We’ve been talking about economic growth, how it started, how it diffuses, what the big problems are, how countries still trapped in poverty can spring free of the poverty trap. But the problem, we know, is more complicated than that. What if the world achieves economic growth? What if the poor countries, as they hope and rightly deserve, catch up with the high income countries? What then for the planetary boundaries? What then for an environment already under tremendous stress? Remember that sustainable development makes a key point, that economic, social and environmental systems are interlinked.
So, I want to focus now more deeply on how we might even conceive of bridging this terrible problem of global economic growth, the good that we want, the progress for poor countries, with a worsening environmental crisis. We have to understand the environmental systems and how humanity is effecting them. Then we have to look for practical approaches. How we can reduce the pressures that humanity is placing on the climate, on the oceans, on the land, or other species. So that we can reconcile these two objectives and indeed, make it possible to achieve all three of the basic goals of sustainable development. Economic growth, fairness and social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
Remember the concept of planetary boundaries or the fact that we’re living in as new geologic era, the anthropocene. Both these concepts, planetary boundaries and anthropocene, signify that humanity has become so numerous, our 7.2 billion people and rising, and so effective one could say, so productive in the capacity to mine and extract resources. To transform resources for production in industry, to consume, that we have suddenly, unprecedentedly as a species, hit these planetary risks and even dead ends if we’re not careful. The concept of planetary boundaries, I think it’s an extremely useful one, because when world leading ecologist Johan Rockström and many, many other leading ecologists got together, they asked the question in specificity. What are the major challenges coming from humanity’s impact on the physical environment? Can we identify those challenges? Can we quantify them? Can we identify what would be safe limits for human activity so that we can begin rather urgently because we’re late to this.
To redesign our technologies and our economic growth dynamics so that we can have economic improvement while staying within the planetary boundaries. You’ll recall the picture that we looked at of the planetary boundaries around this circle. And I want to say a few words about each of these so that we can begin to look deeply at the question of how to reconcile growth and these various environmental threats. The first of the challenges and the biggest is climate change.
This is being caused by humanity’s use of particular technologies. Especially fossil fuels and the way we use land and grow animals and food that produces atmospheric change in the form of rising concentrations of a few particular gasses. Carbon dioxide is the most important of these. Nitrous oxide, methane and a few more industrial chemicals are the greenhouse gasses that have the property that they allow the sunlight in as ultraviolet radiation. But then, when the earth would re-radiate its heat to space, they trap energy in the form of the outgoing infrared radiation and thereby warm the planet. So these greenhouse gases are very particular molecules that have the property that they absorb infrared radiation.
And so when their concentration in the atmosphere increases, that warms the planet. It’s because of these greenhouse gases that life is possible in the way we know it, because that envelope of the atmosphere has made the earth warmer than say, the moon, which lacks an atmosphere. And is very, very cold as a result. But at the same time, if we perturb the greenhouse gas concentrations, raise them by raising the CO2 or the methane or the nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, then we endanger ourselves and other species. The second of the planetary boundaries is related, ocean acidification. This also comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is increasing because of human use of coal, oil, and gas. The oceans are being acidified, made more acid, by the fact that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean producing carbonic acid. And because of this acidity, various kinds of animal life, corals and shellfish and lobsters and very small plankton that also have these external shells made of calcium are threatened by the increasing acidity which makes it hard for the species to make their protective shells. Now, the pH of the ocean has already decreased by 0.1 unit on the pH scale from zero all the way to 14, the least acidic or basic end of the pH spectrum. A change of 0.1 in the pH oceans doesn’t seem like all that much. But this is a logarithmic scale. So, what a decline of 0.1 signifies is an increase of protons in the ocean of 10 to the 0.1. Or about 0.3, 30% increase of acidity in the ocean already with a lot more to come. If you look at this map of the ocean, you can see the changes that are already being noticed on average in different parts of the world.The oceans are not uniformly becoming more acidic. That depends on ocean dynamics. But the shading of this colored map shows that we’re already in an environment on a trajectory of dangerously rising ocean acidity. The third of these planetary boundaries is ozone depletion.
We learned a while ago accidentally, but thank God, we learned it, that certain industrial chemicals, those that were used at the time for refrigeration, mainly. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, when put into the air, would rise into the upper atmosphere, dissociate, and the chlorine in those CFCs would then cause the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere to dissociate. And a famous, horrifying finding was that there developed a big hole in the ozone over Antarctica. And when that was discovered by satellite of course people were rightly terrified. Because the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects us from too much ultraviolet radiation, saves us from skin cancer and many other harms. And humanity realized that this planetary boundary was already being crossed, the ozone was already being depleted unwittingly by us. This is what’s so frightening, we didn’t even know it until some brilliant atmospheric chemists unveiled the mechanisms by which these chlorofluorocarbons deranged and destroyed the ozone level.
The next of the planetary boundaries is the heavy human caused loading of nitrogen and phosphorus. When farmers grow more food, you’ll recall that they put soil nutrients into the soil as organic fertilizers and as chemical fertilizers. Either way, incidentally, the nitrogen goes into the soil, some of it gets taken up by the crops. But a lot of it runs off the farm into the water, into the groundwater, and it collects in the rivers, and especially collects in the estuaries, the point where rivers meet the ocean. And that heavy pollution of nitrogen and phosphorus coming mainly from fertilizer use is creating a tremendous amount of ecological destruction.
