Sustainability and Energy transition: an opportunity for the next generation of geoscientists

May 8, 2020 | 2020, EFGeoBlog

This is a note on a three-days course I held at the PhD school in Geological Sciences at University of RomaTRE, organised for PhD and Master students, just before the lock down that affected Italy and the world. Why I believe it is relevant for this EFG blog? Because it involves our future as geoscientists and citizens: the world is changing, and we need enough resilience to adapt our skills and expertise.

The COVID-19 pandemic is much more than a health emergency: it has the potential to create devastating social, economic and political crises that will leave deep scars, together with creating new opportunities. The challenge is global and there is the need for a common reaction: countries must continue to make progress in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the Agenda 2030 for a global and integrated sustainable development, where one need (e.g. economic / work) does not prevail over the others (e.g. environmental and social).

the world is changing, and we need enough resilience to adapt our skills and expertise.

Fig. 1 – Poster of the course, held under the patronage of the Geological Society of Italy

the 3 main components of Sustainability are Economic development, Environmental care, Social equality.

The pandemic will probably change the priorities, good health and well-being (SGD n°3) will become probably and rightly more and more important, but we cannot forget that every single SGD has a deep, transversal connection with the others. That is why the pandemic can became an opportunity to catch.

With the students we went through the history and the evolution of the concept of Sustainability, from the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference and its “Declaration on the human environment”, through the 1983 UN “Our Common Future” report (the Bruntland Report), upto the 2015 COP21 Paris Conference with the “Agenda 2030” and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals-SDGs: an urgent and global call to action for strategies that improve health and education, reduce poverty and inequality and stimulate economic growth, tackling climate change and preserving oceans and forests.

It is clear from this definition that each Goal has a close connection with the others and with the 3 main components of Sustainability: Economic development, Environmental care, Social equality. 

With this approach, geosciences can play a primary role in the development of several Goals, starting from the need to give access to all the people to an affordable and clean energy (SDG7) and to preserve oceans and land (SDGs 14 and 15), to the actions to be taken to face climate changes (SDG 13), to the necessity to guarantee efficient and sustainable cities and infrastructures (SDG 11), to the increasing request for a responsible consumption and production of goods (SDG 12). At the end of the day, any of the 17 SDGs sees the involvement of geoscientists. The path toward a decarbonization is not only the path toward the end of the use of hydrocarbons: the new energy sectors will contribute to the rapid demand growth for a wide range of minerals and metals, which requires energy and generates emissions. The mineral resources (in particular rare metals and their deep reservoirs) are becoming strategic, but they remain little known. A new exploration is essential, but exploration, exploitation and processing of the raw material, including their end-of-use, can only be carried out if a capacity to control environmental and social impacts is acquired.

Fig.2 – Most element in the periodic table are essential to the innovative technologies required to address humankind’s energy problems (ANCRE, Ressources minérales et énergie. 2015)

Within this picture, circular economy plays a big role: reduce, reuse, recycle and waste disposal need a deep knowledge of materials and working sites, as well as activities related to contamination remediation.

Finally yet importantly, with such a global approach a standard Environmental Impacts Assessment is not anymore enough to take into a consideration all the aspects or segments of the life of a product or of an industrial activity. We need a Life Cycle Assessment, which is, according to the European Environmental Agency (Life Cycle Assessment, A guide to approaches, experiences and information sources, 1997) “the evaluation of some aspects – often the environmental aspects – of a product system through all stages of its life cycle. It represents a family of tools and techniques designed to help in environmental management and, longer term, in sustainable development”.

Geoscientists play a very important role in such a global and transversal process

Again, geoscientists play a very important role in such a global and transversal process; there is the need to change the paradigm and open the mind. As well reported during the 2018 AAPG Energy Transition Forum, “A New Era in Geoscience” and by the Geological Society of London, we geoscientists are very well positioned to do that:

  • Geoscientists: a continuing, primary role for oil and mainly gas exploration and exploitation – certainly until 2050 or 2060. But even if the move to renewables goes at an accelerated pace, geosciences will remain crucial in CCS and new energy solutions such as geothermal, and in other types of renewable projects with technologies and concepts to be developed;
  • The 2°c economy that will exist by 2050 will generate a huge demand for new metals and minerals: + 200% for aluminum, iron, lead and nickel; +1000% for cobalt, lithium, manganese. Challenge? We have very little understanding of those resources, and very little geological data means huge demand for skill sets;
  • The mix of skills that geoscientists have is unique, particularly in managing data and solving complex problems. There will be a need for more multiskilled people, able to integrate geological knowledge with IT, economy and social sciences. Geoscientists have much to contribute in the broader energy sphere because of way they think: they are used to dealing with complex environments, good at systems thinking and without full data sets;
  • Universities need to proactively reinforce the message that petroleum/underground geologists are still needed in the future, but may need to change the curriculum and how the profession is promoted;
  • The next generation is already hugely environmentally aware and it is important that senior professionals/politicians inject optimism and empowerment into the next generation of decision makers;
  • We have to develop the ability to speak easy and, more important, the ability to listen to the requests and doubts of the local communities. This is the only way for a correct dissemination of knowledge.

Fig. 3 – Geosciences in the changing world

I was pleasantly impressed by the participation of the students, by their hunger for knowledge, their desire to understand energy scenarios within a wider context of sustainable energy development

An exercise with the development of an environmental impacts matrix associated to the construction, installation, running and decommissioning of an energy production plant concluded the course: an intense and interesting discussion with the young geologists on how to assess environmental and social risks and how to prevent, monitor and mitigate impacts. Stakeholder engagement, an environmental communication plan to prevent social conflicts and the basic application of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concepts have been also discussed and applied to the exercise.

I was pleasantly impressed by the participation of the students, by their hunger for knowledge, their desire to understand energy scenarios within a wider context of sustainable energy development, of protection of the environment around us, of the actions taken and to be undertaken in terms of adaptation to and/or mitigation of climate change.

It was a winning bet, and I wish to thank prof. Sveva Corrado and the other professors for this opportunity. The response of the students has been positive and I believe that these concepts must became part of the fundamentals of University programs and of our skills: this is the time for us geoscientists to position ourselves in the Energy Transition process.

About the Author: Geologist, E&P advisor. > 25 years’ experience in the Oil & Gas business, covering a wide variety of positions in the industry in Italy, Eastern Europe and FSU, from wellsite geologist to operation manager and with an extensive experience in exploration geology, permitting, HSE, stakeholders management and social responsibility. I developed an extreme curiosity about scenarios and energy policies, committing myself to a correct dissemination of knowledge. I have held numerous seminars and courses over the years at Universities, on topics related to geosciences and energy. Co-founder of the group for Georesources and Energy of the Geological Society of Italy and member of the Board of the Society (2015-2018), member of the Commission for Energy of the Association of Professional Geologists of Lazio (Ordine Geologi Lazio, 2014-2016).

Contributor: Pierluigi Vecchia

StrataGeoResearch, spin-off of the University of Chieti-Pescara (IT).

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal opinions of the author. These opinions may not reflect the official position of the European Federation of Geologists (EFG).