It is a very profound, not to say dramatic, insight that we’ve now entered the globalized phase of environmental change, that we are now a big world on a small planet. And I can tell you that from science this has been something that has been emerging of the enormous advancements in research over the past 10-15 years. And it’s just very recently, just over past 5-10 years that the syntheses in all the data have been put together. It’s not something we’ve known for a very long time.
And now I’ll be presenting to you the very latest evidence that proves that we have entered a completely new era. So this is story, the scientific story, of the Great Acceleration.
Now the Great Acceleration starts with the enormous expansion of human exploitation on the world. We see it from urbanization, we see it from the fact that we’ve transformed 40% of land area into food production, and it’s all translating now into data, which looks as follows.
On these graphs here you see from the Industrial Revolution until today the exponential rise for everything that we value in terms of welfare and development, from population growth, economic growth, but even to the number of our paper consumption, and telephone use, and tourism, motor vehicle rising. And you all see the exact same exponential shape.
But it all translates to an enormous pressure on planet Earth. So the graphs on exactly every key process in the environment, be it biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation, ocean acidification, air pollution, overuse, and eutrophication of lakes and waterways through overloading of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, they look exactly the same way as in this right-hand plate. The exponential curves of pressure over the past fifty years.
So this is the drama, that the Great Acceleration is based not on theory or models, it’s based on real world observations of the exponential rise of pressures on essentially every parameter that matters for our own human well-being. If you put all these curves into one curve it looks like this.
Up until roughly the mid-1950s, in fact, we had quite limited pressure on the planet as a whole. It’s not as if we haven’t caused major environmental damage, even disasters, in the history of humanity. In fact, environmental change has had, and caused, and contributed to the collapse of the Mesopotamian irrigation societies, the Maya culture, major, major disruptions. But these were local to regional consequences.
From the mid-1950s onwards we start the exponential rise to the point where we’re today risking the entire stability of the Earth system. The warnings came early, as you all are aware, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the early 1960s, with The Limits of Growth from the Club of Rome in 1972. But if you would plot those little points on this graph, and I would urge anyone to do that, you’ll see that, perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising that conventional economists, and policymakers, and business leaders actually criticized and questioned these warnings, which came so early, insightfully, way before we had the evidence. You know, the curve, which had barely started to rise, could actually go anywhere in the future.
But today we are at the top of that exponential curve. Today we’re sitting on a mountain of empirical evidence that we are causing a vast, large global experiment on planet Earth. We are in fact the first generation to know that we’re undermining the ability of the Earth system to support human development.
This is a profound new insight. It is not very, very scary potentially. It is also an enormous privilege because it means that we’re the first generation to know we need to change. We’re the first generation to know that we now need to navigate a transformation to a global sustainable future. And this is where the real excitement arises, that sustainable solutions exist to be able to carry out that transition.
Now this all comes across as relatively theoretical when we look at these large curves of exponential pressure. But they do translate immediately to, for example, measurable temperature rise, which has risen in the order of 0.6 degrees Celsius just over the past thirty, forty years, 1degree C over the past hundred years, causing already today challenges for the world economy.
And we see it from the empirical data in terms of temperature trends across the world, and we get it documented in scientific synthesis, such as the latest update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So there’s an enormous amount of evidence to support the conclusion that we are in the Great Acceleration, and need a great transformation.
But it’s not only about the environment. So here you see a joint set of curves showing on the right-hand side what I previously showed you, the exponential pressures in terms of biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide, fertilizer use, etc. But you see on the very left-hand side you see curves that are very similar to this trend. The upper one is the trend on obesity and stuntness.
We have today a world with almost 1 billion obese and over 1 billion of absolutely malnourished, a trend where the obesity is rising, and lifestyle-related diseases are rapidly moving in the wrong direction.
The second graph shows antibiotic resistance in our food producing systems. So we are today aware of the fact that agriculture is the world’s largest single source of the negative exponential rise in environmental pressures. But it also has tremendous health implications in terms of everything from lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases, in terms of the exponential rise in the world of, for example Diabetes Type 1. But also in rising risks because were situating ourselves in a position where antibiotic, which is used very intensively in livestock production, can no longer securely help us treat very basic diseases.
So it’s a complex again where we need to understand in an integrated way the social, ecological, the health, human well-being, and environmental changes we’re posing and subjecting ourselves to in this situation of a Great Acceleration.
To add to the challenge we need to recognize that we have two giants colliding right at this very moment. Because you see the pressures we’ve discussed so far are only, so to say, manifesting the degree to which we’re putting pressure on the planet.
The big question, of course, is how planet Earth responds. So the first giant that we now need to face is the recognition that these pressures translate increasingly to risks of abrupt tipping points that the Earth system may respond by suddenly and irreversibly undermining the ability, for example, of forests, land areas, and oceans to deliver to the economy.
But the second giant, which is colliding right as we speak, is something that we often underestimate. The global curves I’ve showed so far, the exponential rise of pressures have at large been caused by the rich minority on planet Earth, the 1.5 billion affluent people that have been largely part of the Industrial Revolution and its success so far.
It is now we’re going to scale with the ability of all citizens on the Earth to have a right to development, and that adds up to a completely new magnitude of pressures. But you should also recognize that we need to translate that to the reverse, namely the ethics of providing the right for all inhabitants to have an equal access to the ecological, the remaining ecological space in the world.
And that is one of the key challenges we need to discuss much more in terms of defining development in the future. It also translates to exponential curves related to development.
This is data showing a very similar exponential hockey stick curve, but showing water scarcity in the world. Over the same period as the Industrial Revolution we have almost, can you believe it, three billion people suffering from water scarcity, almost half of the world’s population. And the exponential curves you see in dotted lines here is a success story of trying to solve this problem. This is the expansion of dams, reservoirs, irrigation systems, boreholes, etc., showing that even though we have used technology as far as we ever can, we’re still chasing our own tail. We still have a very large proportion of people in the world suffering from water scarcity. So on top of all the challenges in the future we must recognize that we have an enormous challenge also related to the current situation in the world.
The same goes for energy. This is the exponential curve in energy use in the world, on the left-hand side originating from the Global Energy Assessment, a large assessment that was finished roughly 1.5-2 years back, showing that our economic development requires modern energy use. So we have this enormous challenge of a rising demand and use of energy, that we with nine billion people increasingly affluent must increase energy use, and at the same time we need a transition, shown in the right-hand graph, to a world which is largely free for emissions of carbon dioxide by mid-century to be able to stay below 2 degrees Celsius.
This is the grand challenge for humanity to be able to do this transition by bending these exponential curves in the Anthropocene.
But we’re not only facing negative exponential curves of pressures on the planet. We also have exponential curves of solutions, and, for example, to solve one of the world’s absolute largest challenges, the transition of the world’s energy system into a sustainable energy future, we are also seeing today almost a surprisingly rapid exponential rise of adoption of renewable energy systems.
And in these graphs you see examples of data showing the installations of solar PV systems and wind power systems just over the past twenty years. And up until just ten years back the rises were very slow, and now we’re on an exponential rise, which actually shows that for many economies in the world we’re starting to go to scale with renewable energy systems.
Exactly this opportunity of understanding the challenges, translating those to different forms of incentives and market-based regulations, policies, that can unleash innovation, not only in the energy system but also in terms of a transition to a sustainable food production, to a transition to circular business models in all types of industries, which can enable an exponential rise in sustainable solutions, which can enable us to bend the curves of negative change so that we enter the desired safe operating space of a stable planet.