Visit any major city and you will be greeted with people going about their daily lives and routines. They’ll be walking, running and using transport to take them to their destination, through a sea of other people trying to get to their destination themselves. Where are they going? Where have they come from? How many people are in this city right now? You can’t help but feel like a small fish in a large pond, only making small ripples in a vast network of movement and interconnectivity.
Now take a step back; you are an even smaller fish in an even smaller pond that is the country you are currently residing in. Take another step back. You are a minute fish in the pond that is Earth. While you sleep and while you are awake, everyone is doing everything: people are born, people consume and people die. There are over 7 billion people in the pond.
It took 12 years and 19 days to grow from 6 billion to 7 billion on the 31st October 2011. However, it only took 250,000 to get to our first billion. We have seen, and are seeing a phenomenal surge in population; by 2050 it is projected there will be over 9 billion of us.
While the Earth’s population grows our planet, unfortunately, does not. In every sense of the word, more consumers will consume and rely on the Earth’s resources. How much does the Earth have to give? It is no secret that human activity has been the culprit for many of our environmental and climate changes. How are we going to facilitate the life of billions more without further affecting biodiversity and the environment?
And here lies the decision: do we adopt a Garrett Hardin-esque stance and protect the “Commons” (i.e. Earth’s natural resources) by limiting access and scaling back our high standard of living[i] or do we attempt to maintain our standard of living by creating new, sustainable, methodologies to produce what we have become so dependent on? It is looking like the latter will take centre stage, at least for now.
When will the lights turn off for fossil fuels?
According to BP’s Energy Outlook[ii], apparently the party will continue for the foreseeable future. The Earth’s energy demand is expected to increase by a third over the next 20 years, and fossil fuels are projected to supply around 80% of the total energy output. After the COP21 climate change summit in Paris, December 2015 – which aims to maintain a global temperature increase of below 2ºC – to the way these fossil fuels are utilised and where the subsequent carbon emissions end up will be scrutinised. To tackle the latter issue, one avenue shows promise: Carbon Capture Storage (CCS), the act of catching post-combustion CO2 and injecting it into a secure underground storage site. Experts have warned that if we want to achieve this temperature cap, CCS needs urgent funding to address key research challenges regarding geological exploration and determining suitable benchmarks for CCS practices.
Questions will also arise regarding how we will obtain these fossil fuels in the future. The move towards low-carbon energy is inevitable, but at what cost?
For each unit of generated energy, shale gas – when it is burned – is around half as carbon-intensive as coal. However, the method of hydraulically fracturing shale rocks (i.e. “fracking”) is a controversial topic: homes in America, close to fracking areas, have turned on their water tap to be instead met with flames. Fugitive methane emissions may escape from the process, actually rendering obtaining shale gas less clean compared to coal. Finally, there is evidence that fracking can cause seismic activity. An example of this controversy is between the county of Lancashire and the drilling company Cuadrilla.
Open the floodgates – what do we do about water?
We are said to be around 70% water, but only under 0.5% (amounting to approximately 35,000,000km3) of the Earth’s water is available fresh water. How do we supply a growing population with clean water?
In the future, we will be a world of megacities: it is projected that over 70% of the population will live in cities by 2050, amounting to around 6.5 billion people – all creating wastewater. If we are to have any chance of supplying enough water we must aim towards “closing the loop”, transforming this wastewater into drinking water. Already in urban communities, each individual disposes of 150l/d of wastewater. This surely cannot be a sustainable trend.
The Earth’s natural water cycle is said to be a “closed cycle”, whereby there isn’t any exchange between the atmosphere and outer space. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many domestic and industrial processes. This will improve as consumers become more savvy and companies respond to this by investing in wastewater treatment processes – for example, did you know it takes, on average, around 2,700 litres to produce a cotton shirt? – as well as pre-empting future legislation changes.
In the UK alone we collect approximately 11,000,000m3 of wastewater per day, using 624,000km of sewers. Instead of viewing this wastewater as something to dispose of, we should instead investigate the opportunities that wastewater can bring and has brought: We simply cannot afford to ignore the opportunities any longer. For example, surface run-off from roads is recovered for use in the construction industry and waste biomass sludge can be digested anaerobically to synthesise biogas fuel. These recovery practices are just the tip of the iceberg in what is a cornucopia of opportunity.
The Road Ahead
The imminent problems that an increasing population will bring are monumental and will affect us all. But instead of fear, hope should be the overriding emotion that fuels inquisitive minds around the globe to seize the opportunity and discover something amazing.
Sustainability and efficiency should – and will be – key aspects in processes and design, old and new. Why pay for loads of electricity when you can produce your own with a solar panel? Why pay for loads of water when you could treat it on location, and make use of the recovered compounds? Why not make your lawnmower self-sufficient by fuelling it with what it’s getting rid of: grass? No joke: http://www.ecomowtech.com.
Questions like these will surely propel us into an age of innovation, ingenuity and sustainability, and your great-grandchildren – as well as the Earth – will be happier for it.
(Image courtesy of Leaflet, hosted on Wikipedia)