Current Global Trends. Part 2

[Following on from the previous post on political shifts, this section focuses on global ecological overshoot and Malthusian scarcity cycles, i.e. the latest ecological and climate trends and figures since 2016.]

Global ecological debt and overshoot are further increasing. According to Mathis Wackernagel and others, humanity as a whole is now using up 1.7 Earths: while global ‘biocapacity’ amounts to 12.2 billion hectares (biologically productive space needed for food, timber, infrastructure, carbon sequestration), global humanity’s actual ecological footprint is now 20.9 billion hectares, i.e. it has an ecological debt of 9 billion hectares. Carbon emissions make up 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint, with rich consumers of course making up most of that. Global Earth Overshoot Day (the day our annual ecological footprint exceeds Earth’s carrying capacity) in 2018 is now August 1st (being extreme earth-consumers, Australia’s Overshoot Day is much earlier: March 31st). (NB ecological footprint analysis does not, and cannot, measure and include important ecological qualities like biodiversity losses, soil, and water mismanagement and depletion, declining ecosystems).

Increased demand for diminishing energy and resources also leads to increased pressure on remaining indigenous lands for oil and minerals, timber, arable land: a record 200 environmental activists are murdered globally in 2016 (100 in the first five months of 2017, especially in Brazil and Colombia). Demand for oil and gas is still growing globally, negating any falling emissions from declining coal use and the increasing shift away from coal and towards renewable energies.

However, there is some good news too. In the UK coal consumption in 2016 is down to early 1800s Industrial Revolution levels, coal falls from 40% of power supply to 2% within five years, and in April 2017 for the first time in 135 years the UK goes a day without burning any coal; in 2017 China mothballs plans for 151 coal power plants; in early November 2017 Germany has so much wind power on one weekend that customers get free electricity; in 2017 solar and wind generation employ 476,000 in the US and coal now only 160,000. Because of the increasing cheapness of solar and wind energy (production costs have plunged 90% over the past decade), in 2017 IEA radically revises its 2013 projections of growth in global coal-burning by 2040 from 40% to 1%. While Europe has radically cut back subsidies to renewables since 2011 (from $126 bn to $41 bn), China in 2017 is investing more in renewables than all developed countries combined.

However, although global solar capacity jumps 25% and renewables account for more than two thirds of new power capacity added in 2016, and although $3 trillion have been spent globally on renewables since 2004, renewables account for only 12% of global electricity production in 2017 (compared with 5% in 2005, excluding hydroelectric and nuclear power) and only 3 % of global total energy use; the proportion of global renewable electricity production is projected to rise to 34% by 2040, not fast enough to limit warming to 2 degrees.
In another vicious circle of technological pseudo-solutions making things worse in the long run, more heating means more air-conditioning which in turn means more heating: air-conditioning now already consumes about 10% of all global electricity, and air-con itself can directly warm a city by as much as an extra 20 C (while the urban heat island effect can also warm cities like London by as much as an extra 70 C, creating the need for more air-con, and so on; in contrast, tree planting can also bring down urban temperatures by several degrees).

Malthusian scarcity cycles are again increasing, especially in west, east and central Africa, with mounting biological mass extinctions and climate change stresses (increasing extreme weather events, ice reduction etc.). In 2016 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases at record speed, accelerating, and 100 times faster than at end of last ice age, and to a level not seen for more than three million years (403.3 ppm). Due to only slowly dropping birth rates in Africa (exceptions: Mauritius, Tunisia, Libya, with improvements also in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia), the UN revises its 2100 population projections for Africa and the world upwards from 9.1 to 11.2 billion. There are now 1.2 billion Africans, the African average birth rate is still 4.7 children, rising nearly three times faster than the world’s, with projections now of between 3 and 6.1 billion Africans by 2100 (world average birth rate is now 2.5, half as many as early 1950s, and 40% of nations are at or below replacement level of 2.1 children). There is a continuing mass exodus to Europe from economically and ecologically ailing and overpopulated African states by unemployed young men.

At least a quarter of city residents in the global south are living in sprawling shanty town slums, usually on peripheral, vulnerable land and flood-prone areas; in Mumbai, 60% live in slums and c. 300,000 are homeless; Bangalore has tripled in size since 1995, most of the vegetation has been lost, as have the 2500 water-storage lakes, since 2000 it has flooded regularly and city temperatures have increased by 2-2.5 C.

Climate change-exacerbated drought in Yemen, Syria (already in 2006-10), Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa (Capetown), Mozambique (Maputo) plus overpopulation increase competition for land, food and income, civil conflict, Islamist terrorism (Boko Haram in Nigeria) and migration push factors towards Europe. Temperatures throughout the Middle East in the summer of 2017 reach the high forties and low fifties for several weeks on end; without carbon emissions reductions, by 2100 extreme heatwaves are predicted for the Indian subcontinent (and much of the tropics), making it unliveable with humid ‘wet bulb temperatures’ hitting 35C and even fit people then dying within six hours.

In 2017 revised predictions reveal that under business-as-usual emissions Antarctic ice sheet melting could contribute to a massive sea level rise of almost 3m by 2100 (2m more than previously predicted by the IPCC in 2013), inundating coastal cities. Probably due to extreme warming in the Arctic (20 degrees above average in winter 2018), there has been a 10% decline since 1980 in the speed of the northern jet stream causing it to meander more and trap weather systems instead of pushing them along, and thus creating both longer summer droughts and winter cold spells in the northern hemisphere. Arctic ice loss is now about 30 years ahead of where the models say it should be, with the volume of the ice sheet in the late 2016 heatwave much lower than any other winter on record. The loss of reflective sea ice, and its resulting dark seas, have delivered a warming boost to the whole planet equivalent to 25% of the effect of rising CO2 levels. Darker sea and land masses are amplifying global heating in another positive feedback loop. Current climate models do not even include the loss of Arctic reflectivity (albedo) in their calculations.

