Climate Change and Other Global Environmental Impacts The Sustainability Challenge

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In addition to the emission of greenhouse gases, there are a number of other anthropogenic activities that can yield unacceptable long term global impacts. They include deforestation, ecosystem deterioration, resource depletion, and ocean contamination. Individually and certainly collectively, such impacts may be inconsistent with the long-term viability of humanity. In other words, they may be incompatible with long-term sustainability. Long-term environmental sustainability can be defined as the ability of humanity to indefinitely live compatibly with the Earth. Sustainable development refers to a systematic approach to achieving human development in a way that sustains planetary resources, based on the recognition

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Challenges to Long Term Sustainability

Fig. 1.1 Global Climate Change: A key challenge to long-term sustainability

that human consumption is currently occurring at a rate that is beyond Earth's capacity to support it. Population growth and the developmental pressures spawned by an increasing demand for resource intensive goods, foods and services are altering the planet in ways that threaten the long-term well being of humans and other species.

Figure 1.1 illustrates the role that climate change plays in challenging long-term sustainability. It also indicates the factors that are responsible for potentially unsustainable global impacts, including climate change. Such impacts have the potential to modify the home planet so that it is inhospitable to the needs of the growing population, expected to pass ten billion later this century [1].

The following discusses the implications of the figure from left to right. The root cause of potential deleterious impacts is the technological challenge of meeting human "needs," which are growing dramatically, especially in developing nations. Over time, the developed nations have expanded their list of "needs" to include: personal transportation, large residences with energy intensive heating, cooling and lighting requirements, a diet heavily oriented toward meat production and a growing array of consumer goods. Developing countries such as China and India, with large populations, are moving in the same direction. Although it is difficult to quantify the growth rate of such per capita "needs," It is reasonable to roughly relate it to per capita annual economic growth, which has been over 3% in recent years. The problem is further magnified by the fact that the global population is growing at roughly 1% per year. At these growth rates, the overall demand for such needs will double every 20 years.

The middle of the figure indicates that these human needs are met by means of a large array of industrial, agricultural, and energy technologies and practices. Although there are a multitude of inputs and outputs associated with humankind's "Technologies and Practices," the major threats to long term sustainability for an advanced level of civilization are shown on the figure: fossil fuel, mineral and water depletion and the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Although air, water, and waste contamination are serious deleterious products of our current consumer oriented infrastructure, there appears to be a reasonable chance that we can modify our industrial infrastructure to maintain a tolerable impact of these contaminants over the long term. The U.S., EU, and Japan have been able keep such impacts at close to tolerable levels despite population (in the U.S.) and industrial growth in recent decades. That is why these impacts are shown in a dashed line format.

On the right hand side of the figure is a listing of key impacts to the Earth associated with the technology and practices currently used to meet human needs. As indicated by the red return arrows, climate change has the potential to exacerbate global impacts associated with non-energy related technologies and practices. Ocean and forest degradation are examples of such amplification. Climate change can also yield unique impacts, e.g., infrastructure damage, due to seawater rise and storm damage. As indicated by the return flow at the bottom of the graphic, in a business as usual scenario, these impacts will challenge the ability of humanity to meet its needs over the long term, challenging long-term sustainability.

So what are the potential remedies? The figure suggests the following mitigative possibilities. First, humanity could downscale its "needs" to reduce the demand on technology with its associated environmental impacts. Examples would include a transition to smaller houses, more mass transit and fewer cars, and a modification of our resource intensive diets. To the extent we scale back our needs; we cut back on resource depletion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and also reduce the impact associated with other environmental impacts, such as air and water pollution and ocean and forest degradation. Second, humanity could consider a move toward population stabilization. Third, we could fundamentally change the technology we use to meet our needs. This can be achieved by a major transition to: low carbon energy production, more efficient end use technologies, pollution prevention (green chemistry), and renewables and reuse/recycling. The net effect is to dramatically minimize environmental impact per unit of production.

A holistic view of long-term sustainability cannot ignore our ever-growing demands on fossil fuels, water, and other finite geological resources. To the extent we back off on "need" requirements or slow population growth, we slow depletion of these critical resources. To the extent we rely on technology to help achieve long term sustainability, we must account for the resource depletion characteristics of such technologies, if we are to have a chance of achieving long term sustainability.

The balance of this chapter will focus on the third option, applied more narrowly to energy production and use, with the aim of mitigating climate change and its potential to yield planetary impacts inconsistent with long-term sustainability.

The primary focus of this and subsequent chapters will be on the mitigation of CO2, since it is estimated to be responsible for about 80% of the radiative forcing responsible for global warming.

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