A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself

A Civilisation Hell bent on Destroying Itself

Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientist

By James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter

The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.

Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.

The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.

“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)

“Not so,” he replied.

That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.

“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”

He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”


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Untold devastation awaits us if radical action is not taken. Frans Delian/Shutterstock.com

That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.

In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.

That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.

The chalk is made up of ancient pulverised shells of tiny organisms called coccolithophore. John Hemmings/Shutterstock.com

So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.

Change within a lifetime

I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.

What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.

Required emissions reductions to limit warming to 2°C. Robbie Andrew

The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?

There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.


Read more: Climate change: seeing the planet break down is depressing – here’s how to turn your pain into action


Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.

The technosphere

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.

Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.

The techno-planet. Joshua Davenport/Shutterstock.com

Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.

But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.

Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.

The great acceleration of the technosphere. Felix Pharand-Deschenes Globaia

The tyranny of growth

It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.

But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.

Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.

There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.

The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

The growth of the economy is based on the growth of consumption. Roman Mikhailiuk/Shutterstock.com

The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.

The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.

Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, champion of the US Green New Deal. Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock.com

If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.

My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.

Limits to freedom

It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.

Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.

If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.

In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.

This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.

Renewable energy production has not led to a reduction in fossil fuel use. Thongsuk Atiwannakul/Shutterstock.com

The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garret has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.

The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.

A repugnant conclusion

We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.

Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.

The planetary boundaries that are intended to help define a safe operating space for humanity. Steffen, W., et al, 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), p.1

This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.

As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.

And so those who fear the collapse of civilisation or those who have enduring faith in human innovation being able to solve all sustainability challenges may both be wrong.

After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.

Fewer people would not necessarily mean a smaller technosphere. Gunnerchu/Shutterstock.com

And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.

Escape plan

The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?

This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.

It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.


Read more: Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference


Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.

For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.

What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.

This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.

And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.

We must start to see ourselves as a small part of a planetary natural system. Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock.com

To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.

Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.


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Renewable Energy Now Accounts for 33% of Global Power

Renewable Energy Now Accounts for 33% of Global Power

Nicole Garman May 21, 2019

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, 171GW of renewable energy was added to the global system in 2018. That made up two-thirds of the overall new power generation capacity added for the year and one-third of the world’s capacity in whole.

Wind and solar energy contributed 84% of the renewable sources, with solar seeing the largest growth for the year at an increase of 94GW in capacity. Most of these solar facilities were installed in Asia, which also hosted over 40% of new wind energy.

Wind accounted for 564GW in total, joining 1,172GW of energy from hydropower and 480GW of solar to register 2,351GW of renewable energy for the year.

The Price is Right

In part, such innovation can be attributed to record-breaking efficiency in production cost. For the first time, the industry saw renewables running a lower price tag in production than fossil fuels.

According to analysis and data culled from Bloomberg, The Frankfurt School, IRENA, and UN Environment by Kaiserwetter Energy Asset Management, fossil fuels generated energy costs ranging from $49 to $174 per MWh in 2017, while renewables logged rates from $35 to $54 per MWh over a comparable period of time.

Renewable energy programs have been growing for the past five years, bolstered by technological innovations that make wind and solar energy easy to access for both commercial and residential users.

Double Time

In U.S. cities alone, the Environment America Research and Policy Center reports doubled solar energy capacity in the last six years; Honolulu ranks as the top per-person producer at 646 watts per resident, and Los Angeles took top honors for overall installed capacity.

45 of the country’s 57 largest cities logged substantial numbers, with one-third tallying photovoltaic capacity at quadrupled rates.

Regional leaders for solar capacity per capita include Burlington, Vermont in the Northeast; Washington, D.C. in the South Atlantic; San Antonio, Texas in the South Central region; Indianapolis for North Central; and Las Vegas for the Mountain region.

Honolulu led the Pacific, leading the charge for Hawaii’s goal to transition completely to renewable energy sources by 2045.

In addition to advances in technology, effective public policy and passionate advocacy are credited for the earth-friendly energy surge.

