In the early 1970s, I watched a British TV programme which featured the late well- known presenter, Magnus Magnusson, and which was concerned with global cooling and what actions we should take, mainly with the negative impact cooling would have on food production. We had just come off 3 decades of relatively cool weather following on from the warmest decade of the 20th century. We were not aware of population growth yet and the potential challenges that a faster increase in growth rate would mean. Perhaps China picked it up first, becoming alarmed at their own population growth which had doubled in the 30-year period from 1940 and was set to grow at an accelerating rate. Their government instituted a one child policy in 1979 to bring it under control. Notwithstanding this, the Chinese population today stands at 1.4 billion.
The population of the world is expected to top approximately 10 billion by mid-century and slowly decrease thereafter. It will reflect changes in ethnic mix, as Asia rises and the developed world declines in number, albeit this has led in part to the current concern over migration. The ‘comforting’ point is that world population is now approaching its zenith and we can plan accordingly, and not like we have done, or not done, as in the past 60 years. We seem to have been caught nodding off or even sleeping!
From the COP26 meeting there seem to be broadly two areas of concern which we can best describe by illustration. The tropical/equatorial island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of South Africa, had a population of 5.1 million 60 years ago. Today It stands at nearly 28 million, or more than 5 times the 1960 population. The forest/jungle, which covered most of the country, has been decimated in the last period essentially to grow crops to feed the burgeoning population. The cloud cover over the forest, which provided rain, has gone, the soil has lost nutrients. And now there is a severe drought and people are starving and famine conditions loom. This is a human induced climate change, much like happened to the Easter Islanders in centuries past when they cut down all their trees and their impressive culture significantly declined from a peak population of 7,000 to just a few hundred today, which scratches a living. Madagascar is, however, a human disaster in the making, which requires immediate attention, but a broad education component must be included with the aid. We have to educate the young.
Towards the poles, the climate is much colder and much fewer people choose to live there. There is noticeable change taking place with the ice/glaciers retreating and a change to warmer conditions. This leads to an alteration in habitat and changes to the offshore and marine life that inhabit it. The sea level is rising there, as it did during the Mediaeval Warm Period (850 -1250 CE) when the global temperature rose 1.40C max. The population of the world was circa 350 million or less than 5% of that today
After the Warm Period, there was the Little Ice Age for some 500 years. During the Warm Period one could travel round the top of Canada or Russia, as Admiral Ye of China is reputed to have done. The big difference is in population and we are still learning about the impact this has on our planet on top of what the sun and other space radiation forces have done for millions of millennia.
The IPCC have taken as the culprit, the rise in CO2, and worked on an average global temperature and quite large areas of the earth’s surface, simply because anything smaller would involve an enormous amount of computer time. A criticism of their approach is that the models that they use don’t take clouds/humidity, i.e. water, properly into account and this is the most important element of the greenhouse effect. In addition, they parade a consensus view and science only deals in facts. NASA and others work to observation and they say that the IPCC forecast is overstated by a noticeable amount. They have determined the figure should be less, like 10C warmer and, if increasing, it is gradually. Besides, the Earth was a few degrees hotter in the distant past.
The COP26 conference, which was well attended by country representatives, has now wrapped up with an agreement, inevitably slightly watered down considering the very wide range of interests to be satisfied. The two most populous countries of the world, China and India, one – third of the total, insisted that the agreement document be altered from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down’ the use of coal, because the growth in their economies would otherwise decline.
The COP26 as the final awakening?
Notwithstanding, whether one agrees wholeheartedly with the IPCC or not, there is a great deal to be done and the world is gradually awakening to that fact. In reality, the world doesn’t live in an average global climate. We live in regions of quite different climate as the findings of Koppen-Geiger found (Beck, 2018). They divided the world according to regions with 5 main types of climates given– Tropical/ Equatorial, Arid, Temperate, Continental and Polar, and 32 sub-regions on the basis of seasonal rainfall, temperature patterns and altitude.
People will have gone away from COP26 slightly bemused. At its peak the crowd, outside and inside, was about 40,000, with every party wanting to be heard. Largely the demonstrators outside were good – humoured and very little trouble occurred, in view of the seriousness of the issue that was being discussed. Naturally, considering the occasion and the large number of opinions and axes to grind by inside and outside parties, not everyone was happy with the outcome. But it is an outcome and there is plenty of groundwork to do.
The very large countries and major polluters have largely signed up to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, albeit at different dates. The smaller nations, which make up most of the number may still be left wondering about what they should do to avoid disaster, for example islanders, small nations, who are witnessing sea level rise. They must, of course, first make sure that their land is not sinking as a result of land movements, tectonic plate shifts, or do they sit on atolls? They should also take note of where they are placed in the regions of the world and what sort of climate should be expected and any changes that have taken place and how their landscape would be affected by a warming world. Britain itself is tilting on a north-west to south-east axis, the latter gradually sinking, which is why the River Thames barrier was built a few years ago to protect the city of London and its invaluable infrastructure.
