Environmental Sustainability - A Question of Survival
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
The year was 1985. Three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey had brought the depleted Ozone levels over the South Pole (aka the Ozone Layer Hole) to the attention to the world. Scientists had already detected a disturbance in the Ozone layer’s natural balance in the 1970s and the Environmental Protection Agency had banned production of CFCs in 1978, but it was that paper that galvanised the international community to act quickly. Within two years the Montreal Protocol had been signed by 46 nations pledging to phase out substances known to cause Ozone depletion. The treaty, hailed as perhaps the most successful international agreement to date, was ratified by all 197 members of the UN. The result … the Ozone layer is expected to return to pre-1980 levels before the end of the 21st century (the hole is currently already the smallest on record).
It seems extraordinary today to think how all countries were able to unite to solve a problem that affected us all.
‘Our planet is broken’. So stated UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his recent State of the Planet speech along with his intention to build a global coalition to reduce emissions to net zero. ‘Humanity is waging a suicidal war on the natural world. Nature always strikes back and is doing so with gathering force and fury’.
His speech covered a lot more …
Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050. This involves putting themselves on a path towards achieving this vision.
The objective is to cut global emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. Below is what he has demanded:
Put a price on carbon.
Phase out fossil fuel finance and fossil fuel subsidies.
Shift the tax burden from income to carbon and from taxpayers to polluters.
Integrate the goal of carbon neutrality (similar concept to net zero) into all economic & fiscal policies and decisions.
Help those around the world who are already facing dire impacts of climate change.
74% of the world’s economy (covering 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions) have net-zero commitments. However, whilst China has agreed to go carbon neutral before 2060 (China being responsible for 28% of greenhouse gases), Russia, India, Brazil, Australia among others are still holding out.
This will hopefully change as renewable energy becomes cheaper and EU/US carbon tariffs are implemented.
The science is clear. Unless the world cuts fossil fuel production by 6% every year between now and 2030, things will get much worse.
Climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge … without concerted action we may be headed for a catastrophic 3 to 5-degree temperature rise this century alone. The expectations are that this would lead to:
Apocalyptic fires and floods; cyclones and hurricanes have already intensified.
Increased sea level rising from melting icecaps.
A collapse in biodiversity, including continued spread in deserts, forests rapidly depleting, and oceans/seas choking with plastic.
He concluded, ‘It’s time for this war against the planet to end. We must declare a permanent ceasefire and reconcile with nature’.
2020 is already the warmest year on record, even without any El Nino event (described as an abnormal weather pattern caused by warming on the Pacific Ocean which can lead to disruptive weather worldwide). Without urgent and impactful changes, sub-zero temperatures and snowy winters for many parts of the UK will become a thing of the past, with massive implications for our ecosystem and our children’s futures, far exceeding the loss in sledging and snowball fights.
So what could a carbon neutral world look like, in 2050?
It’s hotter than it is now but much quieter … you can hear birdsong and breathe easier. Roads are thickly lined with trees (1 billion have been planted), providing shade and sucking up CO2. All transport is electric (few people actually own their own cars) and bicycle travel is prevalent. Houses are made from medium-density wood framed buildings heated by hydrogen pumps, rooftop farms and vertical gardens.
There are fewer fields in the countryside, and hedges and woodland are sprawling. We have more forests than at any time since the middle ages and rewilding is prevalent. Wildlife is again plentiful.
There are more forests in the ocean/seas, in the form of offshore wind turbines, and old defunct craters from the oil industry are used to store CO2 far out at sea.
This is what the UK government’s greenprint for reducing carbon emissions by 2050 looks like, part of a pledge to become carbon-neutral, cutting greenhouse gases to net zero (net zero refers to cutting greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible and balancing any further releases by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere).
It would be one of the most radical transformations in the UK’s and human history, fantastically expensive (costing 1-2% of GDP -more than £50 billion- per year to achieve net-zero by 2050) and intensely controversial as a new, legally enforced way of living conflicts with engrained habits.
The 1st industrial revolution in Britain was powered by coal. This green industrial revolution promises in many ways to be even more disruptive and life-transforming. Energy production and consumption will change completely over this period and with it our homes, health, transport, diet, motoring, manufacturing, landscape, work, leisure, oceans, and air.
Changing our diets will be one of the hardest adjustments (eating 50% less meat) and the countryside will look and feel very different, with CO2-absorbing British oaks (or biofuel crops) replacing methane-belching British beef (by up to 15% of present-day farmland).
There will also be behavioural change; we will fly less, change our diets … adapt. We will enjoy nature more.
And while there will be job losses in industries such as oil and gas, the new economy will create 100,000s of jobs.
We are at one of those extraordinary moments of history. The transformation of the next 30 years will be powered not by experience but by anticipation and a collective realisation of what will happen if we do not act. And many of these changes will have to be implemented in the next 10 years, which will depend on decisions taken in the next 3-4 years.
In a BBC Radio 4 radio interview aired in August, two professors from Oxford University, Professor Miles Alan’s (Professor of Geosystems Science and head of the Oxford Climate Dynamics Group) and Professor E.J. Milner Gullland’s (Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity) answered questions related to the postponed Climate Change and Biodiversity summits, and the perceived similarities between tackling climate change and biodiversity compared with the approach in tackling Covid.
Professor Miles Alan’s assessment was:
1. That the way to reduce carbon emissions was not by changing people’s attitude to climate change, but rather by encouraging the companies/industry that are responsible for producing the products that cause global warming to eliminate the CO2 they generate.
2. Replicating the conditions of lockdown (travelling less, working from home) etc. will not save climate change.
3. There is a need to rethink the engagement with the private sector on climate change solutions. It is not a problem of a societal consumer behaviour, but rather a problem of industrial waste disposal. Otherwise, we will never get a solution.