  • This article was originally published on II Thomas.
  • Image Credit: lovelyday12 / Shutterstock.com
Universities struggling with the concept and agenda of ‘Greening’

Universities struggling with the concept and agenda of ‘Greening’

University World News GLOBAL : Although young people are driving a global wake-up call on climate change and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, many universities struggling with the concept and agenda of ‘greening’ and their achievements to date have been “scattered and unsystematic”, UN Environment, the leading global environmental authority, warned this week.

UN urges universities to be catalysers of sustainability

By Brendan O’Malley  18 May 2019 Share



In a report published on its website, it says some schools and universities are leading by example and reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and becoming “hotbeds of activism on the defining issue for a generation”.

But, it says, “while some noteworthy exemplars of university sustainability initiatives exist around the world, there is a need to maximise the potential benefits by encouraging their replication in as many universities as possible globally.”

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.
Across the world, UN Environment is working with universities to set up national and regional Green University Networks to enable institutions to incorporate low carbon-climate resilience development strategies and sustainability in education, training and campus operations.

“Decarbonising our economies and lives will be a defining and recurrent element of any profession until the end of this century,” said Niklas Hagelberg, coordinator of the Climate Change Programme at UN Environment. He said going carbon-neutral provides a great opportunity to “demystify carbon neutrality for students” and can give them a practical experience through inclusion in curricula and operations of the school or university.

UN Environment has produced the Greening Universities Toolkit V2.0 to inspire universities to design, develop and implement strategies for green, resource-efficient and low carbon campuses.

The toolkit aims to encourage and promote the contribution of universities to the overall sustainability of the planet and help them become agents of change. Drawing on innovations and best practice in sustainability, it looks at defining sustainability, initiating transformations, indicators, technologies for transformation, policy governance and administration and resources for change.

It includes dozens of case studies from Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America outlining sustainable campus innovations implemented.

Climate emergency

In Britain, declaring a climate change emergency, the University of Bristol had already become what is thought to be the world’s first higher education institution to issue its own ‘climate emergency’ declaration, reflecting growing student unease over the slow pace of official action. Two weeks later, parliament, on 5 May made history by declaring a ‘climate change emergency’.

Bristol University said it wanted to acknowledge the deep concerns of its students and reaffirm its “strong and positive commitment to take action on climate change”. It is already acting to reduce its own carbon footprint.

The university has reduced carbon emissions by 27% since 2005 through a combination of technical measures, including heating controls and LED lighting. It has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and in March 2018 it announced plans to divest completely from all investments in fossil fuel companies within two years.

“The University of Bristol plays a key role in fighting climate change; it does this through its research, its teaching and how it operates,” said Professor Judith Squires, deputy vice-chancellor and provost.

“Calling a climate emergency highlights the urgency of the task we are engaged in and I hope others join us in increasing their action on this, the biggest challenge we face.”

UN Environment said it is fitting that Bristol University should be a leader in this field: it houses the Cabot Institute for the Environment, home to several of the lead authors on reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including last year’s devastating analysis that the world is running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Many other positive examples among universities exist to inspire innovation and action.

Achieving carbon neutrality

For example, Bowdoin College in Maine in the United States became carbon neutral in 2018, two years ahead of the schedule it pledged as part of the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments. The private liberal arts college reduced its carbon emissions by 29%, from 16,326 metric tons in 2008 to 11,620 metric tons in 2017.

Bowdoin College installed a cogeneration turbine, which produces electricity as a by-product of generating heat, converted buildings from oil to natural gas, insulated 5,100 feet of underground steam tunnels, replaced thousands of lights with efficient LED bulbs and diverted more than 50% of its waste from landfills.

To account for its remaining emissions, the college is investing in carbon offsets with regional impacts, and in renewable energy credits associated with wind farms. Additionally, Bowdoin is announcing a pioneering renewable energy project partnership that will result in the largest solar array in the state of Maine.

This will involve working with other educational institutions to help fund construction of a 75-megawatt solar project in Farmington. The project is expected to offset nearly half of Bowdoin’s annual electricity consumption.

As part of its carbon neutrality action plan, Bowdoin has held energy reduction contests, trained eco-reps to educate the campus community and employed about 200 students to raise awareness about climate change among their peers.

