Are we living within nature’s limits? Or are we putting ourselves at profound risk of climate change, resource scarcity and a depleted world? Does the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer new opportunities or pose new threats? The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Environmental and Natural Resource Security has spent the last two years trying to answer these questions.
We have entered the era of the Anthropocene
Humanity is reshaping the natural world. Nowhere on Earth has escaped our influence, from the deepest ocean trench to the outer limits of the atmosphere. We have truly entered the era of the Anthropocene.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that population growth would result in famine and misery. The world’s population did indeed grow, but innovation in industry and agriculture transformed productivity, and saw Malthus’ argument disproved for more than 200 years.
When Malthus wrote his essay, there were less than one billion people in the world, and the economy was about one hundredth the size of today’s - equivalent to that of the modern-day Netherlands. Our current use of resources is now breathtaking in scale. The Global Footprint Network estimates we now consume resources that would require 1.7 planets to produce sustainably.
Every year, we produce enough steel to make a girder that could circle the earth nearly 100 times, and we pour enough concrete to make a car park the size of England. In our lifetimes, plastic production has increased twentyfold, of which only 10% has been recycled. Every year, we produce our own weight in plastic, and the world uses 500 billion plastic bottles - around one million every minute. There could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Another recent report estimated the mass of all mammals on Earth and concluded that by weight, 60% are livestock (mostly cattle and pigs), 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals. The world has 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs and 1 billion sheep, and we raise more than 50 billion chickens annually. Three quarters of agricultural land supports livestock, and nearly two fifths of grain is fed to animals rather than people.
Following exceptional increases in agricultural productivity during the 20th century, the rate of improvement has slowed, and is now just keeping up with the world’s rising population. But we need food production to rise 50% by 2050. We are destroying our soil and degrading an area the size of France’s farmland every 18 months.
We are mining mineral water supplies and squeezing every drop out of many of our river basins, largely to irrigate agricultural land. By 2030, we could be 40% short of our freshwater needs. Already, one quarter of the world’s 500 largest cities classify as water scarce.
The sixth great extinction is sadly well underway. As much as 70% of the world’s genetic biodiversity may already be extinct. Since 1989, there has been a 75% reduction in the quantity of flying insects, a 2017 study in Germany found. We have eliminated more than half the world’s original forest cover and degraded much of the rest.
Climate change is a risk multiplier
We emit the equivalent of nearly one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every week. We have raised the average temperature of the world by 1°C, and this is driving extreme weather, heatwaves, droughts, floods and forest fires. We have destabilized the climate system. The IPCC’s special report on global warming concluded that there are major benefits in keeping warming under 1.5°C, but that it would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in food and agriculture, energy, industry, mobility and cities. We have some carbon budget left, but we may still reach 1.5°C as early as 2030. Climate change is a risk multiplier - it makes other risks, such as famine and mass economic migration, more likely and greater in impact. Without a step change in our response, it poses an existential threat to our society.
Change happens slowly, then quickly
More than half the world’s population now has access to the internet, and there are more mobile devices in the world than people. The latest supercomputer can carry out 200 quadrillion calculations per second. We have entered the distribution phase of the internet - the age of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. And the tech-enabled Fourth Industrial Revolution is providing new opportunities to accelerate action to protect our environment.
Advanced materials and scale manufacturing are supporting radical improvements in the cost of wind power, solar and battery storage. In many countries, renewables now offer the cheapest form of energy without subsidy - cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear. Solar alone has dropped in price around 80% since 2010. The International Energy Agency estimates the world will install 70,000 solar panels every hour over the next five years - that’s three billion panels. Renewables will bring clean energy to many of the one billion people who lack access to electricity.
Energy efficiency is also making progress. There has been a mini-revolution in lighting. LEDs represented less than 1% of lighting sales at the beginning of this decade, but they will exceed 60% by its end. At the same time, prices will have dropped by 90% and the efficiency of LEDs will have increased three to fourfold. A smart affordable clean energy economy is achievable.
There are more than 50 electric vehicle (EV) models in production. The economics and performance of EVs will shortly outstrip combustion engines, and the market is likely to disrupt as car users decide “my next car will be electric”. Much of today’s car fleet sits idle for more than 90% of the time. When in use, it operates hugely under capacity, with lone drivers occupying vehicles designed for five people. Uber carries out more than 15 million rides every day, and the Chinese equivalent Didi Chuxing, a “one-stop mobility platform”, has 550 million users. Ride sharing companies such as BlaBlaCar and Scoop are enjoying tremendous growth. Similarly, bike sharing schemes, which had less than one million bikes in total in 2014, now have 18 million in 1500 cities.
Some of these rapid rollouts bring challenges, but data and analytics enable companies and cities to learn and adapt at pace. Self-driving vehicles will bring the next wave of change. The shift is underway from mobility that is disconnected, owned, self-driven and powered by combustion engines to one that is connected, shared, autonomous and electrified. Mobility as a service will advance in the next decade, and if executed well, will become affordable, fast, convenient and clean.
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Blockchain offers potential to support everything from tracking systems for fish to trading systems for water, carbon and renewable energy, to industrial efficiency platforms. Enhanced analytics and satellite data are already being deployed to improve efforts to protect forests, fisheries and wildlife. Ambitious projects are underway to map the Earth’s biogenome. Companies such as One Concern are utilizing machine learning and big data to transform responses to natural disasters.
Food and agriculture is changing fast. Urban farming companies are starting to produce warehouse-grown close-to-market salad vegetables and soft fruits, using high-efficiency LEDs, advanced control systems and hydroponics. Biotech companies such as Indigo Agriculture are inoculating grain seed with microbes that enhance water efficiency and boost yields. Ag-tech companies are supporting optimized agriculture with inputs targeted at sub-field level and real-time crop needs. Land restoration company Landlife is combining water-efficient planters with low-cost sensors to make every sapling that is planted a learning experience, enabling new approaches to land restoration and reforestation.
Veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism are all on the rise. And alternatives to meat and dairy protein are growing at twice the rate of the food sector. Science-driven food tech companies are offering new, improved alternatives to meat and dairy. Ripple Foods is making milk from pea protein; Perfect Day is brewing milk with yeast; and Impossible Burgers makes a burger that “bleeds” using plant-based heme. A healthier, more affordable, sustainable food and agriculture system is possible.
Of course, there are risks to be managed around new technologies, as around old ones. Connected systems need to be cybersecure. The extraction and management of rare earth minerals needs careful oversight, as do energy-hungry data centres and tracking technologies, lest the tools of the gamekeeper fall into the hands of the poacher. But these risks should be manageable, and the potential is enormous.
With accelerating change, the past is an ever-poorer predictor of the future
We need long-term investors to invest in the future, business leaders to future-proof their businesses, and entrepreneurs to provide the radical green technologies, products and services required. At government level, we have made progress with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, but more is needed, and leadership and action are distributed. We need policy-makers at national, sub-national and city level to support innovation and scale with fast-evolving policies and programmes to match emerging business models and technologies.
We can live within the limits of our planet, halt the sixth mass extinction, end global warming and meet the needs and aspirations of 10 billion people. Our choices and actions will decide.