Thursday, January 19, 2017
Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries
Book Review: Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries – by Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum (Yale University Press, 2015)
This is a beautiful book by two Swedes. Rockstrom is an environmental scientist and Klum is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. The book is filled with nice color plates of photos and of graphs. The book begins with the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit that is widely seen as a failure by those who thought an agreement could be reached. Rockstrom’s focus for that meeting and for this book is on defining ‘planetary boundaries’ – beyond which are encountered dangerous tipping points. There are several boundaries: climate, pollution, resource depletion, land use, etc. Their first book in 2012, The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries, was presented to 130 heads of state at the 2012 Rio UN summit on sustainable development. They advocate a ‘new narrative’ of human development, one that is ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down.’ The book is divided into three parts: problems and their urgency, new sustainable ways of thinking about prosperity, justice, and happiness, and presenting practical solutions to the problems stemming from human development.
They begin with “Our Ten Key Messages”: 1) open your eyes (to the multiple situations where humans are stressing the ability of the earth to provide), 2) the crisis is global and urgent – population and economic growth keep rising making the problems worse, 3) everything is hyper-connected – what affects one thing likely affects many others, 4) expect the unexpected – they expect surprises with planetary change, 5) respecting planetary boundaries – keeping within fairly known tipping points, 6) global mind shift – correct attitudes toward sustainability need to be developed, 7) preservation of wild and natural areas is in everyone’s best interests, 8) we can turn things around – we have the technological tools to be both prosperous and sustainable, 9) unleashing innovation – by defining thresholds, boundaries, and limits to energy production and emissions, innovators can know what they need to overcome, 10) first things first – prioritize based on urgency – climate change, nitrogen and phosphorous overload, and biodiversity are the most urgent, they say.
Giving Ikea’s move toward solar and wind as an example they note a corporate world move toward sustainability in the forms of “resource efficiency, circular business models, low-carbon value chains, and environmental accounting.” Many mainstream companies now have sustainability strategies and goals.
Humans have faced climate dangers before as well as the effects of natural disasters like ice ages, asteroid/comet impacts, and super-volcanoes that manifested through climate changes. By comparison the last 11,000 years the climate has been predictably stable and calm. With the advent of the Industrial Age and to a much lesser extent before that with the advent of agriculture, the Holocene gave way to what is now often referred to the Anthropocene which has become characterized by environmental impacts from a vastly increasing population of humans. The authors give a series of twelve graphs to show the acceleration of human pressures on the planet. All show vast increases beginning with the Industrial Age. They are as follows: atmospheric CO2 concentration, atmospheric methane concentration, atmospheric N2O concentration, increase in stratospheric ozone depletion (although this one has stabilized since banning CFCs), global average surface temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, shrimp aquaculture production (proxy for coastal zone alteration), nitrogen loading in coastal zones, loss of tropical forests, increase in ‘domesticated ‘ land, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. The ‘Great Acceleration’ of all these issues began in the mid-1950’s and parallels accelerations of population with its exponential growth. They note three indications of human social pressure on the planet: population, affluence (as measured by GDP), and technology (as measured by patent applications). All three have exploded since the mid- 1950’s. They also show what they call the ‘quadruple squeeze’ of global impacts. These are: human growth in terms of population and affluence, climate change, ecosystem degradation, and surprise or the risk of sudden unforeseen changes.
The loss of ecosystems includes tragic losses in rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia from palm oil plantations, bauxite mining, soy farming, and livestock grazing. Fires from land-clearing there for these purposes have also been devastating in their CO2 and pollution emissions. Sedimentation, soil erosion, nutrient loading, and loss of fish stocks have also resulted from these practices. In 2008, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions were due to Indonesian forest fires and the fires have also been very strong contributors in subsequent years. I don’t think that includes the loss of carbon sinks from deforestation there. More effort should be put forth to mitigate these issues. However, the particulate matter does form aerosols that lead to global cooling for a more temporary period so there is some offset of warming effects though overall the affect is warming.
