WIMEK Research and publications

WIMEK combines fundamental, strategic, applied and participatory research in environmental, climate and sustainability sciences, both from a social sciences and a natural sciences point of view, focusing on pressing environmental problems and sustainable solutions with local to global significance. Moreover, our fundamental disciplinary research efforts and innovative inter- and transdisciplinary (including stakeholders) research efforts are both needed to contribute to real solutions for the current emerging complex environmental issues. WIMEK especially promotes interdisciplinary research focusing on the interactions between ecological, chemical, physical and socio-economic processes and their interactions with society. This is considered to be essential for a solid contribution towards solving complex environmental problems.

Our research programme strongly concentrates on the components of the cause-effect chain of environmental problems:

  • Environmental contaminants and nutrients, including biotechnological and physico-chemical processes for sustainable use and reuse of water, energy, minerals and materials;
  • Environmental processes and ecosystem dynamics;
  • Global and regional environmental change; and
  • Sustainable development and social change: actors, institutions and governance.

We focus on three Grand Challenges: climate action, managing our future biosphere and advancing circular systems.

Transdisciplinary research

WIMEK has illustrated the transdisciplinary research approach by the publication of a booklet “Challenges and successes in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and education”, presenting inspiring examples of transdisciplinary approaches from WIMEK staff (May 2014). In addition WIMEK puts its vision into practice by initiating and participating in some large transdisciplinary initiatives, such as (i) INREF  programmes (ii) the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS: a collaboration of WUR, TUD, MIT, local government and business partners) and (iii) Water Nexus: a new NWO-STW research programme of 6 Million Euro, that will run from January 2015 to 2020, and is supported by 25 partners from multinational and small/middle sized companies, consultancy firms, research institutes, water boards, and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment.

WIMEK’s Grand Challenges

We identified three main Grand Challenges to focus our research on:

I. Climate action: Towards fair and effective solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation

Combatting climate change and its impacts is currently one of the most pressing global challenges. Greenhouse gas emissions are currently at the highest levels in human history. Weather patterns are changing and weather events are becoming more extreme, causing floods and droughts. Moreover, sea levels are rising, threatening densely-populated low land countries and delta regions. Urgent action to combat climate change is required, both by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and by reducing the vulnerabilities to climate change and increasing adaptive capacity of socio-economic systems (adaptation).

WIMEK’s research aims at co-creating climate solutions by:

  • analysing the climate system in order to better understand the anthropogenic causes and impacts of climate change
  • identifying emission reduction strategies that are consistent with the aims of the UNFCCC
  • developing nature-based climate solutions in agriculture, forestry, cities and integrated landscapes by exploring the potential of nature to reduce the impact of climate change and to improve the adaptive capacity of livelihoods
  • supporting the development of user-oriented climate risk information services for public and private sector at various scales
  • supporting the design, implementation, monitoring & evaluation of climate resilient (low risk low carbon) pathways together with stakeholders
  • studying new governance arrangements at local to global scale aiming a facilitating climate change adaptation and mitigation

To realise these goals, WIMEK researchers collaborate intensively with governments, businesses and research institutes. Moreover, we train the next generation of climate change specialists through our unique and world-class multidisciplinary master and PhD programmes.

II. Managing our future biosphere: Developing strategies for the sustainable use of soil, water, atmosphere, biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes

Human activities are threatening the natural basis of our planet by disturbing the global atmospheric and water cycles and polluting soil, water and atmosphere, resulting in degradation of biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes. These problems cross regional and national borders and tend to propagate in time. Solving these complex problems is challenging because the underlying environmental and socio-economic processes and their systemic interactions are poorly understood. The services provided by natural systems are often inadequately appreciated.

The main focus of WIMEK’s research lies on understanding the interconnected physical, chemical, biological and social processes across scales to help to preserve and restore soil, water and air quality, biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes.

This entails the development of models and scenarios that contribute to potential solutions for environmental issues at local, regional and/or global scale at different timescales.

WIMEK’s research aims at co-creating sustainable solutions by:

  • analysing the interaction and feedbacks between the pedosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere, such as the hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle
  • analysing how human activities affect our soil, water bodies and atmosphere and what the impacts are on society
  • analysing ecosystem services and biodiversity (e.g. quantification and valuation of ecosystem functions and services)
  • studying the impacts of land use, land and water management on the quality of soil and water systems (agro-ecosystems and natural ecosystems) that are essential for addressing global societal challenges of sufficient and clean water resources, food security, sustainable land management, and climate adaptation
  • developing evidence-based design and responsive land use planning approaches for urban-rural transformations that are important to support climate adaptation, the energy transition, the agricultural transition (towards a circular agriculture) and urbanization

Our approach in studying global environmental challenges also includes the social sciences, addressing issues such as equitable distribution of benefits, dispossession, discrimination, and social vulnerability. We link our research to capacity building, community action and policy initiatives aiming to generate a broad impact on society. Moreover, we include stakeholders more often in the whole research process more often, by co-creating research proposals and research programmes.

III.          Advancing circular systems: Innovation towards closed water, nutrient, and material flows

Agriculture and horticulture consume about 70 per cent of the earth’s fresh water and are responsible for 30 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. Moreover, food production is exhausting and wasting raw materials, and causing farmland depletion and biodiversity loss. Calls for sufficient and clean water, sustainable energy and healthy food will become louder in the coming decades. We can only change this by adopting an integrated approach and creating synergy between the water, energy and agricultural production sectors. This requires a transition from the current linear to circular agricultural production. In addition, it requires a shift from fossil to renewable sources of energy, water and nutrients. Among other things, this means that water, energy and nutrient cycles need to be as closed as possible, at local, regional and intercontinental levels. Closed-cycle food production requires new, integrated concepts, developed in close cooperation with all stakeholders.

WIMEK’s research aims at co-creating water, food and climate solutions by:

  • developing practices and technology that minimise the input of finite resources, encourage the use of regenerative ones, prevent the leakage of natural resources and stimulate the reuse and recycling of inevitable biomass losses in a way that adds the highest possible value to the entire system
  • developing system designs that fit into practice and are safe, high-quality, optimal, integrated and resilient, meet societal demand and that keep resource inputs and outputs within the planetary boundaries at all scales (local to global)
  • determining driving forces that are effective to move the systems towards circularity