There are five global trends that pose a major threat to our planet. These key issues must be resolved sooner than later if the world is to remain a supportive habitat for humans and other species, says Himmat Singh

Environmental disturbances have resulted in the extinction of a wide range of animals and plants in recent decades. Our air and water are polluted; our forests have been denuded. Our environment is no longer secure for future generations. Whatever we do, we generate carbon emissions. And, rather unsurprisingly, we generate a lot. Back in 1970, the world’s population exhaled about 14.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2015, we breathed out about 35 billion tonnes. There are five global trends that pose a major threat to our planet. These issues must be resolved sooner than later if the world is to remain a supportive habitat for humans and other species.

Getting choked

The atmosphere and ocean waters are overloaded with carbon. Atmospheric CO2 absorbs and re-emits infrared-wavelength radiation, leading to warmer air, soil and ocean surface waters — which is good: the planet would be frozen solid without it.

Unfortunately, there’s now too much carbon in the air. Burning of fossil fuels, deforestation for agriculture, and industrial activities have pushed up atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 280 parts per million (ppm) 200 years ago to about 400 ppm today. The result is climate disruption.

Carbon overloading is only one form of air pollution caused by burning coal, oil, gas and wood. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that one in nine deaths in 2012 were attributable to diseases caused by carcinogens and other poisons in the polluted air.

The solutions are: Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy; reforestation; reduce emissions from agriculture; change industrial processes.

The good news is that clean energy is abundant — it just needs to be harvested. Many say a 100 per cent renewable-energy future is feasible with the existing technology.

But the bad news is that even though renewable energy infrastructure — solar panels, wind turbines, energy storage and distribution systems — are already widespread, and getting cheaper and more efficient all the time, experts say we are not applying them quickly enough to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. Barriers in policy and finance need to be overcome.

Rampant Deforestation

Species-rich wild forests are being destroyed, especially in the tropics, often to make way for cattle ranching, soyabean/palm oil or other plantations, or other agricultural monocultures. Today, about 30 per cent of the planet’s land area is covered by forests —  about half as much as before agriculture started around 11,000 years ago. About 7.3 million hectares (18 million acres) of forests are destroyed each year, mostly in the tropics. Tropical forests used to cover about 15 per cent of the planet’s land area; they are now down to 6 or 7 per cent. Much of this remainder has been degraded by logging or burning.

Natural forests not only act as biodiversity reserves, but are also carbon ‘sinks’, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and oceans.

There is a need to conserve what’s left of natural forests, and restore degraded areas by replantation with native tree species. This requires strong governance, but many tropical countries are still developing, with increasing populations, uneven rule of law, and widespread cronyism and bribery when it comes to allocating land use.

Species under threat

On land, wild animals are being hunted to extinction for bushmeat, ivory or ‘medicinal’ products. At sea, huge industrial fishing boats equipped with bottom-trawling or purse-seine nets clean out entire fish populations. The loss and destruction of habitat are also major factors contributing to a wave of extinction — unprecedented in that it is caused by a single species: humans. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘red list’ of threatened and endangered species continues to grow.

Concerted efforts need to be made to prevent further loss of biodiversity. Protecting and restoring habitats is one side of this — protecting against poaching and wildlife trade is the other. This should be done in partnership with locals, so that wildlife conservation is in their social and economic interest.

The American black bear is one of the 22,000-odd species threatened with extinction. During the past century, animals have been disappearing about 100 times faster than they used to, scientists from American universities have warned in a new study. According to the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), around 70 species go extinct every day.

According to the IUCN, 41 per cent of the amphibian species and 26 per cent of the mammals are facing extinction. The Titicaca water frog, found only in Lake Titicaca in South America, used to be present in millions in the early 1970s. Now, it has almost disappeared.

The causes of species’ loss are mostly man-made. These range from climate change to pollution and deforestation. About 2,000 trees have been cut down every minute during the past 40 years.

As species disappear, so do crucial services, such as pollination of crops by honeybees. At the current rate of species’ loss, humans will lose innumerable biodiversity benefits within three generations. “We are sawing off the limb we are sitting on,” wrote author Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University.

Soil degradation

Overexposure to pollutants, land-use conversion — there is a long list of ways that soil is being damaged. About 12 million hectares of farmland a year get seriously degraded, according to UN estimates.

The organisms living in a handful of soil outnumber all humans on the planet. They ensure that the humus layer stores nutrients and water. After oceans, soils represent the planet’s largest carbon bank. Soils store more carbon than all the world’s forests combined. As cities around the world expand, fertile land is disappearing under concrete and asphalt. Microorganisms are suffocated under this artificial surface, and above it rainwater flows away rather than seeping into the soil.

