Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Planet In Peril.

"The earth has experienced five mass extinction in the past 450 million years, the latest about 65 million years ago. A sixth major extinction is under way, this time caused by human behaviour."

This statement was made in the recent fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4), a United Nations environmental report. Alarmist? Maybe, but it is a fact that the human population is living far beyond its means and is inflicting damage and seriously undermining the environment of the only home we will ever have.

Climate change, the challenge of feeding a growing population and the rate of extinction of species are putting humanity at risk. Over the past twenty years, our world population has increased dramatically by about 35 per cent, from 5 billion to 6.7 billion. The amount of resources needed to sustain it far exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns and human activity, needed to feed this population, has reached an unsustainable level and is outstripping available resources.

Humanity's demand on space, currently at 21ha per person, is now about a third more than what the earth can supply. This intensity of land use have led to major environmental degradation, due to pollution, soil erosion and nutrient depletion and affects more than a third of the world's people. Over-harvesting of the oceans due to rising fish consumption coupled with the rapid formation of "dead zones", where marine life cannot survive due to pollution, will result in massive depletion of fish stocks and the extinction of marine life.

The environmental degradation has also led to species becoming extinct 100 times faster than what available fossil records show, with 12 per cent of birds, 23 per cent of mammals and over 30 per cent of amphibians facing possible extinction. Other than the golden-headed langur of Vietnam and China's Hainan gibbon, it is estimated that a third of all apes, monkeys and other primates now face extinction due to large scale deforestation.

The ever-rising energy demands to cope with the world's population has contributed to the rapid rise in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and will further hinder efforts to stabilise the situation. As a result of the unbridled burning of oil, gas and coal, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are now around a third more than in pre-industrial times.

With some greenhouse gases ability to persist in our atmosphere for up to 50,000 years, global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.8 to 4 deg C this century and accelerates the rate of melting of glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic continents. The resultant rising sea levels will have disastrous implications on about 60 per cent of the world's population who live within 100km off coasts. Vast river systems, sustaining hundreds of millions of people, will dry up as the glaciers that feed them disappear and the resultant migration people, in search of water and sustenance, may lead to terrible conflicts.

While advances in science and technology, especially the development and deployment of clean technologies, together with improvements in energy conservation and efficiency are vital in meeting the climate change challenges, efficiency and innovation will not be enough unless there are concerted and coordinated efforts by governments to come up with a global framework that obliges governments to penalise pollution and provide market incentives to encourage clean energy alternatives.

- Global Environment Outlook 4
- World Conservation Union
- British Science journal-Nature

*Related post : The Melting Of Our Polar Ice Caps