They discuss tipping points and resilience in socio-ecological systems. Resilience is what keeps ecosystems from crossing tipping points that may change the overall state of the system. Resilience thus prevents things like positive feedbacks from being initiated. Regulations and preserving ecosystem services may promote resilience and prevent crossing tipping points. The earth’s biggest regular tipping point and regime-shift is thought to be its cycling from the glacial to the interglacial and back, from icehouse conditions to greenhouse conditions and vice versa. In the past this has been typically triggered by changes in solar irradiation due to planetary orbits and gravitation but now humans may be very well influencing changes. Deforestation and ocean acidification are happening at too fast rates. Although the authors state that some data has suggested that terrestrial and oceanic carbon sinks are taking up less carbon than before there is also evidence very recently that they are taking up more than thought so it is unclear and overall carbon budgeting is one of the uncertainties of climate modeling. The authors also note uncertainties in feedbacks as a reason to be more cautious although such uncertainties could go either way really. Increasing or at least stabilizing resilience of ecosystems is necessary, they say.
Defining planetary boundaries is a major goal of their work. This is somewhat similar to ‘carrying capacities’ of earth and earth systems but more specifically refers to prevention of positive feedbacks as tipping points are crossed. The goal is to “define a safe operating space for humanity on a stable planet.” Rockstrom worked with an interdisciplinary group off scientists to define planetary boundaries. Being within planetary boundaries is synonymous with remaining in a stable Holocene-like state. Tipping points are thresholds from stability to instability. These concepts can also be applied to individual ecosystems.
“Earth is a complex and self-regulating system, in which everything is connected to everything else. This means, in very simple terms, that when nature is in good shape, Earth’s resilience is high.”
He acknowledges that “defining planetary boundaries is difficult due to the broad ranges of uncertainty involved.” How much is too much? The most known of the thresholds is probably the climate threshold beyond which climate changes could become catastrophic. He pegs it somewhere between 350 and 450 ppm CO2 but some think it is higher. 450 is in-line with the 2 deg C limit agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. The complexity and interplay of so many variables in the climate system make it difficult to develop certainty. Only with more time and data and with more actual effects documented will higher levels of certainty develop. The interdisciplinary team here put the thresholds on the lower end as a precautionary approach – ie. they picked 350 ppm for CO2 and 1.5 deg C as boundaries. Therefore some might see their boundary thresholds as overly cautious. In 2009 the group defined nine planetary boundaries: 1) climate change, 2) stratospheric ozone depletion, 3) rate of biodiversity loss, 4) chemical pollution, 5) ocean acidification, 6) freshwater consumption, 7) land-use change, 8) nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, and 9) air pollution and aerosol loading. Of those, only extinction rate and nitrogen/phosphorous (especially nitrogen) are in the zone of certainty of having crossed a threshold. Others like climate are in the zone of certainty. Only three are in the safe zone: ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, and ozone depletion. They were unable to suggest boundaries for two of the nine variables: chemical pollution and aerosol loading, even after re-evaluation in 2014- due to lack of data and analysis. They renamed the chemical pollution boundary the ‘novel entity’ boundary indicative of new compounds being introduced into earth systems. They consider three of the boundaries as being hard-wired into the earth-system and thus having sharp well-defined boundaries: climate change, stratospheric ozone, and ocean acidification. These effects are all global. Another grouping is of four slower processes, what they call the slow boundaries: land-use, freshwater consumption, biodiversity loss, and interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. These have more regional and local effects. However, if those are multiplied enough around the world they could become global effects. The third grouping is of two human-induced threats: 1) aerosol loading in the form of pollutants like soot (black carbon), nitrates, sulfates, and other particles, and 2) chemical pollution (novel entities), mainly in the form of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These are the two variables for planetary boundaries as yet unquantified.