Two millennia ago, at the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, crossing the Channel which was easier than today, having sorted out Gaul (France), omnia gallia in tres partes divisa est, there was a large piece of land to the north, once linking up the east of England with Denmark, the Dogger Bank, the home of the Dogger people. Now that land has gradually sunk under the sea permanently, part of the land movements of this area, and a sign that the surface of the earth, the crust, is rarely still. Today Dogger Bank supports the largest offshore windfarm run by Danish company Danske, part of Britain’s and Europe’s commitments towards renewables.
Then there are the issues that we all have to face, to a greater or lesser extent; sea or land pollution, water supply, sanitation hazards, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions – if pertinent, deforestation, urbanisation, and so on. Many of these are important civil engineering/ environmental matters.
Pollution can be insidious, depending on the waste materials to be dealt with. There is a growing awareness that most waste has to be treated appropriately and some of it may be recycled. This is extremely important as the volume of waste has escalated with population growth. Landfills should be minimised, many of them are dangerous eyesores. The issue of plastics and the harm they can do, we know about now. For the oceans also, plastic pollution is dangerous as it does not dissolve and some of it breaks down to miniscule size and fish unwittingly swallow it and we, in turn, can eat the fish. This and the next generation must have cleaner habits. If anything, COP26 raised awareness of this issue.
Clean water forms part of the UN Millennium Sustainable Development Goals but despite the 1980s being the Decade to solve the water issue it is still with us. They did not know the scale of the problem then. There are today still more than one million people without access to clean water worldwide and undoubtedly more where the supply is less than acceptable. Sometimes, an aquifer is asked to support more population than it was originally designed for, as cities multiplied and grew faster in the last period than expected. With changes in weather patterns, the issue is probably going to get worse, and forecasting the future demands is going to be a challenge, but one which will have to be met.
Sanitation is a subject that most people would prefer didn’t exist. It is a major problem in large cities and solutions become more difficult as the cities expand. The tendency by government is to delay! I have personally observed this going round Asian cities. There just needs to be a deadly outbreak in one urban environment from a new strain of disease that was thought to be conquered, and we shall have a disaster on our hands.
Severe storms cause much havoc on landfall as has been witnessed, more to property than life, sometimes devastating. In fact, the number of Caribbean hurricanes per year has not escalated over the past two decades, but the intensity may have done. The coastal population has increased with building to match, and therefore more are now affected.
Urbanisation is set to increase in the years ahead. Once the current pandemic is over, there will be a large number of new cities built in Asia, particularly in China and South East Asia. Indonesia has some 20 more urban centres planned and is eyeing more. It has to happen although the timescale will be extended, and start dates have had to be delayed largely because of the pandemic. In Indonesia’s case, the private sector is going to have to be a significant partner in building the new towns and cities the country needs. There will need to be more contractors to realise the work which has to be done. But this will be an opportunity to put some of the new ideas into the designs using ‘smart’ principles and make the new urban areas with 21st century thinking and energy efficient buildings with electric power having low to nil production of greenhouse gases.
It would be quite an exciting challenge to take part in the design of a future city, particularly if one had a green field site and strict environmental parameters to meet. Existing cities, and particularly some Asian ones, are hotspots, putting out significant amounts of greenhouse gases. These urban centres pose another level of challenge. Infrastructure exists and more people, apart from politicians, will want to have a say in decisions.
Transport is an area where there is quite an understanding of using less polluting modes. Several manufacturers have already switched to electric vehicles and we can expect to see more on the road and the majority of cars in ten years’ time. What will happen to battery charging places if there is a power cut? For heavy transport, such as large trucks, construction plant it will probably not be efficient to change to electric – battery. Still, cars are the majority of vehicles on the road.
The Amazon area has been called the ‘lungs of the world’. The rate of deforestation in the past few years has been alarming. It would seem that a ‘rogue’ politician stands in the way of doing the right thing and this has to be put right. Regreening the land rightly was prominent in some discussions at COP26. Trees require CO2, the greenhouse gas with which the IPCC were most concerned.
Something old, something new: think global, act local
In the few paragraphs above, the apparent things that we can do to the planet that will make it a better and cleaner place have been aired. These are not ‘pie in the sky’ and are all achievable. For any country in the world, they should look at their relative location, as per Koppen-Geiger, and see which of the items highlighted above they should tackle, and which prioritise for their area.
One would like to think that in two years the IPCC would have collected all the nations’ plans and to agree them or advise on alternatives. They could then have an idea on what each country needs financially to aid them in the monumental task on top of what they can spend themselves. It is appreciated that this a Level 1 look at things and there is an enormous amount of detail to follow. But one has to start! In addition, it would be easier if the nations were divided into small, medium and large because it is likely that the scale of problems will be different. It would be good to see the world unite on an issue where everyone should and could be involved in real matters.
As I sign off, the Covid pandemic has just added another twist – a new variant, the omicron. Further delay?
About the author:
Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.