It has increased its composting of food waste, switched security officers out of vehicles and onto bikes to use less petrol, and has insulated buildings and sealed doors and windows to reduce energy waste.

In Washington DC, American University also reached carbon neutrality two years ahead of schedule. It now uses 21% less energy per square foot than it did in 2005.

The college has six LEED-certified buildings, with four others planned. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

American University also has eight green roofs, seven solar panel arrays and nine bioretention basins and rain gardens. All of its shuttle buses run on biodiesel, the campus is also bicycle-friendly and the university has planted more than 1.2 million trees in the city to offset greenhouse gas emissions from commuting.

Half of American University’s power needs come from a solar panel farm it established in North Carolina in partnership with the George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital. The other half comes from renewable energy credits.

Australia’s Charles Sturt University was certified the country’s first carbon neutral university in 2016. As well as procuring carbon offsets, it has introduced electric carts on campuses, commissioned solar photovoltaic systems, established battery recycling centres and beefed up its recycling processes.

In Kenya, Strathmore University set out to become the first climate neutral university in the country and installed a 0.6 MW rooftop solar plant to provide energy and reduce its carbon footprint. The Strathmore Energy Research Centre decided to export the excess energy to the grid and a power purchase agreement was signed in 2015. The solar plant is also used as a live laboratory to train technicians to design and maintain such installations.

UN Environment says it is working with other Kenyan educational institutions through the Kenya Green University Network, which was launched in 2016 in collaboration with the National Environment Management Authority and the Commission for University Education. The aim is to integrate sound environmental practices and knowledge sharing into Kenya’s 70 public and private universities.

Direct personal action

Students across the world in schools and universities have also taken direct, personal action. At West Hollow Middle School in Long Island in the United States, students have taken the UN’s Climate Neutral Now pledge to measure the school’s greenhouse gas emissions, reduce what they can and offset the rest using certified emissions reductions.

UN Environment said such action has effects that ripple out into the community. West Hollow School has produced a full curriculum for teachers to raise awareness among students and encourage both pupils and staff to also work on reducing their carbon footprints at home.

For Bristol University student, Giles Atkinson, who had a key role in organising the petition to declare a climate emergency, universities can take a leading role in responding to climate change.

“This [climate emergency] declaration will help communicate the urgency of the situation and inspire further action. We hope that other universities follow suit,” he said.

What’s Driving this Biodiversity Crisis

What’s Driving this Biodiversity Crisis

The release of a major report looking at the state of nature presents a grim forecast for the future of humanity and the planet. Gitika Bhardwaj speaks to Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the report, about what’s driving this biodiversity crisis and how we can stop it before it’s too late.

Biodiversity Loss Is as Big a Crisis as Climate Change

By Gitika Bhardwaj, Digital Editor. @GitikaBhardwaj, LinkedIn, and Sandra Diaz, Co-Chair, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Report

13 May 2019

Elks gallop in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. Elks have been released into the wild to improve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem of China’s largest freshwater lake. Photo: Getty Images.

Elks gallop in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. Elks have been released into the wild to improve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem of China’s largest freshwater lake. Photo: Getty Images.

Last week, 150 experts from 50 countries released a major report demonstrating that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented, with up to 1 million species threatened with extinction, more than at any other time in human history. What is driving this global loss of biodiversity and how is it different from previous waves of extinctions experienced on Earth?

It is believed that the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history but the crucial difference is that this time the threat is being caused by humans.

Our actions over the past 50 years have been the cause of record losses in species – tens to hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction over the past 10 million years. Since 1970 alone, vertebrate populations have fallen by 40 per cent for land-based species, 84 per cent for freshwater species and 35 per cent for marine species.

This is happening due to a number of human activities: accelerating land-use change such as through farming and logging, overusing our seas and oceans such as through fishing, polluting our air, soil and water systems, hunting and also – voluntarily or involuntarily – transporting invasive species across distant regions. And this is happening on an unprecedented, worldwide scale.

Human activities have significantly altered around three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all oceans on the planet according to the report. From insect pollination that provides us with food to mangrove swamps that shield us from storms, how much do humans depend on nature and how much will it impact us if it continues to degrade at the current rate?