Professor E.J. Milner Gullland’s assessment was:
1. That while nature had seen improvements in some parts of the globe as a result of Covid, infringements had continued to occur, and the globalised food system (in particular agriculture and livestock) remains very fragile.
2. There has, however, been a rise in localism in the food system, in particular awareness of imbedded carbon in people’s food but also the loss of biodiversity (through deforestation etc.) to create it.
3. We need to make sweeping changes to the way that we run this planet, and we have an opportunity to do that. It is undisputed that biodiversity falls as a lower priority to climate change. There is an urgent need to think about our systems and how we can change them.
Soil biodiversity has to feature in the
solution. Civilisations rise and fall by the quality of their soil. There is an estimated 60 years of farmable soil left on the planet, mostly due to unsustainable agriculture. In the film ‘The Need to Grow’, the difference between life and death, and abundance and extinction is aptly termed as the difference between dirt and soil. Without soil, all ecosystems outside of the water become impossible. It results in extreme drought and consistent food scarcity and dramatic climate change.
War has had another lasting impact; after WW2, an excess of bomb-making material was converted into fertilizer, and an excess of nerve gas was converted into pesticides. The military industrial complex moved into the agriculture industrial complex and what followed was a model of chemical dependency.
A handful of healthy soil contains more microorganisms than there are people on the planet. These sustain the whole food chain and our entire existence. By introducing chemicals into food production (synthetic inputs), farming has affected soil’s ability to hold water, turning soil carbon into atmospheric CO2.
How to feed the world without destroying the earth is truly the issue of our time. Life comes from soil; kill the soil and you kill the earthworms and the biota of the soil. The soil is then dead unless reinvigorated with biota (life).
Studies show that the more soil health is holistically managed, the more food is actually grown. Organic farming has been proven (over 30 years) to match and even improve yields, emit 35% fewer greenhouse gases, use 45% less energy, and build soil rather than deplete it.
With only a 1% increase of organic matter, soils hold an additional 25,000 gallons of water per acre, reducing the risk of both drought and flood. The importance is the microbes that are living in the soil … feeding the soil, not feeding the plant.
When plants absorb CO2, carbon is fed to microbes through the roots as a storage container for what was once atmospheric carbon. Enough healthy soil can virtually offset all greenhouse gasses on the planet.
These principles working in harmony are known as regenerative agriculture.
Soil health = human health = planet health
Consider this. A way to restoring life (biota) into soil, that already exists.
A powerful soil rejuvenator (designed by Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies) that uses biomass that would otherwise have gone to landfill and in a closed loop system replicates what in nature would take approximately 400 years, in as little as 4-5 days. It creates a powerful root stimulator (natural fertiliser) where algae and biochar combined literally regenerate, revitalise and remake soil (biochar creates the infrastructure for soil generation.
And it generates energy to run the entire process as well as excess electricity to serve around 100 homes.
The obstacle for commercial implementation of this transforming technique has similarities with the challenges presented around oil and gas; the motivation for change.
So what is needed to restore the earth that gives us life, beauty and joy.
I believe it starts with education. The best thing we can do is educate our young to become the scientists and inventors of tomorrow who will then go on to dedicate their lives to giving civilization a meaningful future.
“If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If for 10 years, plant trees, if for 100 years, educate children.”
As members of society we all have a role to play in the destiny of our future. Governments’ role is to work collaboratively and demonstrate leadership by implementing productive policies. Industry needs to proactively transform and innovate (and not wait to be regulated to do so), and each one of us needs to act responsively and contribute to alleviating the problem. Below are some examples:
Make profitability priority number two [Industry]
Remove the ability for industry to lobby government strategy and decisions [Governments]
Embrace the innovation across many sectors that exist today and which could have significant impact [Governments]
Increase the amount of organic farming and soil rejuvenation [industry & Governments]
Focus on methods for identifying and retrieving loose fishing nets in oceans/seas, and regulating disclosure when nets are lost [Governments and Industry]
Focus on methods for identifying and collecting existing plastic materials on land/sea [Governments and Industry]
Standardise recycling capability and effectiveness [Industry]
Reform and regulate packaging policy [Industry and Governments]
Recycle as much as you can [Individual]
Put your faith in the recycling your area offers (it’s all you can do)
Take hard plastic, batteries, light bulbs etc. to your nearest recycling centre '
Recycle all (especially online) plastic bags … https://recyclenow.com/what-to-do-with/plastic-film [Individual]
Use biodegradable rubbish bin liners [Individual & Industry]
Build a compost heap in your garden for all food waste and garden cuttings … create natural (and free) fertiliser for your garden [Individual]
Move to bottled milk and return the empty bottles [Individual]
Move to non-plastic soap bar (and vegan) toiletry and beauty products [Individual]
Cut down on meat consumption [Individual]
Pay more attention to the amazement and beauty of nature [All]
Be conscious of our individual footprint on this earth [All]
It seems apt to end with a quote from Professor Lord Stern (Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics).
“I am extremely optimistic about what we could do and extremely worried about what we might do.”
All bets are on, but this time we’ll all either Win or Lose. We all need to embrace change as best we can and explore ways every one of us can make a difference, not so much for ourselves as for our children and future generations.
1. Discover Magazine (Whatever Happened to the Hole in the Ozone Layer? | Discover Magazine)
3. Times newspaper articles (Let’s take a trip round the green new world of Britain in 2050 | Comment | The Times)
4. The Need to Grow … film (Watch The Need To GROW Online | Vimeo On Demand on Vimeo)
5. BBC Radio 4 Today programme (BBC Radio 4 - Today, 07/08/2020)