One update they have noted is that two boundaries, climate and biodiversity loss, have the most potential effect on the earth system. They have also added regional-scale boundary levels so there are now twin definitions of the boundaries. For example freshwater consumption is not just a global boundary but boundaries can be defined for each watershed, river system, or region. They also redefined the climate planetary boundary as 1 watt per square meter of radiative forcing rather than by temperature rise or atmospheric CO2 concentration to take into account all greenhouse gases as well as aerosols that offset them with some global cooling effects. However, the boundary is about the same since the other warming gases (mainly methane and nitrogen oxides) are thought to cancel out the cooling aerosols. Reductions in aragonite concentrations in the ocean is used as a proxy for ocean acidification. Rates of species extinction (above geologic history background levels) is a proxy for biodiversity loss. Their boundary for land development is at 15% of available land with the current proportion being 12%. They switched their measure from max farm land added to minimum forest land required. They also revised their nitrogen and phosphorous thresholds, those that cause anoxic dead zones typically at river-ocean boundaries. About 1/6 of the Baltic Sea is such a dead zone. Phosphorous also threatens surface freshwater and comes not only from fertilizer but from treated water from sewage and water treatment plants. Interestingly, they note that we are moving from a focus on reducing emissions to one of managing the biosphere through efforts like carbon sequestration, habitat protection, and preparation to adapt to possible climate change effects.
The fear of runaway positive feedbacks is one of the major worries about climate change effects. In July 2012 the entire Greenland Ice sheet began to melt and in a few weeks changed to a darker surface color so that reflection was reduced off of the whiter ice. Although this was temporary and within one seasonal cycle, such a feedback could accelerate melting drastically if sustained. Glaciologist Jason Box and others refer to it as an early warning of things to come, although it has not happened since that period in 2012. Heating and ice loss in the Arctic has exceeded early estimates by a large amount – predicted 2030 levels of melt were seen by 2007 and 2008. Changes in Antarctica have been more debatable. Some predictions for sea level rise suggest that we are already locked into a 3.3 ft global sea level rise which would be slow over decades and perhaps centuries but also potentially catastrophic. The Arctic is seen as more vulnerable to warming but some researchers are questioning that. Certainly, current warming is happening at a much greater pace in the Arctic. Rainforests are seen as among the most vulnerable ecosystems. Their self-generating moisture due to their canopy can be compromised by opening up sections of rainforest where moisture could be lost, reducing the resilience of the ecosystem and drying parts of it into savanna-like states. Coral reefs are also vulnerable ecosystems and can be affected by overfishing, nutrient overload, and ocean warming. Ecosystems seem to operate best when certain organisms thrive, including top predators, pollinators, and soil bacteria.
They describe an unexpected effect. When EU rules changed fishing policies many of the commercial fishers moved to the West coast of Africa where there were already pollution problems and degradation of mangrove areas. When these fishers moved in they reduced the fish population enough that local fishers were not getting enough to feed local people. Thus, as trading patterns changed some people moved to eating ‘bush meat’ provided by hunters. Thus, zoonotic diseases like ebola began to rise. Reduction of wheat exports from Russia to the Middle East in 2011 due to a heat wave and subsequent rising food prices combined with rising fertilizer prices led to food riots which were one trigger to the Arab Spring. They see these events as climate triggered disruptions although in the fishing case one might see it as policy triggered.
Resource depletion is next explored in a chapter titled “Peak Everything.” There are many natural materials in high demand with future supplies uncertain so this is an important issue. They mention the metal indium, used in flat-screen TVs, laptops, and tablets. Metals availability is a big issue as technological advances may add more demand for metals as they have. However, other advances may reduce the need for such metals and more sources could be found. Product prices can change significantly based on supply and availability of components and metals. Computer chips, TVs, cell phones, and other digital gadgets may take up to 50 different metals to produce. The supply of some metals like indium, silver, and antimony is thought to be very low. There are also geopolitical effects – control of tantalum mines in the Congo was a feature of a recent war there. Since China controls production of 93% of rare earth metals, they could manipulate the price if sufficiently provoked, although there are other more expensive sources that could be developed. The development of the ‘circular economy,’ ‘cradle-to cradle’ strategies, and other recycling strategies for rare materials is an important factor.
They also mention ‘peak oil’ which was once oddly a controversial idea but is now more mainstream. However, the idea is based not only on the finite nature of the resource but a lack of appreciation for the changing nature of technology and economics. This has played out with new methods of producing oil and gas such as fracking and tar sands. While tar sands may well be more “dirty” than conventional oil, oil from fracking, it can be argued, is not. The authors wrongly note that fracked wells deplete very quickly compared to most conventional production. That is only partly true and their notion that as analysts have predicted, fracked resources will be depleted by the end of the decade is patently absurd. A few glances at resource maps, company acreage, well activity, and predicted demand will show otherwise by a huge factor. They are grossly misinformed in their estimates.