One of the things the report highlights is the deep dependence of all humans on nature. We depend on nature to have a fulfilling life no matter where we live – often without realizing it. We depend on nature for our physical sustenance, cultural continuity and sense of identity.

Of course, nature also regulates a number of processes that we don’t even notice that are the basis of our economies and well-being such as clean water, protection from environmental hazards, the pollination of crops and the regulation of the climate. So we cannot live life as we know it, and as we enjoy it, without nature.

In the report, we take stock of the different kinds of nature’s contributions to people and we conclude that, with the exception of the production of food, energy and raw materials, all of the other contributions nature gives to people – about 14 out 18 kinds – are declining globally.

We have analysed a number of scenarios, and in all of them, there is a sharp decrease in nature and its capacity to regulate all of the Earth’s natural processes.

Furthermore, climate change is increasingly interacting with all of the other human-induced drivers of biodiversity loss in complex ways, so the future looks extremely grim for most people around the world, and much worse for some more than others in just the next 30-40 years.

This loss of biodiversity reportedly poses as serious, and urgent, a threat to humans as climate change but it has been less discussed. Why do you think this has been the case and, given increasing public concern after last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)and widespread public protests this year, do you believe this could change?

Yes definitely. The IPCC has traditionally gotten much more attention but that is because the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is much younger. This is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005 to present the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services and what it means for humanity.

In contrast, the IPCC has decades of history, so we are following in their steps, inspired by them in the way we organize ourselves, and as a result, I think people are starting to listen.

We have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of public attention we received when the report was released last week. There are environmental movements that have been focused on climate change that now – only one week after the release of the report – have already announced that they will fight for nature as well as the climate because they have realized you cannot fight for one without fighting for the other.

Zebras in a dust storm in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo: Getty Images.

The report sheds light on how the issues of sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity are interrelated. How much, then, does tackling these issues require an integrated approach, for example, through international agreements including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Aichi Targets on biodiversity? Do these instruments need to be reformed in any way?

It’s totally dependent on an integrated approach. In the report, we go to great lengths to show how trying to fix human well-being for all, climate change and biodiversity in isolation is not going to work – you actually risk making the other two problems worse if you only try to fix one without considering the other two.

The three instruments you mention need to consider all three pillars – a good quality of life for all, the climate and biodiversity – in a far more integrated way than has ever been done before. These instruments need to talk to each other and make sure they consider each other when devising targets and implementing actions.

For example, in our assessment of the SDGs, we found that many of them do not explicitly mention biodiversity which is surprising given that you cannot achieve them without nature – the fabric of life.

What’s more, we need to focus much more on actions rather than on somewhat nebulous targets. There is a lot of synergy to be achieved in the three agreements and I think the people driving them are now much more prepared to listen than ever before.

The report has been approved by 132 governments, with France announcing that it now aims to make protecting biodiversity as important a priority as climate change, while the G7 countries – in addition to Chile, Fiji, Gabon, Mexico, Niger and Norway – have all announced their commitment to protecting biodiversity in response to the report too. What action would you like to see other governments take?   

In a nutshell, I would like to see governments put their money where their words are, so to speak. They all have expressed their concern about biodiversity loss – and most of the governments, if not all, have praised the findings in our report – but we now need action.

There are a number of fixes that can be done easily and quickly such as creating more protected areas, improving waste treatment systems, banning plastics, improving fishing gear and recycling more. This can all help enormously but only if done together because on their own it’s won’t be enough.

In order to have a chance of containing the destruction of our natural world, we need to do all of the above, in addition to tackling the root causes. That means addressing the activities driving land-use change and changes in our seas and oceans, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species.

Importantly, these root causes are all related to our lifestyles. That’s why we say, although the biodiversity crisis looks biological, the causes and solutions are deeply social.

So governments need to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors – not just better environmental policies but also better policies related to agriculture, infrastructure and trade. Biodiversity is not just a concern for respective ministers of the environment – it’s a concern for all ministers since it’s a concern for all sectors.

