Effective Environmental Policy in the Age of Man

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The rate and scale of human-induced global environmental change is so significant that it now constitutes a new geological epoch in the Earth’s history called the Anthropocene.

The acceleration of human pressure on the Earth’s system has caused critical global, regional and local thresholds to be exceeded. This could have irreversible effects on the life-support function of the planet with adverse implications for human health and wellbeing. More than ever, there is a need to have appropriate and effective environmental policies to make the transition to a low carbon and sustainable society.

New social movements, political parties, greater media coverage of environmental disasters, and a growing body of scientific evidence on the effects of environmental pollution have all led to an increased imperative to take action.

However, the human cost of environmental change must not be underestimated. For example, population growth and an increased trend towards urbanisation have all had social and environmental consequences. The loss of arable land has increased concerns about food security, and has contributed to higher levels of environmental pollution.

Poor sanitation in developing countries, especially in slum areas on the peripheries of cities is clearly associated with an increase in preventable diseases such as cholera. Additionally, conflicts and social unrest associated with dwindling resources are evident, and are likely to increase if current trends continue.

In addition, the impact of climate change is potentially so profound and could result in population displacement, widespread threats to those living in low lying areas, risks to food security, increased diseases are all predicted impacts of climate change. While the immediate burden of these effects is more likely to fall on developing countries, there are major implications also for developed nations.

In order to effectively address environmental problems through policy, a number of issues needed to be considered:

  • balancing social, economic and environmental objectives
  • „addressing uncertainty, risk and the negative impacts of policies
  • „the scale of the problem and the solution.

Traditionally, environmental policy has had to compete with social and economic objectives. While sustainable development has provided the paradigm to demonstrate that all three are equally important, this has not always been translated into practice.

Attempts have been made, however, to include the environmental costs of human activity into policy evaluation tools by giving a monetary value to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation.

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At the international level, policy debates have attempted to balance economic and development concerns. One of the strategies of international climate policy is the investment in projects that will encourage greener development trajectories in developing countries.

However, national level policy making is influenced by national political system, national elites, existing policy frameworks or legacies, and any national level environmental concerns. Local level policy is affected by many similar issues, but is often subject to local circumstances.

Meeting future environmental challenges will require more flexible and adaptive global and national governance frameworks. Doing so will also potentially require a redefinition of wealth and prosperity, taking into account the impact of consuming limited and non-renewable resources.

Potential barriers to meeting these challenges  include a lack of political will to make difficult changes with short-term costs, and a lack of public acceptance that such changes are necessary.

In developed countries, popular aspirations, habits and lifestyles which rely on high levels of consumption may not be amenable to the action that is needed to address environmental challenges, suggesting the requirement for change in some aspects of society and social norms.

A further challenge is the requirement to consider the economic development needs of the world’s poorest countries alongside the need for environmental protection.

In the ‘Age of Man’ increasing natural resource scarcity, rising global temperatures, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and food and energy insecurity means that appropriate and effective environmental policy is vital if we are to remain within planetary boundaries, and ensure the future survival of humankind.

To read more see A Short Guide To Environmental Policy by Caz Snell and Gary Haq (April 2014).

 

 

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The Heat is On – Time to Act on Climate Change

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A new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and its effects are now evident in most regions of the world.

Since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. Breaking more temperature records than in any other decade.

The authors of the new report on the physical evidence for climate change state that continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system.

The Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is projected to be likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 in all but the lowest scenario considered, and likely to exceed 2°C for the two high scenarios. Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer.

As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions.

It is the poorest regions of the world and the most vulnerable individuals such as the young and elderly who will be most affected.

Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. This will require international action to adopt ambitious legal agreement on climate change in 2015. We will only know over the next year or whether the new evidence will have any impact on national governments who are preoccupied with stimulating growth, reducing debt and increasing employment.

The  assessment draws on millions of observations and over 2 million gigabytes of numerical data from climate model simulations. Over 9,200 scientific publications are cited, more than three quarters of which have been published since the last IPCC assessment in 2007.

