Earth is the only planet we know where we can live
By Roberto Sciffo
The blue planet, planet Earth, is unique to our solar system and, given our current state of technological advancement, it is the only planet we know of where we can live.
The “big picture effect” is often expressed by those who have been in space, which is described as an awe-inspiring and transcendent experience that stays with the astronaut for many months, if not his entire life (for that I was studying engineering, one of my professors had the opportunity to go to space and came back a changed man). This experience of seeing the blue planet from space had profoundly transformed them. Their views on borders, politics, land ownership and locality have been challenged by the realization that the planet really exists as a closed biosphere bounded by the upper atmosphere, geology, ocean depths and a thin layer. of rock and soil that supports most of life. on the planet.
The evolution of this biosphere is about 3.5 billion years old, and over the past 800 million years we have experienced eight ice ages and five mass extinction events, however, in the past 11,700. about years, the climate has stabilized at a rare level. and comfortable interglacial period scientifically known as the Holocene epoch (from the Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or whole) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent”. a decade, at +/- 1C over a period 11,000 years old, which means stable sea level and predictable weather conditions.
As the glaciers retreated to two permanent ice caps (which are essential for regulating global temperature), this opened up larger landscapes for human evolution, which, combined with the relatively higher atmospheric concentration of carbon, allowed all species to thrive, and changed our habits from hunter-gatherers to permanent settlers, who developed agriculture, domesticated animals, and led to the rise of civilizations (Greeks, Romans, Mayans, etc.).
This has evolved into a never-before-seen human population growth on the planet, which has changed the functionality of the planet, especially over the past 300 years. It took 2 million years for the world’s human population to reach 1 billion, and since then only 200 years to reach 7.8 billion.
Somewhere along this line we also moved from the Holocene era to the Anthropocene era (some argue it was around the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, others believe it was around the Second World War as mining and the use of chemicals began). Today, most scientists agree that human activity is now the engine of Earth’s systems and cycles; for example, 75% of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly altered by human actions, 50% of the world’s habitable land is used for cattle ranching, more than 50% of the oceans are actively fished, more material coming from the lithosphere (earth’s material) is displaced more than ever (far beyond the earth’s natural geological cycle), and about 50 years ago we pushed the average global temperature by 1C outside the average ” normal ”since the dawn of civilization.
But can we identify the systems that control the planet? Can we identify a quantitative point from which we risk triggering unpredictable changes? Are there tipping points that would engage the planet in a new state of irreversible change?
The Stockholm Resilience Center (a joint initiative of Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) has been working with scientists around the world for decades to answer these same questions .
To date, they have established that there are nine planetary boundaries that we need to be aware of and control in order for humanity to continue living in harmony with the planet. These limits are neither concrete nor exclusive (they all influence each other), but carry a range of uncertainties from a low risk of uncertainty to a high risk of uncertainty.
Source: J. Lokrantz / Azote after Steffen et al. 2015.
A summary of these limits:
Climate change: At the start of the Holocene, the atmospheric CO2 concentration was +260 ppm. The low risk was set at 350 ppm, a value that was measured during the period when the global temperature fluctuation was stable, with an uncertainty range between 400 ppm (low risk) and 450 ppm (high risk; with the effect of an overall temperature increase of 1.5 ° C). ). Today we are currently at around 415 ppm, reflecting a 1.1 ° C increase in average global temperature. Beyond 450 ppm, we risk pushing tipping points that would lead to irreversible changes without the possibility of a return to “normal”.
Change in land tenure (biomes): Modern agriculture is the main driver of land use change. It currently uses about 50% of the planet’s habitable land. For example, in Brazil alone, we have already lost about 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest (7 million km2), a loss about 750 times the total area of the island of Cyprus.
Integrity of the biosphere: this focuses on two aspects; the role of genetically unique material; and the role of the biosphere in the functioning of the earth system. The world has seen an average decline of 68% in populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians since 1970; it is already the sign of a 6e mass extinction event.
Use of fresh water: although still not critical in use, distribution and access are imbalanced, and with a rapidly growing population, this can quickly change. 25% of all rivers no longer reach the ocean, which is another unsustainable impact.
Biogeochemical flows: currently the main influencers are Nitrogen (from industry and agriculture) and Phosphorus (almost entirely from fertilizers); other elements must be added.
Ocean acidification: Atmospheric CO2 increased hydrogen ions in the sea by 30%, ultimately reducing the ability of many marine species to form calcium carbonate, the building blocks of the skeletons and shells of many marine organisms.
Stratospheric ozone depletion: stable for about 15 years and is expected to improve due to the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances; an example where humanity has taken effective steps to bring the process back within the border.
Aerosol charge in the atmosphereParticulate air pollution is responsible for about 7 million deaths per year, and diffuses light, cooling the planet, which has a masking effect, reducing the actual state of global warming by about 40 percent. The border has still not been quantified.
New entities: nuclear waste, microplastics, heavy metals, etc… still not quantified and the impact is still unknown.
A recent documentary titled “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet” (reported by Sir David Attenborough) presents these boundaries in a wonderful way.
According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we only have about a decade to go from “business as usual” and change things towards a “sustainable economy”. If we don’t, we will face drastic changes, such as potentially, by 2035, the inability to grow food during the summer in Europe, Asia and North America, for example.
All this science leads us to ask the question; is it possible for us to live on the planet, expanding to 9-10 billion people, and still live within these limits?
In fact, we should rephrase this… in order for us to live on a lovely planet to live on, we MUST find a way to live within these limits and in harmony with nature. It is not a matter.
To some it may seem uncomfortable, but it is actually an exciting time. What will be the next industrial revolution, and will it be based on principle rather than profit? What could education look like? What should business schools teach and what will be the new forms of work? How can governments change their funding / grant priorities and laws? In my next post, we’ll define what sustainability is and how we can work with it to ensure that we are moving towards a more positive impact on our blue planet.
Roberto Sciffo is the CTO of ISA Energy, an innovative project development company focused on sustainability and cross-sector decarbonization. Roberto has varied experience in engineering and biological medicine, environmental systems, integrated economies and systems thinking.