It’s all about putting nature and the public good first rather than the narrow, economic interests of a minority. It’s as simple – and as difficult – as that.

Further reading:

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental folly

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental folly

Glass skyscrapers are a great environmental folly that could have been avoided: Henrik Schoenefeldt, University of Kent.

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental folly
New York restricts the growth of glass skyscrapers.
Shutterstock.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that skyscrapers made of glass and steel “have no place in our city or our Earth anymore”. He argued that their energy inefficient design contributes to global warming and insisted that his administration would restrict glassy high-rise developments in the city.

Glass has always been an unlikely material for large buildings, because of how difficult it becomes to control temperature and glare indoors. In fact, the use of fully glazed exteriors only became possible with advances in air conditioning technology and access to cheap and abundant energy, which came about in the mid-20th century. And studies suggest that on average, carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are 60% higher than those from offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.

As part of my research into sustainable architecture, I have examined the use of glass in buildings throughout history. Above all, one thing is clear: if architects had paid more attention to the difficulties of building with glass, the great environmental damage wrought by modern glass skyscrapers could have been avoided.

Heat and glare

The United Nations Secretariat in New York, constructed between 1947 and 1952, was the earliest example of a fully air-conditioned tower with a glass curtain wall – followed shortly afterwards by Lever House on Park Avenue. Air conditioning enabled the classic glass skyscraper to become a model for high rise office developments in cities across the world – even hot places such as Dubai and Sydney.

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental follyThe UN Secretariat building. United Nations Photo/Flickr., CC BY-NC-ND

Yet as far back as the 19th century, horticulturists in Europe intimately understood how difficult it is to keep the temperature stable inside glass structures – the massive hothouses they built to host their collections. They wanted to maintain the hot environment needed to sustain exotic plants and devised a large repertoire of technical solutions to do so.

Early central heating systems, which made use of steam or hot water, helped to keep the indoor atmosphere hot and humid. Glass was covered with insulation overnight to keep the warmth in, or used only on the south side together with better insulated walls, to take in and hold heat from the midday sun.

The Crystal Palace

When glass structures were transformed into spaces for human habitation, the new challenge was to keep the interior sufficiently cool. Preventing overheating in glass buildings has proven enormously difficult – even in Britain’s temperate climate. The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – a temporary pavilion built to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – was a case in point.

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental follyPainting of Queen Victoria opening the Crystal Palace in London, 1851. Thomas Abel Prior/Wikimedia Commons.

The Crystal Palace was the first large-scale example of a glass structure designed specifically for use by people. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, chief gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate, drawing on his experience constructing timber-framed glasshouses.

Though recognised as a risky idea at the time, organisers decided to host the exhibition inside a giant glasshouse in the absence of a more practical alternative. Because of its modular construction and prefabricated parts, the Crystal Palace could be put together in under ten months – perfect for the organisers’ tight deadline.

To address concerns about overheating and exposing the exhibits to too much sunlight, Paxton adopted some of the few cooling methods available at the time: shading, natural ventilation and eventually removing some sections of glass altogether. Several hundred large louvres were positioned inside the wall of the building, which had to be adjusted manually by attendants several times a day.

Despite these precautions, overheating became a major issue over the summer of 1851, and was the subject of frequent commentaries in the daily newspapers. An analysis of data recorded inside the Crystal Palace between May and October 1851 shows that the indoor temperature was extremely unstable. The building accentuated – rather than reduced – peak summer temperatures.

A timeline of the temperature in the Crystal Palace, May to October 1851. Henrik Schoenefeldt., Author provided

These challenges forced the organisers to temporarily remove large sections of glazing. This procedure was repeated several times before parts of the glazing were permanently replaced with canvas curtains, which could be opened and closed depending on how hot the sun was. When the Crystal Palace was re-erected as a popular leisure park on the outskirts of London, these issues persisted – despite changes to the design which were intended to improve ventilation.

Chicago glass

These difficulties did not perturb developers in Chicago from building the first generation of highly glazed office buildings during the 1880s and 1890s. Famous developments by influential architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as the Crown Hall (1950-56) or the Lakeshore Drive Apartments (1949), were also designed without air conditioning. Instead, these structures relied mainly on natural ventilation and shading to moderate indoor temperatures in summer.

