Environmental degradation has featured widely of late in the news channels.
Following the scandal over auto-manufacturers ‘fixing’ of emission tests we have had widespread reporting on deterioration of air quality around our major cities associated with particulate concentrations associated with the large number of diesel powered vehicles we were all encouraged to purchase. Although diesel vehicles have certainly taken the brunt of adverse publicity – resulting in a very significant drop in purchase of both new and second-hand diesel-powered vehicles we must take note that their petrol-powered cousins are no angels. They might not emit harmful particulates, but they are very capable of emitting a noxious cocktail of other harmful agents which accumulate in the atmosphere with potential for adverse impact to health. Just this last week we have seen headlines posting the rise in incidence of lung cancer in non-smokers, overtaking other forms of the disease for the first time – where cigarette tobacco was always previously posted as a primary causal attribute.
More recently we have also been inundated with the threat of plastic contamination. We are advised that of the c.15bn tonnes produced, mostly used in such as disposable products and packaging that despite our attempts to reduce consumption of plastic bags and our increasing attempt to sort and therefore recycle – we in fact learn that very little, perhaps as little as 5% is actually recycled due to contamination. Not all plastics are the same – there are over 50 different types. Capacity to recycle is still wholly insufficient. We still generate c.300 million tonnes/annum where most ends in land-fill and the oceans. Plastic waste now appears to have infiltrated every corner of the planet from our beaches, where school children in the Scottish island are busily engaged in tidying up. One pupil produced a crisp packet of a vintage not used for c.20 years! We know the oceans have become increasingly contaminated with micro-size plastic fragments. They have infiltrated the food chain in which we place so much reliance as the world population increases. The arctic region has now been highlighted as contaminated as has the deepest reaches of the oceans.
Another consideration is that of shipping – a key facilitator of world-wide logistics and supply chain operations without which the global economy would slow or stall. A vast quantity of waste products generated by the immense heavy oil powered engines in such vessels inevitably finds its way not to what often prove to be expensive collection and recycling facilities but inevitably into our oceans. Slowly but surely the oceans around the world are showing signs of increased stress.
And so it goes on. Intensive agricultural techniques & practice over many years has increasingly saturated soils with harmful nitrate compounds which then seep into the water table. We even hear of the vast amount of debris floating in orbit around our planet which take centuries to degrade or at best plummet at some point back to earth.
The challenge is inevitably complex and hence so are the potential solutions. The relentless adoption of free market economic policy around the world is in direct conflict with efforts to protect and sustain our environment and planet. New economies such as those of China & India seek to take their place at the top table and hence exacerbate the challenge. In 2010 it was estimated that over 30bn tonnes of Co2 or greenhouse gas was added to the atmosphere. By 2020 it is estimated that Co2 emissions since the start of the century will have surpassed those of the entire previous century and it is still increasing despite the rhetoric. We have now reached Co2 emissions of c.40bn tonnes/annum. In 2014 the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) stated that in order to reverse this trend our entire reliance on fossil fuels may need to cease by 2100 otherwise we could experience irreversible climate change such as sea-level rises of over 1m coupled with melting of the ice caps and ocean acidification affecting the food chain, crop failure affecting c.3 billion people, catastrophic extinction events and rising temperatures. The highest recorded temperature ever recorded was reported in Death Valley (appropriately named) – a staggering 57.6 degrees C on 10.07.13. We are also witnessing a hitherto unprecedented increase in world population where having reached c. 1bn around 1800 – just over 200 years ago we have grown to a staggering 7.5bn today adding the last 1bn in just over 10 years. We are on course for c.9-10bn by the middle of this century.
An EU survey conducted throughout member states recently was aimed at determining general awareness of what were perceived to be the top 10 global challenges. The survey revealed that a significant proportion simply did not know or have a view. What it did reveal however was that the top concerns were climate change, poverty and lack of food & water.
Despite our knowledge, experience and advanced technology, evidence would suggest we have not advanced very far in addressing these challenges.
The clock is ticking!