Depletion of the soil through deforestation, over-fertilisation and overgrazing can turn land into desert. Climatic factors like drought become a catalyst in a chain reaction — set in motion by human activity.

Monoculture plantations need large amounts of fertilisers and pesticides to remain productive. Some types of pesticides also harm the natural soil biota, reducing the soil’s fertility.

Whether resulting from industrial leakage, disaster or weapons, or from years of over-fertilisation, once soil is contaminated, fixing the damage is costly and time-consuming. According to official sources in China, nearly one-fifth of agricultural land there is contaminated.

There is a wide range of soil conservation and restoration techniques, from no-till agriculture to crop rotation and water retention through terrace-building. Given that food security depends on keeping soils in a good condition, we are likely to master this challenge in the long run. Whether this will be done in a way equitable to all people around the globe remains an open question.

Bursting at the seams

Human population continues to grow rapidly worldwide. We entered the 20th century with 1.6 billion people; now, we are about 7.5 billion. China and India top the global population list, with 1.4 billion and 1.33 billion inhabitants, respectively. Estimates put us at nearly 10 billion by 2050. Growing global populations, combined with growing affluence, is putting ever greater pressure on essential natural resources, like water. Most of the growth is happening in Africa, besides southern and eastern Asia.

The number of people living in urban areas rose from 1.34 billion in 1970 to 4 billion in 2016. According to the latest estimates, the majority of us are living in urban areas even in less developed countries.

Experience has shown that when women are empowered to control reproduction, and gain access to education and basic social services, the average number of births per woman drops precipitously. Done right, networked aid systems could bring women out of extreme poverty, even in countries where state-level governance remains abysmal.

— The writer is a consultant in the petroleum & natural gas sector

Climate Change Performance Index

Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) is designed to enhance transparency in international climate politics. Its aim is to put political and social pressure on those countries that have, until now, failed to take ambitious action on climate protection, and to highlight countries with best-practice climate policies. CCPI evaluates countries’ 2030 targets in key categories: GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions; renewable energy; and energy use.

India is 11th on the latest CCPI list, improving its standing by three places compared to the previous edition. India has improved in the renewable energy category, joining the group of medium performers. However, national experts argue that plans to build new coal-fired power plants may pose a risk of offsetting positive developments in the renewable energy sector. Comparatively low levels of per capita GHG emissions and a relatively ambitious mitigation target for 2030 give India an overall high rating in the emissions category.

In this year’s index, Sweden is the world topper, followed by Morocco and Lithuania. The group of medium-performing countries includes France, Mexico, Germany and the Czech Republic. Among the low performers overall are Indonesia, Austria and New Zealand. The bottom five on the CCPI list are Saudi Arabia, the US, Iran, Republic of Korea and Chinese Taipei, scoring low or very low across almost all categories.

Greatest challenge of the century

  • Climate change threatens access to clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter. It is already causing rising sea levels, more frequent and extreme weather events, heatwaves and droughts, forest fires and increased spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria.
  • A highly conservative estimate of 2.5 lakh additional deaths each year due to climate change has been projected between 2030 and 2050: of these, 38,000 from heat exposure among the elderly; 48,000 from diarrhoea; 60,000 from malaria; and 95,000 from childhood undernutrition.
  • Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement could save about 10 lakh lives a year worldwide by 2050 through reduction in air pollution alone. The health benefits far outweigh the costs of meeting climate change goals, and the benefit-to-cost ratio is even higher in countries such as China and India. The activities destabilising the climate also contribute directly to poor health. WHO recognises that air pollution is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, causing an estimated 24% of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from stroke, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer.
  • From the tropics to the arctic, climate and weather have powerful direct and indirect impact on human life. The most disadvantaged, vulnerable and poor populations are expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change, with rising food and water insecurity, higher food prices, loss of income and livelihood opportunities, negative health effects, and population displacement (including forced migration).
  • The most direct link between the drivers of climate change, and of poor health, is air pollution. Burning fossil fuels — for power, transportation and industry — is the main source of the carbon emissions driving climate change, and also a major contributor to air pollution, that kills 70 lakh people every year. Black carbon, produced by inefficient combustion in sources such as cookstoves and diesel engines, is the second greatest contributor to global warming. Over 90% of the world’s urban population breathes air that exceeds WHO’s guideline levels for outdoor air pollution.
  • Steps to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions can have more immediate positive health effects. Promoting use of public transport and active movement — such as biking/walking as alternatives to using private vehicles — reduces carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. It can also reduce traffic injuries and increase levels of physical activity that helps prevent diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Source: World Health Organisation

RELATED Pick up the plastic, please