In the Crown Hall, each bay of the glass wall is equipped with iron flaps, which students and staff of the IIT School of Architecture had to manually adjust to create cross-ventilation. Blinds could also be drawn to prevent glare and reduce heat gains. Yet these methods could not achieve modern standards of comfort. This building, and many others with similar features were eventually retrofitted with air conditioning.

Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental follyChicago’s Crown Hall. yusunkwon/Flickr., CC BY-SA

Yet it’s worth noting that early examples of glass architecture were not intended to provide airtight, climate controlled spaces. Architects had to accept that the indoor temperature would change according to the weather outside, and the people who used the buildings were careful to dress appropriately for the season. In some ways, these environments had more in common with the covered arcades and markets of the Victorian era, than the glass skyscrapers of the 21st century.

Becoming climate conscious

The reality is that the obvious shortcomings of glass buildings rarely received the attention they warranted. Some early critics raised objections. Perhaps the most outspoken was Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who in the late 1940s launched an attack on the design of the UN Secretariat, arguing that its large and unprotected glass surfaces were unsuitable for the climate of New York.

But all too often, historians and architects have focused on the aesthetic qualities of glass architecture. The Crystal Palace, in particular, was portrayed as a pristine icon of an emerging architecture of glass and iron. Yet in reality, much of the glass was covered with canvas to block out intense sunlight and heat. Similarly, the smooth glass facades of Chicago’s early glass towers were broken by opened windows and blinds.

There’s an urgent need to take a fresh look at urban architecture, with a sense of environmental realism. If de Blasio’s plea for a more climate conscious architecture is to materialise, future architects and engineers must be equipped with an intimate knowledge of materials – especially glass – no less developed than that held by 19th century gardeners.The Conversation

Henrik Schoenefeldt, Senior Lecturer (US: Associate Professor) in Sustainable Architecture, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read more:
A short history of tall buildings: the making of the modern skyscraper

The Conversation

Carbon Neutral Concrete can be had by 2050

Carbon Neutral Concrete can be had by 2050

Climate Change News on 13 May 2019, informs that Carbon neutral concrete can be had by 2050.

In a first for the sector, the world’s fourth-largest maker said it would cut emissions in line with Paris climate goals.

Cement giant Heidelberg pledges carbon neutral concrete by 2050

By Natalie Sauer

Cement accounts for around 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions (Pic: Pixabay)

The world’s fourth largest cement company pledged on Monday to bring its emission reduction targets in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, in a first for the industry.

HeidelbergCement, which employs some 58,000 people in 60 countries, committed to slash direct emissions by 15% per tonne of its products by 2030 from 2016 levels.

The construction behemoth also committed to cut indirect emissions, for example from its electricity supply, by 65% a tonne within the same time-frame.

“The commitment, which is part of the company’s wider vision to realise CO2-neutral concrete by 2050 at the latest, is a powerful signal that the built environment is transitioning towards a zero-carbon future,” said Jennifer Gerholdt, corporate engagement director at We Mean Business, a coalition of companies promoting climate action.

“It’s also vital for the decarbonization of entire economies, given concrete is the most widely used man-made substance on earth, one of the hardest to decarbonize and in growing demand due to rising population and urbanization.”

The cement sector accounts for around 7% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Heidelberg joined the Science-Based Targets initiative, under which corporations submit their strategies for independent assessment against the 2C upper global warming limit agreed in Paris.

At the UN climate action summit in September, 38 businesses, property developers and engineering firms included, cities and states signed up to develop net-zero buildings by 2030.

The move comes as the number of new buildings is tipped to grow in the coming years, in particular in Africa and Asia.  This rapid expansion will test a 30% energy intensity improvement in buildings by 2030, required to put the industry on track to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, according to the IEA and UN Environment.

Related posts:

  1. Nordic states eye 2050 carbon-neutral energy system
  2. Swiss researchers set out how to decarbonise cement
  3. EU cement giants net €5bn carbon market windfall
  4. France introduces 2050 carbon-neutral law

This article originally appeared on Climate Home News