O’Shea, Bastian Poppe, Emmanual Eicholz and Peter Anthony Frank.

I think it’s fair to say that most of Norway looks like the postcards. If you can peel your eyes away from the views, you’ll notice the aquaculture sea cages along the fjords, sheep grazing in the outfield, the seemingly endless network of trails, wind parks off in the distance, or a happy forger with a bucket full of mushrooms. The natural landscape offers myriad, well-utilized benefits, which makes for an interesting location for studying sustainable development and our coexistence with nature. The course The Sustainable Management of Ecosystem Services at NTNU offered an opportunity to do just that.

The course ran as a series of lectures from members of academia as well as representatives from public and private sectors. It offered a multi-disciplinary approach to how we think about sustainability, how we come up with visions and scenarios for the future and the foundational role of biodiversity. Some lectures were very theoretical (hello, ethics of assigning value to nature) and others, applied (an introduction to the farmer’s coop structure in Norway). Some members of industry had a very clear agenda of promoting their industry while others displayed perfect diplomacy. All led to interesting discussions that often trickled outside the classroom.

The highlight of the course involved a three-day excursion around central Norway to meet with stakeholders from resource-based industries. The stakeholders we met were eager to show us around their facilities and talk about their business, their challenges both past and present, and their visions for the future of their business and the industry at large. While the bulk of the course had focused on broad frameworks and international visions for sustainable development like the Aichi Targets and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the excursion provided an opportunity to see more ‘bottom-up’ initiatives (like the textile company working to develop a natural wool alternative to Gore-Tex) and the consequences of some of the policies and practices we had been studying (like the farmer criticizing the methodology behind models of greenhouse gas emissions). The use of new technologies was also a point of discussion, like the aquaculture facility that was using artificial intelligence to optimize the amount of food released into the sea cages during feeding, saving the company money and reducing the pollution from feed into surrounding waters.

All that being said, it’s important to mention that there are always trade-offs involved in any form of business, and it’s difficult to confront a company about them when you’ve been invited into their home and offered coffee. The environmental impact of aquaculture production is a heated topic in Norway. Wool used in artisanal production must still be transported to out-of-country to be processed. Organic agricultural production lacks the capacity to feed a growing population, yet conventional agriculture depends on pesticides and chemicals that can harm the environment. The list goes on. Not-so-subliminally, the backdrop of the trip included coastal accommodations complete with Northern Lights, local fare, a visit from a curious seal and of course, the views. As a few of us plunged into the fjord for a swim, the words of our professor rang out – “now this is ecosystem services!”.

The culmination of the course was a group project evaluating the sustainability of ecolabels in one of five industries: aquaculture, fisheries, textiles, agriculture and forestry. Ecolabels are a tool intended to help guide consumers towards more sustainable products (popular examples include Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and GlobalG.A.P.). Ecolabel certification criteria should fall somewhere between idealism and reality. As one ecolabel representative stated: “no one is ever happy” because, generally-speaking, activists don’t think ecolabels go far enough and the production side thinks the requirements are too strict. Ecolabels will therefore always have trade-offs and knowing those trade-offs can help consumers make an informed choice about where to spend their money.

Since we were given creative license with the project, our first step was the formation of the Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council (NARC), a fictitious organization initially designed to help us narrow the scope of the project, have a little fun, and deliver a product that could be relevant for our hypothetical audience, the ecolabel stakeholders. In addition to the report (which you can read a summary of here), we presented our results in an interactive dashboard so that interested stakeholders could engage with our data and draw their own conclusions based on their values. In its current form, the user can filter the ecolabels’ performance according to the four dimensions of sustainability (environment, society, economy and governance) and by the seventeen United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Ultimately sustainability is determined by society’s values, so the role of NARC is to facilitate evidence-based decisions rather than making those decisions itself. This seemed like a fitting conclusion given the pluralism expressed throughout the course.

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Aquaculture nets in a Norwegian fjord (Image Credit: Tristan Schmurr, CC BY 2.0)

A more long-term goal of NARC is to try to harness the untapped power of term projects. As students past and present know, term projects take a lot of work. Once they are graded, the only proof of their existence is a tombstone-like folder somewhere on your hard drive. Our hope is that the next cohort might pick up where we left off. Given the time constraints of one semester, we could only review two ecolabels. Those that follow could expand the website, add their own creative spin and populate the dashboard with more ecolabel reviews to help grow a user-friendly tool that stakeholders might actually use to navigate the ecolabel landscape.

The common thread throughout the semester was an ongoing discussion by a group of international, environmentally-minded students. A friend of mine often cites the adage “I don’t know what I think until I’m challenged” and to me, this was what I took most from the course – an opportunity to challenge others and be challenged on what a sustainable future should look like and how we can get there. We probably all took something different from the course. Some of us will stay in Norway, some will move on. In any event, I think many of us will keep in touch and I look forward to continuing the discussion.

Both EcoMass and NTNU thank NARC for their fantastic work. The summary of their review of ecolabels is available here.

Are ecolabels greenwashing your farmed salmon?

Salmon aquaculture nets near Hitra, Norway. (Image credit: Peter Anthony Frank, NTNU, CC BY 2.0)

The Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council is an academic collective comprised of NTNU students Danielle Hallé, Myranda O’Shea, Bastian Poppe, Emmanual Eicholz and Peter Anthony Frank.

With so much attention on climate change and biodiversity in the media today, it is hard not to be skeptical as to whether companies are taking advantage of these paradigms for their own profit by “greenwashing” their products. Greenwashing is the common term for the practice whereby an organization presents information that gives them an air of environmental responsibility but makes no real contribution to reducing the impacts of threats like climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity.