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Key evidence highlighted in the report is given below with levels of confidence:

  • Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971.
  • Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence).
  • The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m.
  • The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.
  • CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.
  • Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750.
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.
  • Climate models have improved since the last 2007 of assessment of the physical evidence on cliamte change. Models reproduce observed continental-scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions (very high confidence).
  • Observational and model studies of temperature change, climate feedbacks and changes in the Earth’s energy budget together provide confidence in the magnitude of global warming in response to past and future forcing.cc
  • Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since the last assessment. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system.
  • Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 for all  scenarios except RCP2.6. It is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, and more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5.
  • Warming will continue beyond 2100 under all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. Warming will continue to exhibit interannual-to decadal variability and will not be regionally uniform.
  • Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.t767375a
  • The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation.
  • It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises. Global glacier volume will further decrease.
  • Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century. Under all RCP scenarios the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971–2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.
  • Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification.
  • Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.

The  report increases in the confidence associated with climate observations but whichever facts may be discussed, debated or distorted, we cannot ignore the reality that we must act or face frightening new impacts.

Take the poll and let us know what you think:

Our Green History

oday environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Today environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Over the last 60 years these have evolved with each new environmental cause from nuclear power and pesticide use in the 1960s, to acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s and biodiversity loss and climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these causes have taken hold in different countries at different times, each prompted by particular historical circumstances. For this reason environmentalism has been taken up in many forms across generations and the continents of the world.

The explosion of environmental activity in the 1960s did not represent the creation of an entirely new set of ideas. In 1885 German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: “It would never occur to me to regard the enjoyment of nature as the invention of the modern age.” The same can be said for modern day interest in the environment.

The fact that modern environmental concern spread following atomic bomb tests and to the backdrop of the Vietnam War is a point much referred to by historians and environmentalists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was amongst the first to link the dangers of the atomic bomb to the misuse of pesticides, emphasising humanity’s capacity to destroy nature and itself.

Over the next ten years a number of publications followed suit, Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Limits to Growth (1972), raised wider anxieties about the future of the planet, whilst Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small is Beautiful (1973) sketched out green alternatives. Almost half a century later the anxieties expressed in each of these books are still at the centre of many environmental concerns today.

Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has been instrumental in raising environmental concerns over the last half century.The first major oil spill in Britain occurred when the super tanker Torrey Canyon struck a reef between the UK mainland and the Isles of Scilly in March 1967.

The resulting oil slick covered 120 miles of Cornish coast, killing tens of thousands of birds. Two years later an explosion on the Union Oil Company oil platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

These highly visible examples of humanity’s impact on the environment occurred as the age of colour television began and broadcasters discovered that major pollution events made visually dramatic news stories. Each decade since has witnessed at least one massive oil spill from a super tanker or oil platform, these serve as timely reminders that environmental issues have not gone away.

The history of contemporary environmentalism has been marked by the establishment of new institutions. Campaigns on issues such as pesticide use and nuclear testing led to the development of a new breed of professional campaign groups which have become the public face of environmentalism.

At the same time governments have responded to public concerns about the environment by establishing environmental institutions of their own. Agencies, scientific programmes, international agreements, laws and regulations have been established to support environmental goals.

All this has helped give environmentalism a permanence that has transcended the decades.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

Valuing The Precious Commodity of Water

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

How many of us are guilty of leaving the tap on while brushing our teeth, over filling the kettle or spending too much time in the shower?

Each person in the UK uses an estimated 150 litres of water a day which is equivalent to 264 pints of milk.

By the time water reaches our tap it has already been cleaned, treated and pumped from reservoirs, rivers and aquifers with much of it being leaked from pipes.

It is only in times of drought such as that experienced in parts of the UK are we forced to rethink how we value and use water.

Water is a crucial element for human existence as clearly demonstrated by the devastating effects of the severe drought in East Africa.

Safe water is necessary to avoid death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related disease and provide for domestic use.

It is estimated that each person needs about 20 litres of water each day to drink, cook and wash.

Everyone has a right to sufficient, safe, acceptable and affordable water. Unfortunately, these days fresh clean water is becoming a precious commodity.

A European Environment Agency report on water resources across Europe shows that southern Europe continues to experience the greatest water scarcity problems. However, water stress is growing in parts of northern Europe.

