The Great Acceleration

By Emma Leach

Credit: Dikaseva| Unsplash

‘The Great Acceleration’ is a period of time within the history of our planet hallmarked by the rate at which human activity is having an effect on the planet. It particularly relates to the period of time between the end of the Second World War and the present day.

In that time, there have been huge accelerations in population size, GDP growth, water usage, fuel usage, developments in technology, ecosystem degradation, tropical forest loss, and numerous other rapid changes. Essentially, it describes a period in history whereby the success of humankind has been detrimental to the health of the natural resources on which humankind depends.

The true extent to which we are harming our planet, has never been more fully understood. Progress towards sustainable change has not always been fast or easy. 2018 has been a busy year for discussing the state of the Earth, full of both small victories and dire warnings.

Plummeting biodiversity

The Living Planet report published recently by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) provides a damning picture on the impact that humans have had on the other species that also call Earth home. One of many of the shocking statistics presented by the report is that of a 60% decline in vertebrate wildlife populations in the last 40 years.

A 60% decline in 40 years is a shocking amount, but this figure masks even more worrying statistics. In that same time frame, South and Central America experienced an 89% loss in species population. The Freshwater Living Planet Index showed an 83% decline since 1970.

So, why do we need biodiversity? Biodiversity is a fantastic indicator of the underlying ecosystem health, and we truly rely on healthy ecosystems and thriving biodiversity in all aspects of our lives. Nature provides everything from our food and building materials, to the regulation of our weather systems and our air quality. It provides our energy and the active ingredients for our pharmaceuticals.

Nature props up all of our economies, and in terms of services, conservative estimates have valued services provided at $125 trillion every single year, a value that increases year on year with increasing demand and climatic pressures.

On top of that, nature provides beauty, inspiration, places for recreation, and time in nature has been proven to be enormously beneficial to our mental health. There have been discussions surrounding the possibility of prescribing walks in the forest as a form of treatment in the future. It is already a practice in Japan, called shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’.

Credit: WWF

The greatest threats highlighted in the WWF report are that of agriculture and overexploitation. Despite biocapacity increasing by 27% in the past 50 years due to changes in land management practices and available technology, the ecological footprint of humanity has increased by 190% over the same time period.

This includes grazing land, forest land, cropland and fishing grounds. Intensive agriculture is also causing soil degradation, driven by anthropogenic stressors. Land degradation has huge economic costs attached and is estimated to reduce the welfare of 3 billion people due to 75% of terrestrial ecosystems being affected. It is in our best interests to find a better way forward.

Agriculture drives deforestation, accounting for around 73% of forest conversion. This value is only likely to get larger as the demand for food grows in the future, and it is estimated that up to 70% of the remaining forests are at risk.

Overexploitation is also hugely obvious when faced with both freshwater ecosystems and the open oceans. The Freshwater Living Planet Index showed an 83% decline since 1970, reflecting a decrease in both aquatic and terrestrial species which rely on these fragile ecosystems. Overfishing has caused huge population crashes around the world repeatedly since the 1970s.

While many areas are not managed more effectively, there are still species that are at severe risk of overexploitation and population crashes. A meeting in Croatia in November of 2018 was held to put pressure on the EU to bring an end to a €12 million annual trade in illegal bluefin tuna which is pushing populations to the brink.

It is clear from this report that much more needs to be done to protect the world’s ecosystems, both for the benefit of humans and other species which are dependent on them. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has suggested that 50% of the planet needs protected status to halt the current level of biodiversity loss, which is comparable to the rates seen during historical mass extinctions. At the moment that figure stands at 15% of terrestrial land, and 7% of the oceans. Philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss recently committed in a letter to the New York Times, to donate $1 billion over the next decade to protect more.

Climate change

The report from the WWF comes just weeks after a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning about the global impacts if global warming exceeds 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

The current target set by the Paris climate agreement is for no more than a 2oC rise above pre-industrial temperatures, at the moment we are not on target to reach that goal. The report from the IPCC highlights that 1.5oC would be a better target if we really want to see less dramatic climate events, keep our coral reefs and sustain Arctic sea ice. It is a warning that urgent slashes need to be made to carbon dioxide emissions within the next decade, and that carbon capture may also be needed in the future.

Credit: IGBP

The greatest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions is the energy industry. A report published in 2017 by The Carbon Majors Database found that just 100 fossil fuel companies contribute 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If there was ever an argument for urgent investment into the sustainable energy industry, this report should be it. Thankfully, Governments are starting to listen, with big emitters like China taking steps to invest in renewables.

