photo: Marek Piwnicki
The dangerous challenges that we face today were built up exponentially in the past 75+ years after World War II. Since then, the global population has more than tripled to nearly 8 billion people, economic output has expanded 12-fold. The world population is projected to add another 2 billion inhabitants by 2050. Globally, resource use could double by 2060, with water demand increasing 55 % by 2050 and energy demand growing 30 % by 2040.
Economic development has been beneficial for many people: the share of the global population living in extreme poverty has decreased substantially to less than 10 % in the last two decades.
Therefore, it seems rather strange to state that an economic system that has created so much wealth in our western societies and recently lifted so many people out of poverty in other parts of the world must be called ‘a success that failed’.
It is a self-designed system that is drenched in stupidity.
It is destructive to human health, the human spirit
and the ecosystem that supports our life.
It took many 1.000s of years for the world population to grow to 1 billion – then after just some 100+ years it grew with another billion.
The next billion took a mere 30 years, and the next just 20 years and the next only 10…..
In 2020 it stands at about 7.8 billion people living on planet earth, and it’s expected to grow to approx. 9.7 billion in 2050.
These trends have far-reaching implications. They affect the necessary government policies for economic development and employment, income distribution, and universal access to better housing, food, water, sanitation, energy, health care and education.
These statistics on the left were published in The Economist in 2014. Their source was bank Credit Suisse. They illustrate a shocking fact: 0.7% of the adult world population owns 44% of the wealth in the world and 7.9% owns 41+%. This means that less than 10% owns 85+% of all the wealth.
To put it another way: 70% of the adult world population owns 3%. Today  these figures do not differ very much; if they do, they are even worse. In the past 40 – 50 years inequality has increased between countries. But also within societies. Which has led to many forms of social problems and growing social unrest.
Yes, an oil spill at sea qualifies as “pollution”, and some also see CO2 emissions with sea levels rise as a consequence of pollution too.
I deal with that under “climate change”. Here I will restrict myself to issues like chemicals, air pollution, land & soil pollution, freshwater pollution, plastics, and waste in general.
We consume the world´s resources much faster than they can be replenished, if at all. The most prominent ones are forests, arable land, freshwater, fish stocks, and essential raw materials for the high-tech industry: metals such as dysprosium and neodymium, which are badly needed for the energy transition and the construction of electric cars. Wind turbines also contain rare earth metals.
Many metals such as iron and gold are recyclable. Other minerals, such as phosphorous, are dispersed in soils and water flows, thus being washed away and lost.
photo: rare earth mine, China.
Climate change includes both global warming as well as the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. The largest driver of warming is the emission of greenhouse gases [CO2 and methane]. The human cause of climate change is not disputed by science anymore. It is the most profound of our environmental problems to solve. So much has been published and discussed about climate change already, that I chose to limit myself to three phenomena that received less attention up till now: permafrost, the Atlantic Gulf stream, and agriculture.
Biodiversity is the backbone of the earth´s intricate ecosystem and provides many services. In the first place for the system itself: resilience. Our planet is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, mainly due to land-use changes, climate change, pollution, and large-scale resource extraction. Biodiversity loss is not confined to rare species; also for instance common – but essential – pollinators are disappearing, threatening food systems´ productivity.
photo: Subhadib Kanjilal
In 2008 the neo-liberal international financial sector collapsed. And was subsequently saved with public money [citizens´, taxpayers´ money]. The highly interconnected system appeared to be dangerously fragile. Today, the vulnerability of the industry is at the center of worldwide attention especially among investors and governments because of the consequences of climate change [leading to stranded or damaged assets] and even biodiversity loss. But the focus is not on the instability of the system itself, which has been modified only marginally, not fundamentally, since 2008. That’s dangerous myopia.
I think that the systemic risks in the financial sector, as they still exist today, are more dangerous in the short and midterm [<10 years] than climate change.
Allow me to refer you to the European Environment State and Outlook Report of 2020. It is the most comprehensive edition that the European Environmental Agency has published in its history.
I chose to do so because Europe is the continent where I was born and where I now live. But especially because Europe is one of the most important causes of the immense problems we face today, it realizes this, has an ambitious vision of how these problems could be solved, and use policy measures to do so.
The report states clearly and bluntly: “Europe will not achieve its 2030 goals without urgent action during the next 10 years to address the alarming rate of biodiversity loss, increasing impacts of climate change, and the overconsumption of natural resources. Europe faces environmental challenges of unprecedented scale and urgency.”