Peak phosphorous is another issue. Predictions are that we may have passed peak phosphorus and in 50-100 years we will be facing a shortage as reserves are depleted. Phosphate rock is the source. Recycling phosphorous is difficult and expensive currently. Overuse of phosphorus, or inefficient use perhaps, is a source of deadly algae blooms due to phosphorous loading. The washed away phosphorous ends up at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and the sea in sediments. Like oil, phosphorous is a dwindling resource and a pollutant. Some ways to conserve phosphorous include proper application of fertilizers to minimize waste due to runoff – applying at the right place, time, and amounts, reduction in meat consumption, preventing erosion of phosphorous-rich soil, and utilizing human waste/sewage since it is rich in phosphorous.
Matias Klum talks about Borneo, a place he has visited for 20 years. It is a place where rainforests are giving way to massive palm oil plantations and suffering from forest fragmentation, illegal logging, and illegal burning. He suggests that perhaps as much as 75% of the rainforest is now gone.
Quantifying ecosystem services or benefits is no easy matter but they are quite vast. This is also a type of ‘natural capital.’ Coral reefs, mangrove forests, tropical rainforests, and inland wetlands are probably the most valuable systems in terms of the benefits they provide and the cost it would take to restore them. They note one estimate of their global annual value (all ecosystem services) of about $125 trillion, about 1.5 times global annual GDP. They note the collapse of cod fishing in Canada’s Atlantic due to overfishing by ‘factory fishing.’ They also note that costly extreme weather events likely have been increased by global warming. They note that such events cost about $150 billion a year. However, how much of that is contributed by global warming is debatable. They note that in terms of ecosystem benefits the Earth is subsidizing the world economy. Quantifying loss of ecosystem services is also difficult but Robert Costanza and colleagues calculated $20 trillion in losses per year between 2007 and 2011. (27% of the global economy). They note new orgs trying to document and quantify such figures: The Natural Capital Project, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). They note a critical element to resilience: ‘response diversity.’ This refers to a species’ response to changes such as drought, temperature, or disease. Each species will respond differently.
Other ecosystem services they mention include top predators, or keystone species, like wolves, that keep populations of their prey down so that those animals such as elk and deer don’t over-populate and devastate local food and plant resources. That has apparently been the case in Yellowstone National Park as the wolves have reduced the elk population and the forest rather quickly regenerated from the years of overgrazing.
Next they mention corporate social responsibility (CSR), saying that CSR is dead and rather the new model requires sustainability to be built-in rather than added on. Their argument is that sustainability is good business. Indeed, the Scandinavians have pioneered such thinking. They favor a new narrative from one of “environmental protection” to one of “environmental stewardship” in the realization that we are really protecting ourselves as well as our business interests by protecting the environment. They are confident in a sustainable future. They think that 60% of the urban areas needed by 2030 have yet to be built so that sustainable features can be incorporated into new construction and new systems.
Growth and innovation are next explored. The notion of growth “within a safe operating space on earth” is advocated. Taking the name of the famous 1970’s book by the Club of Rome – Limits to Growth (which proved incorrect on several accounts) they changed to a focus on ‘growth within limits.’ Economic growth is necessary for people struggling with poverties including food poverty, resource poverty, and energy poverty. They ask the question whether we can accommodate all people without destroying global and local ecosystems. Innovation and new technologies will be required if we can. They suggest we are already operating about 25% beyond the basic bio-capacity of earth systems. They are optimistic, noting things like Moore’s Law (that computer processing power generally doubles every two years). They are optimistic about biotechnology, nanotechnology, communications, and new materials (such as graphene). Their five key global transformations potential are: energy, food, business, cities, and transportation. They note the recent German experiment of ‘going to scale’ with renewable energy. Increasing crop yields through technology will be required to feed a growing global population. They think the development of resilient food production systems where yields are increased and waste is reduced are possible, especially in Africa where yields are currently low and need is great. They call it ‘sustainable intensification.’ They see second-generation GMO technology (controlled by public orgs rather corporate interests in line with their Scandinavian social democratic inclinations) as an important factor. Their business model approach is a move toward ‘circular economies’ where waste is reduced and recycling is highly developed. Reverse production, meaning building things that are easier to take apart so that parts can be recycled, will be more important in the future. Incentives to return such products to recycling facilities will help. Re-designing new cities to be sustainable while retrofitting old ones will be important. Cities already provide many opportunities for efficiency and those could be expanded further. Sustainable transportation development includes increasing bicycle use and public transportation, particularly in urban areas and reducing urban car traffic. They do, however, note the rebound effects of technologies that were once thought to permanently increase efficiency – in many cases efficiency was eventually reduced overall as more resources were used due to lower costs which were partially due to the original efficiency innovations.