Drought is a feature of the UK’s variable climate, with dry spells possible at any time of the year. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), this year England suffered its driest spring in a century, leaving fields parched and many rivers at a record low.

This is in contrast to Scotland that had one of the wettest springs on record and areas of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, and western Norfolk which are in drought.

The dry weather affected navigation on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal with restrictions on boat movements. While recent rain and unsettled weather has helped the environment, farmers and water companies and eased canal navigation, this does not mean the drought or risk of drought is over. Damage to crops caused by the dry spring is now likely to be irreversible.

More dry weather will place further pressure on water resources. The Environment Agency believes this could result in drought conditions spreading into central England and further east.

This would impact livestock farmers, affecting the cost and availability of animal feed and bedding for next winter. while at the same time restricting arable farmers from spray irrigating their crops.

Public water supply can cope easily with a few months of dry weather, but prolonged droughts require careful management. The Yorkshire region experienced it worst drought in March 1995. Reservoirs in the upland Pennines hills were at capacity following a very wet period.

However, by the August, reservoirs in some areas were below 20 per cent capacity. This resulted in a severe water problem in the region and required emergency drinking water being tankered in from Kielder reservoir in Northumberland to West Yorkshire to help resolve the situation.

By 2020, the national demand for water in the UK could rise by as much as five per cent due to an increase in population and housing. This would mean finding an extra 800 million litres of water each day.

In particular, hot water used in the home is responsible for approximately 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year due to reheating and water treatment processes.

Our abuse of water is due to the fact that majority of us do not have to pay for the amount we use. We do not provide electric sockets allowing people to use as much electricity as they want then why should we do it with water?

If we are to meet the UK national target to reduce our water use by 20 litres a day by 2020 then we will all have to become more “water wise”. Water metering is considered the fairest way to pay for water.

It also provides an incentive to use less water which is beneficial for the environment. A water meter is estimated to reduce household water consumption by about 10 per cent. However, this could result in the poorest households facing higher bills

We currently face the prospect of further water stress due to the combined effects of climate change, water intensive lifestyles and pressures of land use changes.

If we are to continue and enjoy high standards of water, we need to reduce demand, minimise the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use.

This requires everyone doing their bit including water companies, farmers and consumers in addressing how we use and value water.

© Gary Haq 2011

Is Speed Reduction a Solution to the Oil Crisis?

The Middle East crisis forces up prices at the pumps, Spain has lowered its national speed limit to achieve a 15 per cent saving in fuel use. This has been seen as an exceptional measure for an exceptional situation. But will it work, and should Britain do the same?

AS the Middle East crisis forces up prices at the pumps, Spain has lowered its national speed limit to achieve a 15 per cent saving in fuel use.

This has been seen as an exceptional measure for an exceptional situation. But will it work, and should other countries do the same?

The Spanish government has reduced the speed limit on main roads from 75mph (120 km/h) to 68mph (110 km/h) in an attempt to reduce fuel use. This has been in response to the unrest in Libya and concern that it will spread elsewhere in the Arab world. Spain is dependent on imported oil, with about 13 per cent coming from Libya.

The reduction in the speed limit is part of a wider package of measures to reduce energy use. As people spend more money on foreign fuel, they have less to spend on buying products made in Spain which could slow the recovery of the Spanish economy.

However, critics see lowering the speed limit as a desperate measure and are sceptical it will achieve the savings the Spanish government claims.

US President Richard Nixon took similar action in 1973 in response to the oil crisis then. He introduced a speed limit of 55mph (90 km/h) in 1974 in a bid to reduce fuel consumption by 2.2 per cent.

The measure only achieved a fuel saving of about 0.5 per cent but had the additional benefit of reducing road deaths. In contrast, France tested the strict enforcement of speed limits on main motorways in 2004 and achieved a 19 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

In the UK, petrol now costs on average about £6 a gallon. However, rather than reducing the speed limit, the Conservative-led coalition has actually talked about increasing it. Recently, the UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was reported to have suggested increasing motorway speeds to 80mph in an attempt to shorten journey times and help the economy.

