For over a century now the world has been hurtling towards a catastrophe of human making. However, it is only in recent decades that we have come to estimate its effects. In 1975, US scientist Wallace Broecker put the term "global warming" into the public domain as part of the title of scientific paper. The Rio Earth Summit saw governments agree on the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for "stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". Developed countries agreed to return their emissions to 1990 levels.
The evidence has been building up for a while on anthropogenic (human) activity and its effect on the environment. Between 1920 and 2020 world population has grown multifold, however, even in 1920 there were severe concerns on rapid global population and its effects on resources. It is only accentuated, with the cocktail of population growth and economic development severely straining the earth. As per the Our World in Data initiative of the University of Oxford, adjusted for inflation, in 1913 just prior to the First World War global GDP was well under USD 5 trillion. In 2013, it had crossed USD 100 trillion, more than twenty-fold growth. The combination of population growth and exponential prosperity (read consumption) has put huge pressure on natural resources and the environment. The advent of new technology including industrial gases, non-biodegradable plastics in the past half century has added anthropogenic waste on land, sea and the air. Australia’s government science agency, CSIRO, reports that at least 14m tonnes of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are likely sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans. The quest for resources has decimated rich tropical forests that are among the most effective carbon sinks. This has been accompanied by loss of species. The Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), states that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
While this presents a grim context, in recent years there is a positive picture that is emerging and perhaps that gives us one last chance to reverse the centuries of abuse and damage. A few key statistics bears this out. Global energy intensity (total energy consumption per unit of GDP) improved by 2.1% in 2019, i.e. faster than its historical trend (-1.6%/year on average between 2000 and 2018). The improvement below the 3.5%/year decrease required to achieve the 2-degree global temperature containment scenario, demonstrates the possibilities (Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2020, Enerdata). The UN sees the population growth stabilizing in most parts of the world and in developed countries the population base is set to shrink. Global energy-related CO2 emissions flattened in 2019 at around 33 gigatonnes (Gt) mainly from a sharp decline in CO2 emissions due to expansion of renewable energy, shift from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power output (IEA 2020). In 2020, in a world affected by COVID-19 this is anticipated to dip on the back of reduction in energy demand in key countries and renewables holding steady.
Yet this is not good enough because we have used up far more resources than we should have for maintaining a sustainable balance. The course thus has to be reversed, and wherever possible we need to give resources back to nature. Our forests need to be grown back; biospheres need to be restored. The world needs to recycle as much as it can and break the linearity between growth and resource usage. Indeed, economic growth is still necessary given the persistent widespread poverty, but that growth has to come through a circular resources economy where major inputs come from what were earlier discarded.
Happily, modern technology which enabled the devastation also makes restoration possible. The world has seen advancement like never before in zero or low carbon resources like solar and wind at prices that are unconditionally competitive against traditional fossil fuels and extractive resources. Capturing carbon from industrial emissions or even the atmosphere for use or storage is becoming cost effective. Technologies like hydrogen whose large-scale use was some time away are suddenly seeing huge impetus and multifarious applications. As the scale of these increases, the costs drop thereby creating a virtuous cycle.
There is also a deep change in awareness and consciousness among people at large, even as there are deniers. The denial is often political, catering to interests, bases, biases and legacies. Indeed, legacy takes time to unwind. However, such things eventually do evolve, and we may well be at that a turning point in history. Especially given that it mostly makes much more economic sense to go low carbon, to conserve and be frugal in resource use. Hence, while there are ominous signs from the centuries of damage, the time to seize the opportunity to turn matters around may be here.
( A version of this article appeared in ETGovernment.com on 16 November 2020 )