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Environmental context

 

Signs of environmental degradation

 

All human activity has an impact on the environment. However during the last century, the nature and the magnitude of these impacts have evolved to the point that taking into account the environment in our activities is a necessity. Aided by a growing understanding of our environment, the consequences of inactions is creating serious and irreversible damages.
The characteristics of the environmental problems we face are unprecedented with those which man knew so far.

  • Scale: in a society which is increasingly globalized, the consequences are just as important. Now the impacts of pollution at a given location can have effects thousands of miles away.
  • Inertia: The equilibria of systems that can be changed have time scales that far exceed human time scales.
  • Invisibility: Number of pollutions and environmental problems have non visible implications, but not as much less measurable. This makes the awareness of the problem more difficult.
  • Severity of the consequences: The number of victims who may be affected by the consequences of environmental problems emphasizes the seriousness of current problems.
  • Irreversibility: Finally, more than serverity, it is also the irreversibility of the consequences that should also lead us to question ourselves. If degradation of an environment can sometimes be understood with respect to benefits provided to the community, the irreversible extinction of animals species or plants species represents an invaluable loss, whereas the same species could have been used to work out new materials, new chemicals.

 

Climate change

 

One of the most characteristic signs of environmental degradation is particularly embodied by the subject of climate change. Highlighted by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the scientific studies relate the increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere to the average temperatures measured across the planet.

Climate change reflets particular characteristics of modern environmental issues (severity of consequences, irreversibility, scale of impact, etc.).
The consequences of climate change are several and all mechanisms and interactions between the different systems studied are not yet known.

However most studies agreed on the anthropogenic origin of greenhouse gas emissions and the serious consequences that await us. The precautionary principle takes on its meaning in that “In case where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be an excuse for postponing the adoption of effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

 

The erosion of biodiversity

 

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) aims to assess the state of biodiversity and implement projects to protect biodiversity.
IUCN publishes regular reports on endangered species and class them into seven categories (from “least concern” to “extinct”). In its latest annual report of 2016, on 85 604 animal and plant species evaluated, 20 595 of them are on the red list of endangered species of IUCN.1.

The vegetal biodiversity, which represent more than 70 000 different species identified, is an essential element of global food security by providing greater resistance to various hazards (weather, diseases, etc..).

However, studies (Balmford et al. 2003; Jenkins et al. 2003). show an overall and rapid erosion of biodiversity.

 

The degradation of ecosystem services

 

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a study initiated in the 2000s by the General Secretary of the UN and brings together the work of over a thousand scientists around the world.

The aim of this study was to evaluate what we call the “ecological services”, that is to say all services provided by different ecosystems that are essential to life of humans on the planet and his well being (e.g. ecological service: timber production, food production, climate control, etc..). The objective is to prioritize actions to preserve the environment and allow its use by humans in a sustainable manner.

The results of this evaluation show that among the 24 ecosystem services that were studied, 15 of them are being degraded or used unsustainably2. Over the last 50 years, humans have changed surrounding ecosystems, more rapidly and more widely, than during any comparable period in human history.

In the end, the changes to ecosystems have contributed significantly to the improvement of human welfare and economic development. However, these improvements have been achieved at the expense of the degradation of many ecosystem services and exacerbation of poverty for some populations.

 

The depletion of natural resources

 

The issue of natural resources is an important issue because it is the basis of all production activities of goods and services. Natural resources we have are either: renewable (e.g. wind energy, fisheries ressources, etc..) or nonrenewable (e.g. gas, copper, etc.).

Resources are considered as not renewable as soon as they are present in a finite quantity on earth, the stock we have is limited, regardless the difficulty of access to this resource.

A resource is also considered non-renewable, as soon as the renewal term of this resource is much longer than the time scale of human society. This is particularly the case of energy resources: gas, coal, oil, which must be considered as non-renewable resources for which we have at present, a finite and limited stock.

The importance of our natural resource management is to avoid exceeding the capacity of renewal (or reconstruction) of renewable resources. As for non-renewable resources this also requires proper management.

For information purposes, oil currently accounts for 31% of our final energy consumption according to the International Energy Agency3. This proportion in our energy consumption shall make us aware of how many means we will have to find to replace this resource when it will no longer be available. The oil stocks currently have a proven amount of 240 billion tons, according to the “BP Statistical Review of World Energy”4 of June 2017 for a world consumption of 4.4 billion tons of oil in 2016.

With regard to mineral resources, many of which are necessary for advanced technologies such as electronics, the status of available reserves shows us a depletion of most of these resources by the end of the century, including:

  • Hafnium (Hf): 2018 (Year of possible depletion)
  • Silver (Ar): from 2012 to 2037
  • Antimony (Sb): 2022
  • Palladium (Pd): 2023
  • Gold (Au): 2025
  • Zinc (Zn): 2025
  • Indium (In): 2025
  • Lead (Pb): 2030
  • Tantalum (Ta): 2038
  • Copper (Cu): 2039
  • Uranium (U): between 2025 and 2060
  • Nickel (Ni): 2048
  • Platinum (Pt): 2064

(Source www.eco-info.org , data compiled USGS: United States Geological Survey)

After these dates, it is likely that these resources will be much more difficult to reach or even completely unavailable, without relying on the risks of instability and rising prices of raw materials. Therefore recycling of these resources is presented as a necessary solution for proper management of these resources.

1 Rapport annuel 2016 – Union Internationale pour la Conservation de la Nature (UICN)

2 MILLENNIUM ECOSYSTEM ASSESSMENT – Ecosystems

AND HUMAN WELL-BEING – Synthesis

3 Key World Energy Statistics 2016 – IEA

4 Statistical Review of World Energy, Juin 2017 – BP

 

Updated on July 31, 2017

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