This is despite the UK Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety claiming that raising the speed limit to 80mph would increase motorway casualties by between five and 10 per cent.

Lowering the speed limit will be a challenge, as many petrolheads will perceive it as an infringement of their human rights and another attack in the “war on the motorist”. According to a 2008 UK Department for Transport study on speed, drivers can be divided into three groups: speed limit compliant, moderate or excessive speeders. Excessive speeders tend to be young, male, risky drivers who are often involved in accidents.

The UK study also found that a substantial number of drivers report that they regularly break speed limits of 30, 60 and 70 mph.

At speeds of 50mph and above, drivers tend to over-estimate the time gained by going faster and the time lost by going slower. In order to encourage people to drive at lower speeds, this “speed-time fallacy” will need to be addressed.

Reducing speed is seen as a quick hit as it relatively easy to implement. It requires little legislative and capital investment and can achieve rapid savings in fuel consumption as well as cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

A lower speed limit will, of course, increase travel time, which will further depend on road conditions, weather, traffic congestion and roadworks. Despite this, limiting the speed at which we drive offers a number of social and environmental benefits.

The exact fuel and carbon dioxide savings of reducing the speed limit are influenced by vehicle weight, engine and fuel type, driving style and traffic flow conditions. Increasingly, optional extras such as air conditioning have increased the average fuel use of a car.

According to the UK Energy Research Centre, introducing and enforcing a 60mph speed limit could reduce carbon dioxide emission on average by about two million tonnes each year.

In addition, becoming a “smarter driver” and being conscious of how to drive efficiently has the additional benefits of reducing annual fuel bills, wear and tear on the vehicle and can result in safer and less stressful journeys.

By 2030, global oil production is expected to decline as demand increases. The exact timing of the tipping point when oil availability begins to decline, and the ensuing rate of that decline is debateable.

However, there is increasing recognition that the “peak oil” phenomenon is real. National and local governments have all already begun designing policies to cope with the lack of cheap oil – with Sweden committing to be oil free by 2020.

Reducing the speed limit will be the least of our problems as we will be forced to make more fundamental changes to our energy intensive lifestyles in order to adapt to a world of increasing energy insecurity.

© Gary Haq 2011

The Impact of the Meat on Our Plate

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

FROM Paul McCartney to Lord Stern, more people are promoting the benefits of a meatless society.

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

Deforestation, manure and livestock flatulence all contribute to global warming and are associated with excessive meat consumption.

As nations become richer, they tend to eat more meat and more livestock has to be raised to keep up with the demand.

In turn, more grazing land is required and more forests are cut down to expand farmland. As trees get the chop the carbon dioxide that they have absorbed over their lifetime is eventually released back into the atmosphere.

Manure is a source of nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. A recent report warned that nitrogen pollution is costing each European citizen up to £650 a year in damage to water, climate, health and wildlife.

As livestock digest grass, they produce flatulence which contains the greenhouse gas methane. Research by Reading University suggests changing the diet of livestock could reduce methane emissions by 20 per cent.

Improving the efficiency of resource management when it comes to crop and livestock production could help reduce the environmental impact of meat production.

However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the current prices of land, water and feed resources used for livestock production do not reflect true scarcities and create distortions that provide no incentive for efficient resource use.

This results in the overuse of resources and major inefficiencies in the production process.

Abandoning our carnivorous habits is both good for the planet and our health. Eating too much meat, especially processed meat, can be bad for a person’s health as it can contain high levels of saturated fat and salt.

An Oxford University study funded by Friends of the Earth showed that more than 45,000 lives a year could be saved if everyone ate meat no more than two or three times a week.

A widespread switch to low-meat diets would stop 31,000 people dying early from heart disease, 9,000 from cancer and 5,000 from strokes. This could save the NHS £1.2bn and help reduce climate change and deforestation.
I am one of the four million vegetarians in Britain and have led a meat-free life for the past 25 years. I still remember the day at primary school when I realised I did not like the idea of eating a dead animal.

However, it took me another nine years before I was able to proudly declare that I would eat “nothing with a face”.

Over the years, being a vegetarian in this country has got easier, people are more accepting and there is more choice of vegetarian food in supermarkets and restaurants.