They do, however, advocate for strong environmental regulations, and think that this will also unleash innovation. Their proposals include: regulation that seeks to keep economic activities within planetary boundaries, a global price on carbon, global agreements on budgeting resources and activities that threaten planetary boundaries, promoting so-called ‘bottom-up’ approaches with citizen movements collaborating with top-down governmental approaches (there are problems with this one in my view as they prefer more democratic socialist approaches), utilizing metrics other than GDP to measure growth, and massive technology sharing to promote sustainable solutions. There is one metric called Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP) that they like, to work in tandem with GDP. A clear and predictable regulatory environment does make planning and profitability potential more predictable.
The authors are in favor of some sort of planetary governance pertaining to environmental matters. Perhaps the recent Paris climate agreement is one example where pledges were made, although they are non-binding. One feature of the Anthropocene they note is the crossing of planetary boundaries and the consequent compromising of the earth’s buffering systems. They call for “globally agreed-upon sustainability boundaries and targets.” This will support local and regional efforts but will require some sort of governance structure, they say. They like the UN structure and favor the UN Environment Program (UNEP) becoming an agency with global regulatory mandates much like the WHO or WTO.
They advocate more measurement of earth systems and processes. Here I agree wholeheartedly. Generally, the more data we can gather the more we can know. Scientists worldwide have established a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) to better monitor these systems and integrate data from different sources. Noted are areas where we have knowledge gaps and uncertainties: the oceanic conveyor belt system of ocean circulation, oceanic-atmospheric energy exchanges, global biodiversity loss, melting of Antarctic, Arctic, and Greenland ice sheets, cloud dynamics, rainfall distribution, shifting weather patterns, and climate implications of air pollution – to name a few. Tracking biodiversity loss is important because it plays a big role in ecosystem resilience. Along with measuring comes collating results and communicating them along with their implications to society at large. They favor education about planetary boundaries but will such education also convey the uncertainties or will it merely become a platform for an environmentalist agenda? They note that environmental risks need to be properly understood. However, the degree of risk, or risk assessment is the basis of most disagreements about environmental impact – so that is easier said than done. But the science should be pursued as much as possible. They favor phasing out quarterly financial reports of corporations so that long-term growth and profitability is favored over short-term. However, many businesses and investors would disagree. They advocate an end to the idea of the ‘global commons’ since what we do on a global scale effects conditions on regional and local scales. Everything is connected.
The authors state that they are confident in a sustainable future. They note that Sweden is still economically healthy with the largest carbon tax in the world but their population is low and general close together and their economic health was previously established. Their neighbor petro-states help too and they have a fair amount of biomass energy from waste-to-energy projects, waste wood from the forestry industry, and some nuclear I think. The wood and waste pollute air far more than burning natural gas. They have had problems in the past with deforestation and the Baltic areas have been affected by acid rain and dead zones in the sea due to nutrient overload. They are right though that the Scandinavians (and the Germans and other European countries) have developed a sustainable outlook and this has probably helped more than hurt their economic health.