As oceans warm and are polluted by fertilizers and sewage, they suffocate and die. While oceans still feed more than 500 million people especially in poorer nations, coastal dead (oxygen-free) zones increase from fewer than 50 in 1950 to at least 500 in 2017, while in warming waters levels of oxygen in all the oceans falls by 2% (c. 77 billion tonnes); lower oxygen levels reduce growth of marine life, impair reproduction, increase disease and make organisms breathe faster und thus use up oxygen more quickly in a vicious circle. Low-oxygen areas in oceans now extend to about the area of the European Union. In another positive feedback loop, microbes and algal blooms proliferating at low-oxygen levels also produce lots of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2; their decomposition then also sucks more oxygen out of the water.

North-western China is facing acute water shortages due to drought, over-use, pollution, urbanisation, with plans in 2016 to build a 1000 km water pipeline across Mongolia from Siberia. Water scarcity is rapidly increasing in many regions: globally, 4 billion live in areas experiencing water scarcity at least once a month; after $2 trillion has been spent globally on dams in recent decades, 20% of global population have gained water while more (23%) have been left with less water; the four most water-insecure countries are all in Africa. About 200,000 die each year in India because they cannot access clean water and 600 million there face ‘high to extreme water stress’, while by 2030 water availability will be half what India needs and an estimated 21 major cities there could exhaust their groundwater supplies within two years; officials blame a 82% shortfall in winter rain and snow due to climate change. In 2008 the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater reserve, delivered 400m cubic metres of water per year, in 2018 pumping is limited to 30-40m cubic metres per year due to reduced levels. Shrinking reservoirs and water shortages in 2018 are also experienced in South Africa, India, Iraq, Morocco, Spain.

Although the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has been reduced to 10% globally in the last two decades, 385 million children still live in extreme poverty; 65 million people, half of them children, are displaced or refugees in 2016 and 20 million in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria face starvation; Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Central African Republic are considered the world’s most fragile states, least able to securely govern territory; 37% of young adults in sub-Saharan Africa say they want to move to another country, mostly because of unemployment; African cities and slums are projected to explode in population by 2050 (Lagos from 11 million in 2010 to 40 million, Kinshasa from 8.4 million to 31 million).

In 2016 the number of chronically malnourished people reaches 815 million, up 38 million from previous year, increasing for the first time since 2000 when the number of hungry people was 900 million; the number of chronically hungry also increases from 10.6% to 11% of global population; the main hotspots of hunger are South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and north-east Nigeria. While the proportion of underweight people has lessened globally between 1975 and 2014, the proportion of obese and severely obese people is also rising significantly, with some researchers in 2016 saying much of the world is now passing ‘from an era of obesity to a new era of severe obesity.’ By 2016 50 million girls and 74 million boys are now obese globally, a tenfold increase since 1975 (5 million and 6 million). Anti-biotic resistance is also increasing in bacteria due to over-prescription and use in commercial-industrial agriculture to increase profits; doctors are warning of an imminent post-anti-biotic age. 25,000 children die each year in the EU, 23,000 in the US, from antibiotic-resistant infections, and in excess of 700,000 people die globally each year.

In 2017 the most comprehensive global analysis to date reveals that at least (probably more) nine million people die of pollution every year, with air pollution the biggest killer (outdoor 4.5m, indoor 2.9m), followed by water pollution (1.8m) and workplace pollution (0.8 million). Industrializing and poor countries are the worst affected by pollution, with India and China having the largest number of pollution deaths (2.5m and 1.8m) and Somalia suffering the highest per capita rate of pollution deaths, but with Russia, the US and Japan also in the top ten countries for pollution deaths.

About 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, making up about half of all solid waste and with just c. 20% recycled. About 6.3 billion tonnes have been discarded globally since 1950, most of which will not break down for at least 450 years. Like most resource use, per capita use of plastic mirrors affluence: India 11 kg/year, US 109 kg/year. (In 2018 Mumbai even bans both plastic bags and bottles). In 2017 micro-plastic particles from these wastes and from washing synthetic textiles and tyre dust, also carrying chemical nanoparticles and microbial pathogens, are found to be ubiquitous (in an average 83% of drinking water samples from over twelve countries); they are also found in European air, beers, sugar, honey, sea salt; plastic nanoparticles with toxic or hormone-disrupting chemicals or microbial pathogens could penetrate cells and gut walls. Arctic Ocean plastic litter has increased 20-fold just in the past 10 years.

Silent Springs. Neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used pesticides and harmful to pollinators like bees, are also found in honey from every continent. UK farmland birds have declined by a further 10% in just five years since 2012, and by 56% in total since 1970. An ecological bombshell (a true 21st century Silent Spring) in 2017: a German study finds that an amazing three quarters of all flying insects (even including flies) have disappeared even in protected reserves there since the early 1990s and warns that the world is ‘on course for ecological Armageddon.’ Global warming, even with emissions cuts already ‘pledged’ so far, would make almost half of global insect habitat unsuitable by the end of the century. Insects make up c. 70% of all known animal species on Earth and are to terrestrial food chains what plankton is to oceanic ones. ‘If we lose insects, then everything is going to collapse’ (Professor Dave Goulson, Sussex University). Entomologist E.O. Wilson estimates that humanity would only last a few months without insects and arthropods, the Earth gradually reverting to what it was like in the Silurian period 440 million years ago, ‘a spongy, silent place, filled with mosses and liverworts, waiting for the first shrimp brave enough to try its luck on land.’ (J. Mikanowski, ‘Inside the great insect die-off’, GW 12/01/2018, p. 29).

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 10, 2018.

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