There are now about 30 top-range vegetarian restaurants – an increase of 50 per cent since 2007. This reflects a growing interest in healthy lifestyles although many people would not necessarily call themselves vegetarian. One 2009 survey suggests 23 per cent of the population are “meat-reducers”, and 10 per cent as “meat-avoiders”.

Despite the increasing awareness of the environmental and health effects of carnivorous cuisine, the seduction of a sizzling sausage, the allure of the bacon butty and the prospect of the Yorkshire pudding with roast beef may simply be too much for many meat eaters to resist.

While there has been a change in eating habits the vast majority of Britons still eat meat, with one-in-five eating meat every day. This suggests education and awareness alone will not work to reduce our meat consumption.

One suggestion to address the harmful effects of meat consumption is to introduce a European-wide meat tax.

The EU is already committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has taken a number of measures such as the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs.

A meat tax would be similar to taxes on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. Unlike petrol, which is harder to replace, the effect of the tax would encourage consumers to replace meat with other food products.

It is clear that we have to improve the efficiency of livestock production and reduce the demand for meat to make the transition to a low carbon society.

The recent discovery of horse meat in labelled beef products indicates how meat production has become increasingly mechanised and the extent to which we have become disconnected from the food we eat. Perhaps it is now time to reconsider our meat consumption.

Rather than shunning meat altogether, meat eaters could start by following a “demitarian” diet – reducing meat portions by half. It is recommended that total weekly meat intake should not exceed 210 grams – a small sacrifice to secure the future of the planet.

Beyond Planetary Limits

here is increasing concern that the rapid growth in human activities is placing further pressure on the planet.

This could destabilize critical biophysical systems and lead to abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be damaging or even catastrophic for the welfare of human society.

There is increasing concern that the rapid growth in human activities is placing further pressure on the planet.

This could destabilize critical biophysical systems and lead to abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be damaging or even catastrophic for the welfare of human society.

Determining the extent to which human society has exceeded the planet’s natural limits is nothing new. In 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted the consequences of rapidly growing world population and finite resources for the future of humanity.

A recent review of the accuracy of the Limits to Growth’s predictions over the last 30 years discovered that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the prediction of economic and societal collapse in the 21st Century.

Other studies have shown that we are currently in ecological overshoot. In 2009 we used approximately 40 per cent more than nature can regenerate. We are currenlty living beyond our ecological means.

It is only recently that human activities have begun to affect the functioning of the Earth’s system. Since the industrial revolution human activities has progressively been pushing the planet outside the range of variability for many key processes which sustain life on Earth.

A 2009 study on planetary boundaries has attempted to quantify the safe biophysical boundaries outside which the Earth System cannot function in a stable state. Human pressure on the Earth’s ecosystem has reached a point where rapid global environmental change is possible. There are critical climatic, geophysical and ecological thresholds we must respect if we are to have a sustainable future.

In total nine planetary boundaries have been identified. These are climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

Three of these planetary boundaries have already been transgressed: climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere. Since the boundaries are strongly connected crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others.

The extent to which human societies will be affected by transgressing these planetary boundaries will be dependent on their ability to cope with rapid environmental change. It is often poor communities with weak infrastructures and social support services which are most at risk.

The notion of planetary boundaries provides a first attempt at defining the limits for humanity. However, there are a number of uncertainties and gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed to improve this concept.

If we are to minimize the negative effects of human activities and ensure a safe space for sustainable human development, we need to take action to prevent crossing these planetary boundaries and avoid major human-induced global environmental change.

Planetary boundaries are further evidence that human society cannot continue business-as-usual. There is a need for a fundamental change to the structure of our society and way of life.

A transformation to a new “ecological age” where we live within planetary limits will require a change of the scale achieved in the industrial revolution. However, this time it will be drive by clean, efficient and renweable energy technologies and will be sustainable.

Assessments of the current state of the global environment and scientific predictions of future human and societal collapse provide the evidence on which to base policy.

We know the ecological consequences if we do not fundatmentally change our way of life. The big question is does anyone really care?

© Gary Haq 2010