We’ll have a look at that shortly. The next big challenge of planetary boundaries comes from our overuse of fresh water resources. We need fresh water every day to stay alive. Our crops need fresh water.
Of the total amount of fresh water that humanity uses, about 70% is used for agriculture, to grow our food. About 20% is for industry. And about 10% only, interesting enough, is for our household use, for hygiene and sewerage and, and and the rest. We use so much water, especially for our food production, that we are depleting very, very important sources of fresh water. For example, in the United States, in India, in China and in other parts of the world, we’re drilling for water in, in ground water aquifers, we are taking the water out, using it for irrigation. But taking the water out at a much faster rate than the water is being replenished by rainfall, and then by the water percolating back into the groundwater.
We’re depleting the groundwater. When it runs out, disaster. And that’s happening in many places in the world and will happen in many other places in the coming decades unless we are much more efficient in our water use. To grow food to feed our animals of course, humanity uses a massive amount of land. We also use land for our cities, for our parking lots, for our streets. But actually the urban areas, even though they seem to dominate, are only a few percent of the total land area on the planet. The farmland and the pastureland and the timberland that we use for forest products is a much, much larger proportion of the total land area. And humanity has been grasping over history for more and more land, more and more pasture land, more and more crop land. After all, the human population as we know has increased roughly ten times since the Industrial Revolution. That requires a lot more farmland to feed the 7.2 billion of us. The problem with that is that we share this planet with other species and as we grasp this land for our farmland, for our pasture land, for our timber land for our palm oil plantations and many many other uses.
We are literally chasing the other species away and off the planet into extinction in many cases. Our land use is having devastating consequences on biodiversity. The next category identified is aerosol loading. Small particles put up into the air because of industrial processes, or households that are burning coal into keep warm. And creating tremendous amount of air pollution, very damaging for the lungs. Claiming many, many lives per year. And with a heavy impact also on changing climate dynamics. Then there’s a very broad category of chemical pollution. Our petrol chemical industries, our steel industries, mining industries, not only demand a tremendous amount of land and water for their processing, but they add a tremendous amount of pollutants back into the environment. Many of these pollutants are persistent, they, they last in the environment, they accumulate, they can be very deadly for humans, for other species. And the range of chemical pollutants is so vast and the human and animal and plant health consequence is so large that it’s absolutely impossible to summarize, except to say that the problems are horrific in many places. China, the world champion of economic growth over the past 30 years, has also become the champion of polluted waterways of major cities, because of the extent of the heavy industrial processing.
And this all sums up to a final category of biodiversity loss. The death, the extinction of other species. We’re killing more animals and plants than we even know, than we’ve even met and catalogued scientifically, because we’re chopping down rain forest, poisoning environments, acidifying the oceans. Creating so much pollution and poisoning. That species are disappearing even before we’re able to identify and catalogue the millions of other species that share the planet with us and that we share with them. We are not stewards of global biodiversity right now. We are posing absolutely profound challenges. And when it comes to biodiversity loss, one could say that all of these planetary boundary threats, the acidification, the climate change, the land use patterns, the pollution, they’re all contributing to the loss of species, probably by the millions. It’s actually hypothesized, shocking as it may seem, that humanity is now causing the sixth great extinction wave of the planet earth. The other five, the first, for example, 440 million years ago. The next one, the second, 365 million years ago and so forth, weren’t caused by any species, weren’t caused by human beings, since we weren’t there. These were natural dynamics, whether it was, asteroid hits or whether it was the internal dynamics of the earth itself. These were natural processes. This sixth mega-extinction is not natural. It is the result of one species, that would be us, causing so much damage on the planet that we are putting millions and millions of other species at risk. And, since we depend on those other species, of course we are putting ourselves at profound risk. We are also creating a hugely unstable environment.
My colleague, professor James Hanson, recorded the extreme heat events on the planet from the 1950s till now shown in this series of maps. If you look at the map for 1955 and look at the dark red areas, you see a few places on the planet where there were heat waves in the June, July, August months of the year. And when you see those, you see that they were very particular places such as in, in Canada. Because of climate change, the number of those red splotches on the map which signify extreme heat, in that location, unusual to a massive extent for that locale, has been increasing in frequency very dramatically. You look at the map of 1955, just a couple of red regions. Have a look at the map of 1975, 20 years later, now there are a few more dark red regions of the map signifying places where extreme heat waves gripped those places. But, now jump ahead another 30 years or so to 2006 or 2007, suddenly the map is all red, it seems. The planet has been in engulfed by what was an extraordinary shock 30 years ago becoming common place now. We all know it, we’re feeling our own heat waves wherever we are. And being amazed year after year as new and very uncomfortable and often very dangerous records are set in very high temperatures gripping different parts of the planet each year. But what these maps are showing is that the frequency of these extreme events is absolutely shocking. Well, these are the planetary boundaries that have been identified. We know that we are already pushing against the limits. A
nd our question, in the coming analysis, is how can we think that that growth that we’ve been trying to decipher and promote can be reconciled with environmental sustainability and staying within these planetary boundaries when we already have so much challenge. That is our question, as we now delve more deeply into the intersection of economic growth and planetary boundaries.