4th Dec 2023


Humanity 'losing tools' to deal with future eco-crises, UN says

  • Zita Sebesvari is the lead author of the study and an expert in ecosystem disaster risk reduction and adaptation (Photo: Zita Sebesvari)
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UN researchers have warned that humanity is edging perilously close to irreversible tipping points on a variety of fronts, including the steep growth of space garbage and the emptying of underground aquifers, which imperil our ability to deal with natural catastrophes.

"What we are seeing is that we are losing our tools to deal with risks," Zita Sebesvari, lead author of the study and deputy director of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany, told EUobserver.

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The report, published on Wednesday (25 October), highlights six so-called 'risk tipping points', which are similar to climate tipping points in that they deal with the effects of human behaviour on our environment — but there are some crucial differences.

While climate tipping points refer to the irreversible melt of the West-Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the dieback of the Amazon Rainforest, or the collapse of the Atlantic Gulf Stream — all consequences of human burning of fossil fuels — risk tipping points are more focused on how our social systems interact with ecosystems, which is impacting our ability to deal with crises.

A simpler way of saying that could be that humans tend to come up with solutions that intensify a problem instead of solving it.

Case in point: the haphazard proliferation of air-conditioning in our cities.

Often powered by fossil fuels, these units blow hot air onto already roasting pavements.

Why is this a tipping point? Because in many places on earth — such as Pakistan or India — heat is approaching levels where it becomes impossible for the human body to cool off.

Another example is groundwater depletion.

When the water is gone

Pumping up groundwater during a drought can be beneficial and legitimate.

"Groundwater is used to mitigate 50 percent of all agricultural drought losses annually," said Sebesvari. The problem is if it runs out, farmers will no longer have a backstop.

And the figures brought together in the study are harrowing. Out of 37 major groundwater bodies globally, 21 are dangerously depleted. This limits what farmers can do to save their crops during a drought.

But instead of limiting groundwater use, some governments encourage it. In the Northern region of Punjab, often dubbed 'India's bread basket', 80 percent of the groundwater reservoirs are stressed.

Instead of pumping up less or changing farming practices, farmers are incentivised by subsidies to pump up even more, often for water-hungry crops like rice.

"In a few years, groundwater may no longer be reached in the Punjab," said Sebesvari. In Europe, Spain and France are also increasingly water-stressed.

What happens after all the water is gone is a story best illustrated by Saudi Arabia. Unknown to most, generous subsidies briefly allowed the desert country to rank as the sixth largest wheat exporter globally in the mid-1990s.

However, continued overexploitation eventually resulted in the country's total collapse of wheat farming. In 2016, farmers gathered the final harvest.

Space garbage

Another example mentioned in the study is insurance and its role in helping people protect themselves against catastrophic events like floods and fire.

But in places like California in the US or Australia, where wildfires are frequent, or Miami in the US, which is slowly sinking into the sea, properties are increasingly becoming uninsurable.

By pushing the boundaries of what ecosystems can sustain, humans are slowly but surely undermining the capacity to deal with crises.

The report covers more than just earthly matters.

Linked to our tendency to use everything we encounter as a garbage bin is the increasing proliferation of space debris, which could also impact our ability to deal with climactic events.

By sending satellites into space, humans have dramatically improved early warning systems for extreme weather events. But the unchecked increase of stuff is becoming a problem.

"In 2018, we sent 400 satellites into space. Last year, it was 2,400," said Sebesvari.

Currently, 34,000 tracked objects circle Earth, a quarter of which are functioning satellites. It is estimated that the number of satellites will increase to 100,000 by 2030.

"Already, the International Space Station has to do expensive evasive manoeuvres at least once a year," said Sebesvari.

And detectable risk may be the least of the problems: By some estimates, some 130 million pieces of half a centimetre are circling the earth at 25,000 km per hour.

If they hit any other object in an unfortunate way, it could cause a crash, which could cause a chain reaction.

Perhaps similar to the one depicted in the 2013 disaster movie Gravity, but without the sentiment — just a silent and sudden collapse of the early warning systems that took us 60 years to build.

Changing the maths

A solution to our collective short-sightedness, Sebesvari suggests, is "being a good ancestor." And she does not mean this in the romantic sense.

"We need to make our policies future-proof. The perspective that we borrowed the earth from our children needs to be integrated into the way we make decisions," she said.

She refers to Wales, where a 'future generations commissioner' helps public bodies consider the long-term effects of their decisions.

One way policy-makers could change the way they take decisions is by changing how they calculate the so-called 'discount rate.'

How much effort should society devote to reducing emissions, limiting fuel use or conserving biodiversity?

These questions involve tradeoffs between current benefits and potential future gains, which is what the discount rate refers to. A higher rate implies future benefits are valued lower than present gains.

By altering the economic calculus to include things like future health and biodiversity gains or fuel-saving costs or expanding the role of ethics in the modelling, overall decision-making could change dramatically.

By comparing the future cumulative cost of fuel under the stated climate policies policy scenario and the more ambitious net zero scenario, the International Energy Agency recently calculated the cumulative fuel savings to exceed €11 trillion.

"Talking about being a good ancestor can come across as dreamy," said Sebesvari. "But a small change in the calculation of our models can result in a very different outcome," she added.

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