They point to studies that suggest fossil fuels can be phased by 2050. Without significant further technological advancements in renewable energy I am quite skeptical. They mention fossil fuel subsidies but these are often tax deferments and double taxation (since fossil fuels are way more profitable than renewables they are extensively taxed) as well as being vastly overstated. Phasing them out would simply raise the price of fossil fuels which would also help renewables but hurt consumers. Renewables are everywhere well subsidized, will continue to be, and should be. As well as being subsidized they are scarcely taxed compared to fossil fuels. What I am saying here is that loss of fossil fuel companies and production means loss of tax revenue, revenue which renewable energy is not in any position to replace. The bottom line is there is no way to demonstrate that fast fossil fuel penalization through carbon taxes and phase-out would not devastate energy consumers. Germany is hyper-subsidized by the current economically healthy government. They have made important strides but they still have energy problems. Also they have failed to reduce their carbon emissions overall and their air quality can’t be getting better by burning wood, lignite coal, and waste for energy. They also mention mass conversion to sustainable agriculture. That too is also easier said than done. Certainly big improvements can be made: smart fertilizer application, more efficient and less water-intensive irrigation, more use of no-till methods, agro-ecology techniques, better recycling of waste and nutrients, better applications of biotech, reduced food waste, and better soil building and conservation techniques. Nutrients, water, and soil need to be better managed and this will also improve yields. Regenerative agriculture is another technique where small trials have demonstrated that (at least temporarily) plots can be carbon sinks – currently crop lands are mostly carbon sources.
They mention the possibilities of green chemistry, bio-refineries, and bio-plastics to replace oil refineries. However, this would require more farming to do on a mass scale even if cultivating weeds. This means more farmland and less forests which means a reduction in carbon sinks. It is also currently far more expensive than refining oil or ethane to make plastics. The authors are excited about all the possibilities of biomimicry, or utilizing nature for innovation, another way of ‘discovering’ natural capital. But like wind and solar power, these technologies are not currently scalable. They also mention “insect-based waste management and health treatment” in the form of maggots which efficiently process waste, can then be used as high protein animal feed, and have applicability for wound healing. The garment industry is experimenting with using recycled fibers and even PET plastics for recycled clothing. (fleece has long been made from recycled plastic).
They mention the environmental issues with the Baltic Sea, possibly the world’s most ‘sick’ and polluted inland sea. Major problems include nutrient overload and overgrowth of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) due to their predator zooplankton being overly eaten by herring and sprat which increased in numbers as their predator cod disappeared. Decades of urban and industrial waste contributed to the problem. The water is murky and oxygen-poor. Melting glaciers to the north have added to the problem by making the brackish Baltic waters less brackish and warmer. About 1/6 of the Baltic is a dead zone. Sweden, Russia, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Denmark, and Finland all contribute to the runoff and things are finally being done about it – St. Petersburg Russia, the largest single pollution source, “opened its first modern wastewater treatment plant in late 2013.” That surprised me that they are so far behind.
They mention the great potential of cities and note Singapore as a city that has built-in resilience and recreational opportunities in a compact and densely populated place. They also mention the Brazilian drought which has made water dangerously scarce in Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million. This may well be influenced by climate change and perhaps particularly to Amazonian deforestation.
Agroforestry systems with nitrogen fixing trees have helped the African country of Niger to improve yields and secure food, increased biodiversity, increased resilience to drought and flood, increased the profits of farmers, and improved soil fertility. The use of biogas (from anaerobic digesters) in rural India has also reduced the burning of wood and dung for cooking and heat. This also preserves local forests, increases biodiversity, and improves the health of the cooks – mostly women and children. Part of this was developed with help from the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton with their clean stoves initiative. They think more regulation will stimulate further development in these nature-based solutions. I am sure it would but there are limitations to mass adoption for say biogas since there is only so much to go around. Biogas, or bio-methane also stinks and leaks with a high global warming potential. More of it leaks overall without digesting the biomass (manure, food waste, and other organic waste) but it carbonizes the atmosphere faster than if nature decomposed it.
They argue that the establishment of clear agreed-upon planetary boundaries and clear regulations taking into account the true costs of carbon, and the value of natural capital and ecosystem services – would spur sustainable development that is economical. The eventual goal is what they call the triple zero formula: zero emissions, zero loss of biodiversity, and zero expansion of agricultural land. Overall this is a good and useful book but it is idealistic.