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STOP BUILDING CAIRNS

We’ve all seen them, either on Instagram or out on the hiking trails and in creek beds. Sure, it may look cool in your time lapse video, but did you know that every single one of these is causing damage to the environment? (Image credit: Craig Stanfill CC BY-SA 2.0).

Yes, cairns are bad. Yes, they look cool, and yes, you get lots of likes for them, but they are bad for the environment and YOU SHOULD STOP BUILDING THEM! There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s have a conversation about cairns and why you should never, EVER, build another one again (and actually take down any that you see).

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Pinning it on the Polar Bear

Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

It’s an image that is ubiquitous in the media when the words ‘climate change’ pop up. The lone polar bear, drifting through the sea on a single ice floe. It is an effective image, evoking emotions like pity, loneliness and general despair for the plight of what has become the flagship species of what seems like the entire Arctic. But is associating the health of an entire ecosystem with one species useful, or dangerous?

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Biodiverse Gardens: Where Doing Less is More

Kiftsgate Court Garden: The Wild Garden 1. An example of a “wild garden” in the UK, where the plants have been left to grow (Image Credit: Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

How do you make your garden more biodiversity-friendly? During my time at the  Futurum exhibition at The Big Challenge Science Festival, I spent a lot of time talking to people who expressed a desire to be manage their gardens for more plants and animals, but were unsure where to start. So I’ve compiled a brief guide on what to do, and it’s your lucky day – it involves not doing anything.

I had the pleasure of joining my colleagues from the NTNU University Museum at The Big Challenge Science Festival in Trondheim recently (you can read more about that here). When presenting people with the loss of native species, and the potential influx of alien ones, many people seemed genuinely worried. The changes this part of the world have already experienced were also apparent. It hit very close to home for me hearing some of the children visiting our stand ask what a barn swallow is. I have fond childhood memories of those birds flying around every summer, and I’m definitely not old enough yet to start talking about the ‘good old days’.

There are plenty of reasons why the decrease in biodiversity is happening, arguably the two largest being habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. All over the world, cities are growing and inevitably, this happens at the cost of other habitat types – although some species have made the cities their homes (I’m looking at you, rats and pigeons).

Fragmentation occurs when a large patch of habitat (be it a forest, grassland, riverbed, you name it) is cut up into smaller pieces. Your garden can be viewed as such a fragment, potentially resembling a miniature grassland. Even though the total area of miniature grasslands spread out in your neighborhood might be equal to the grassland area that was there before, the inability of many species to move directly from one small patch to the next means the two aren’t equal. One large patch is better than several small ones. But as cities keep growing, even more fragmentation is happening. Therefore, it is so important that we let those tiny fragments be of high quality.

Several visitors to the exhibition seemed thrilled by the idea of managing their gardens for biodiversity, and the prospect of having more wildlife on their doorstep. One woman happily showed us a video of a badger, which had moved in after they started managing their garden with biodiversity in mind.

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Seeing a badger sniff around their wild garden was a treat for two visitors to our exhibition at the FUTURUM display.

People asked us what they themselves could do. They wanted in, but just did not know what to do or where to start. Therefore, we are here to give you a (by no means complete) checklist on how to manage your own backyard to benefit local biodiversity. If you are lazy, like myself, I have great news! The main thing to do is: do less!

Put your feet up, chill out

If you are a garden owner, this might sound counterintuitive, but I am dead serious. Stop doing so much! Stop mowing the grass and trimming the hedges constantly. The constant stress and disturbance is working against most species. For example, the Danish Ornithological Society advises people not to trim their hedges at all until after August 1st, as several bird species can have their nests in there (you wouldn’t like it either, if someone tore down the wall of your bedroom during breeding season!).

This point also includes cutting back on fertilizers and pesticides.

Leave patches untouched

To continue the point above: leave some parts of you garden alone completely, or at least mow them infrequently and strategically. Guidelines can be found online, e.g. here. The grass will be tall, the dandelions will bloom, but so will other gorgeous plant species, and these will attract insects, which will attract insect-eating birds and mammals, which in turn might attract birds of prey and other predators (I think you get the point by now).

Maybe even leave some dead branches or rotting leaf matter to allow decomposers as well, and make a little pond for drinking and amphibians – you can get the full cycle!

Pull the plug on the robot lawn mower

If you can’t do that, at least adjust the height of the clipping to a bit taller than before – this way some smaller herbs might survive. And for the love of God, do NOT leave it on during the night! I repeat DO NOT leave it unsupervised – an increasing number of hedgehogs are mutilated and/or killed by those things.

Do not plant alien species – use natives!

We have covered this point before, so I will not go into details – instead, check out Malene’s great post on the subject here! In short: do not plant species which are imported and/or are not natives!

Build homes for native animals

Now you have the plants covered, but the animals are a little slow to find their way to your little sanctuary – so write the invitation in bold letters! Put up an insect hotel to encourage more critters to settle, put up some bird boxes, or maybe even bat boxes!

For a guide (in Norwegian) for how to build an environmentally friendly garden, you can check out these points by SABIMA as well.

So in summary: let it grow, and let it be messy. Now go and be a good garden manager: sit down, out your feet up!

 

 

 

 

 

Parrots in Norway

The Norwegian landscape is a beautiful thing. Spruce and pine groves piled on the side of mountains and fjords, moose and deer popping up in backyards, woodbirds flitting about on pristine hiking trails. Parrots screeching bloody murder into your ears as you re-enter the city.

No you did not read that wrong. It’s not happening yet, it in a couple of decades parrots, a type of bird not really associated with the sub-Arctic, could be a regular presence around Norwegian cities. So how could this happen, and why is it really quite concerning?

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