The Antropocebne III – The Quadruple Squeeze

130aIn this lecture I’d just like to lay out to you what are the driving forces that explain why we’ve ended up in this new juncture with rising global environmental risks.

And it arises from what I’ve called a planetary squeeze, originating from four different large driving forces, the so-called quadruple squeeze from the world on planet Earth.

This squeeze arises from four different areas. And the first one is clearly population pressure. And population pressure is not about just the numbers, but it’s worth laying them out. We were three billion people at the point where we started the great acceleration of human pressures on the planet in the mid-1950s. We’re today seven billion people and we’re on our way, in fact committed, to nine billion people in only less than forty years, by 2050. But you see that absolute main driving force which is coupled to human population is not about numbers, it’s about affluence, it’s about what we call the 2080 dilemma, that the bulk of the global environmental problems that we face today are caused by the rich minority that stepped onto the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. And the vast majority of co-citizens on Earth, the poor co-citizens in our world, have actually contributed very little to the damage and degradation we see so far.

But we’ve just now come to juncture, which is absolutely unique. It is now we’re starting to see the positive opportunity of eradicating poverty in the world, of eradicating hunger in the world, of having the majority, in fact the projection shows that we are moving from a world with 1.52 billion middle income citizens in the world to a world with 4, 5, 6 billion people with an average income equivalent to the developed nations in the world.

This is enormously positive, it’s an enormous opportunity, it’s even a right to development, but of course poses enormous challenges if we continue on an unsustainable route.

The second pressure is the one that we almost always focus on when we talk about global environmental change, namely human-caused climate change. Here we also have a dilemma related to three numbers.

The first one is 450 ppm, the concentration of greenhouse gases that normally is translated from science as the point beyond which we risk very damaging and even dangerous temperature rise.

The dilemma is that we have reached 450 ppm. 2014 is the year when we reach 450 ppm for all greenhouse gases. We are already in a danger zone. In fact science shows that we should try to stabilize at 400 ppm or below, meaning, to put it a bit bluntly, that even if we shut down the world today we are in a danger zone, and all projections show that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise in the world.

And the dilemma is that the pathway we’re heading is toward 560 ppm and beyond, which is a level way beyond anything that science stipulates as safe.

So this is the climate pressure. And you would have wished that this in fact, the largest ever environmental experiment to be performed on planet Earth, human-caused destabilization of the energy system in the atmosphere, would occur on a resilient and strong planet, you would have wished to have a strong, experimental object when you punch the system so hard as were doing when we are emitting greenhouse gases.

But unfortunately we now know from science that over the last fifty years we have undermined the ability of the Earth system to cope with climate change faster than ever before. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first global health control of the world’s ecosystems, show very clearly that over the past fifty years we’ve lost approximately 60% of the ecosystem functions and services that not only support human well being directly, but also which regulate the capacity of the Earth system to buffer, for example, climate change. One of them being, for example, the carbon sinks in ecosystems and oceans that we’ll come back to throughout the course.

But this is not enough. Not only do we have a climate crisis and an ecosystem crisis, the space within which we can operate safely is reduced by the insights that we can no longer exclude abrupt, sudden changes, what we’ll be calling “tipping points” or “thresholds.” And these tipping points and thresholds mean that the space, in terms of how many resources we can utilize on Earth, reduces very drastically. And it arises from the insight that we’ve always assumed that we can predict changes in the Earth system, such as in the oceans, and in forests, and lakes, and ecosystems in a predictable way, and that things change slowly and linearly.

But science now shows that that is the exception. The rule is surprise, very long periods of in fact very limited change, because systems have an in-built resilience to deal with change, just like you can see a boxer in a boxing competition getting one punch after the other and still standing. But then suddenly comes that final punch which means a knockout. Exactly the same type of abrupt knockouts is what we’re seeing in the biosphere.

And these are the four driving forces that changes the situation for humanity on Earth, that our precious Earth system is subject to a population, climate change, ecosystem, and the insights of surprise, which reduces the space for human development on Earth.

Now what are some of the examples behind this evidence?

Well the first one is on affluence. And this is data from the OECD showing the quite dramatic projections until 2050, where we’ll be nine billion people, shown here on the x-axis, and the green big area here shows the projected economic growth for the world. Can you imagine?

The world is projected to have a three times larger world economy in just 2050. The reason for this is predominantly shown in the red and yellow boxes, which shows the very positive trajectories for the world’s developing nations. Almost 500% GDP growth over the next thirty years. This is the affluence driving force.

The climate driving force is very well articulated in the latest scientific update from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Here are just some key findings.

On the left-hand side you see the very dramatic scenarios to the future, which takes us all the way to the end of this century, and the possible trajectories in terms of the temperature rise. The red curve, the curve which we certainly do not want to end up with, is the curve that on average takes us to 4 degree C warming, a place where we haven’t been for the past four million years. The blue curve is if we would be able to bend the emission of greenhouse gases over the next 5-10 years and take us to a safe future below two degrees warming. But look at the black dots on this graph, and I really recommend you to study this graph particularly, if you have a chance. The black dots are observations. We’re following the disastrous 4 degree C pathway. So this is why we have such a large squeeze on climate.

On ecosystems, I’m just taking one example here, we’ll come back to this, which is showing the risks of deforestation. We’re learning more and more for rainforests, and this is an example from the Amazon rainforest, that if we cut down large tracts of rainforest, that combined with climate change, means that we dry out the entire system. And that is very dangerous for rainforests because the majority of the rain in rainforests is self-generated. You need a very, very large canopy of trees, which evaporate water, self-generates rainfall. But when you open up these systems they self-dry and can cross the tipping point and become savannahs.

So this is an example of the risks we take because this undermines freshwater supply to big cities, it undermines the ability to produce food, and therefore is an enormous risk with regards to livelihoods. It also makes us lose one of the large global carbon sinks.

And finally the risk of tipping points, which is moving from this example of a beautiful biodiverse marine coral reef system, supplying livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people in coastal regions worldwide, which we know today can abruptly shift over and become dead zones. For example, triggered by long, long periods of overfishing, eutrophication, sediments from agriculture, global warming, the system loses resilience slowly but surely, becomes vulnerable, but then a trigger, such as a linear event means that the whole system due to bleaching topples over and becomes permanently locked in a desertified state.

We’ll come back to the following graph which is a very dramatic piece of research showing that if we continue losing biodiversity at this pace by mid-century we can no longer exclude a global tipping point in terms of loss of genetic diversity on Earth. And if we lose that biodiversity we would lose the basis for human development and world prosperity as we know it.

So this is just some of the flavors of the science, why we can today say we are subjecting our own Earth, the basis for our own world development, to a quadruple squeeze of population affluence, climate, ecosystem crisis, and the understanding that we can no longer exclude abrupt tipping points that can lead to sudden changes that permanently puts us in a very undesired situation.

This is the challenge we’re facing, and this is what we need to navigate if we are really thinking about future generations.