Making Strides In Sustainable Development With The Telecoupling GeoApp

Global sustainability challenges – chronic hunger, loss of species habitat, water shortage, and the continuing rise of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities – are increasingly influenced by distant forces. Urban demand for farm products may cause habitat loss in a remote region half the world away. Smallholder farmers may suffer water shortages caused by expanding demands from population booms in distant cities.

These are examples of telecouplings — socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances — and while they have become ubiquitous in our globalized world, tools to better understand them and combat potential detrimental outcomes have been lacking.

In our study “The Telecoupling GeoApp: A Web-GIS Application to Systematically Analyze Telecouplings and Sustainable Development,” recently published in Applied Geography, we introduce a suite of tools designed to make sense of these distant interactions.

Credit: Yue Dou

Sustainability and the Telecoupling GeoApp

Global sustainability, as well as the obstacles posed to it, is shaped by complex, multi-scale human-environment interactions. In recognizing the urgency of sustainability concerns a range of efforts have been fashioned to assist stakeholders, researchers, and the general public in navigating the complexity of these issues and crafting solutions. For instance, in 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly established Sustainable Development Goals to provide guidance in tackling social and economic development issues. From the academic community, researchers have constructed analytical tools to investigate the components, processes, and multi-scalar dimensions of sustainability. Our goal was to create an interactive platform to allow both advanced and novice users to explore, visualize, and quantify critical system interactions and their influence on globally important issues.

The Telecoupling GeoApp is a dynamic, interactive web-GIS platform featuring a large collection of mapping and analysis tools. It is part of a larger suite of applications referred to as the Telecoupling Toolbox. Currently, the Telecoupling Toolbox consists of the GeoApp as well as the ArcGIS Toolbox, which features geoprocessing tools similar to those found in the GeoApp but intended for use with a desktop Geographic Information System (GIS). Both the GeoApp and the ArcGIS Toolbox have been developed in a modular fashion, meaning additional tools can be added to the existing analysis suite when the need for new functionality arises. The GeoApp is deployed on Amazon Web Services, and this virtual server is both the web application tier and the GIS web service tier for serving the public-facing geoprocessing tools.

Most important to users of the GeoApp are the geoprocessing widgets used to engage with sustainability questions. Some of these widgets are aimed at environmental analysis, such as inspection of CO2 emissions or evaluation of habitat risk. Many tools in this category were developed by third parties, including the Natural Capital Project. Other widgets are aimed at socioeconomic analysis, such as evaluation of caloric demand in an area of interest or assessing population density. Additionally, we have included satellite imagery analysis tools so users can estimate change detection and evaluate the spectral signature of pixels, among other tasks. Finally, we have added tools dedicated to system visualizations, such as the mapping of connections between multiple systems of interest. By providing tools that so closely align with the telecoupling and sustainability themes, we anticipate that users will find value in linking tools for more comprehensive analyses, rather than using them in a one-off fashion.

Application: Impacts of Land Conversion for International Food Trade

To demonstrate a case where multiple widgets could be used together to investigate a global sustainability topic, we applied the GeoApp to the case of Brazil-China soybean trade, a clear example of a telecoupling. Chinese soybean demand motivates large land clearings in Brazil to cultivate the crop for international markets. In the process, economic growth is experienced in some regions, yet land becomes degraded and ecosystem services are lost.

Credit: Yue Dou

We evaluated several of these environmental and socioeconomic processes in an area of about 230,000 km2 in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. For instance, using the Forest Carbon Edge Effect tool we found that land cleared for agricultural purposes in this area from 2001 to 2004 had acted as a sink for 43,584,000 megagrams of carbon. Using the Habitat Quality tool, we discovered that the habitat of the giant anteater – a vulnerable species with a geographic range extending through the study area – was degraded in about 20 percent of the study area. However, from the perspective of food security and economic growth, we were able to demonstrate why this land is so valuable from an agricultural perspective: the newly cultivated land from the 2001 to 2004 period had an average yield of 3.35 tons per hectare, while the average for the entire state of Mato Grosso was just under 3.0 tons per hectare.

Realizing Sustainable Development

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and concern grows regarding the global implications of seemingly routine activities, such as commodity trade and resource extraction, a web application with low barriers to entry, like the GeoApp, can plan an important role advancing global sustainability objectives and engaging stakeholders. For instance, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, mentioned above, seek to “End hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (Goal 2) and “Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss” (Goal 15). The widgets we applied to the case of Brazil-China soybean trade lend perspective and insight to these two goals.

Efforts to address sustainable development will need to identify optimal strategies that work toward a number of diverse targets and that do not sacrifice one goal in one location for the sake of achieving another goal in a separate location. This will not be easy, particularly given the complexity of global systems. It is our hope that the GeoApp will offer a valuable resource to make sense of a multifaceted, interconnected world and provide a means to confront increasingly complex sustainability challenges.

These findings are described in the article entitled The Telecoupling GeoApp: A Web-GIS application to systematically analyze telecouplings and sustainable development, recently published in the journal Applied GeographyThis work was conducted by Paul McCord, Francesco Tonini, and Jianguo Liu from Michigan State University.

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