The human population problem

The current global population is 7.6 billion people. At the turn of the millennium it was 6.1 billion people. In the 1950s it was 2.6 billion people. In the time since Queen Elizabeth II was born, it has increased by 380%. These are baffling numbers when you realise it took until the year 1804 to reach the first billion people, and the rest has ballooned in the years since the industrial revolution.

The problem with a booming population, is the pressure this puts on natural resources. Every member of this population requires food, clean water, materials for shelter, and resources with which to produce energy, to name just the basics. Coupling this with rapid economic growth and higher standards of living, results in a global population that increasingly asks for more from natural resources.

Earth overshoot day marks the day in the calendar year when the demand on natural resources exceeds that of the Earth’s capacity to renew those required natural resources. This day creeps ever earlier each year, in 1987 it fell on December the 19th, in 2018 it fell on August the 1st.

There has been recent evidence that this population acceleration is slowing. A report published in the Lancet in November revealed that the overall total fertility rate has dropped by 49.4% between 1950 and 2017. There are now 2.4 livebirths per woman, compared to 4.7 livebirths per woman in 1950. The change has been attributed to fewer childhood deaths, greater access to contraception and a greater number of women in work and education.

In the UK there were 1.7 livebirths per woman in 2017, which is near the average shared by other Western European countries. There are of course great variations between countries, with more economically developed countries tending to have lower fertility rates than those in less economically developed countries. Those with fertility rates lower than replacement levels will eventually see population declines, and shifts in population demographics, a pattern already experienced in Japan. Some countries such as Singapore, Russia and Israel have already adopted pro-natalist policies in order to increase their birth rate and ease the pressures that come with an ageing population.

What action can be taken?

It is easy to feel disheartened when presented with what can feel like impossibly big picture issues. And they certainly are big picture issues, arguably the greatest challenge humankind could ever face. But there are actions that individuals can take to produce change.

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room, is that of global overpopulation. Researchers from Lund university estimated that having one fewer children saves on average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 emission each year. This is substantially higher than other more widely discussed actions such as going car-free (2.4 tonnes per year) or adopting a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes per year).

While there is evidence that people are beginning to have less children, we still live in a society which celebrates, and largely expects parenthood. Questions and incredulity often follow those who choose to remain child-free. Young women who wish to be sterilised often face hurdles to have their choice taken seriously. Maybe more rhetoric on the benefits of having fewer children will reduce the pressure on couples to have children.

Food and dietary choice is an area that has certainly received much more discourse, with a surge of people turning to vegetarian and vegan diets in the last 10 years, in an effort to become more sustainable. Agriculture produces 15% of all global greenhouse emissions, and the meat industry is by far the largest contributor, particularly beef production. It has even been suggested by studies that eliminating beef from your diet can be more environmentally beneficial than giving up driving.

There are of course controversies surrounding vegetarian and vegan diets, with critics concerned that they don’t always supply the correct nutrition for all people. With so many mouths to feed there are also consequences of some of these more sustainable food choices.

The growing demand for quinoa has driven immense price rises in what had been the local staple in Bolivia. Poorer people can no longer afford to eat quinoa, leading to an increased consumption in chicken and imported junk food within the country, as they have become cheaper alternatives. It is an example of how complicated food security and sustainability can be. On the whole, eating less meat and dairy, and attempting to eat locally sourced produce where possible, is widely agreed to be the more sustainable choice to make.

Consumer choices and voices are a driver for change. This has been demonstrated recently by a push in the banning of single use plastics such as straws. Sometimes called the ‘Blue Planet effect’, named after the BBC documentary which spurred large scale outrage at the state of our oceans.

Industry will follow consumer demand, at time of writing a banned Christmas advert from the supermarket Iceland is going viral on social media. It depicts the destruction of rainforests in South-East Asia for the production of palm oil, revealing that Iceland is banning palm oil from all of their own brand products.

The use of palm oil is a highly complicated issue, that can never be perfectly portrayed in a TV advertisement. But it does show that the general public is hungry for sustainable change, and that companies are willing to demonstrate commitment to that.

Pressure also needs to be put on Governments and policy makers. These are the people who can protect ecosystems, invest money in green technologies, build green energy facilities and pass legislation that grants nature vital protections. Sustainability and environmental protections often take a back seat behind policies that seemingly more directly influence the economy and our welfare. But considering the value that nature brings, it is time to encourage our politicians to bring it to the fore. We are possibly the last generation that has the time to make meaningful change. It is time to speak up.