Any plan for achieving global sustainability must be focused on energy. Every effort must be made to greatly reduce the use of nonrenewable energy sources like coal, oil, and natural gas. At the same time, we must make every effort to increase the use of renewable sources of energy. That means greatly expanding solar and wind power and refining technologies to harvest geothermal and ocean wave energy.
We must also reduce or eventually suspend the use of nuclear power. Nuclear energy is based on a finite supply of uranium. First, uranium is nonrenewable. But, more importantly, the use of nuclear power produces nuclear waste. Disposal of nuclear waste that can remain lethally radioactive for millennia is highly problematic.
Ecological Footprints around the Globe
The need for conservation related to greenhouse emissions varies greatly across the globe. Consider the following chart developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The data shows that China’s carbon footprint is the largest, producing 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. The United States is next, at 17 percent. Next are Russia (5 percent), India (5 percent), and Japan (4 percent). Other developed countries produce much fewer emissions. The 20 percent attributed to the “rest of the world” is composed of small underdeveloped countries, mainly across the span of Africa, central Asia, and the Mideast.
https://courses.ashworthcollege.edu/content/enforced/10698-SO245_21_1/Images/SO245V%20Lesson%208%20Image%203.jpg?_&d2lSessionVal=fHqk1vNzEItE1a4Jdaq4e2uUq&ou=10698Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Country, 2011 Source: Union of Concerned Scientists
Unfortunately, this overview doesn’t even give the whole picture. Consider this jarring quote from Rachel Kaufman in an article in National Geographic: “Humans are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can replenish in a year. In other words, humans use the equivalent of 1.5 planets per year. By 2030, humans will use the equivalent of two planets per year.”
This same source claims that the tiny country of Qatar has the highest per capita carbon footprints on the planet, along with its neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For Qatar, that’s more than five times the per capita resources consumed per capita in the United States. Of course, the total populations of these oil-rich countries are small, so they compose only a small part of the larger problem. (See Pictures: Ten Countries With the Biggest Footprints).
The United States includes five percent of the global population and uses 24 percent of the planet’s resources every year. In fact, according to Dave Tilford in Scientific American:
· Children born in the United States will create thirteen times the ecological damage over their lifetimes than children born in Brazil.
· The average American drains as many resources as 35 natives of India. Additionally, the average American consumes 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.
· With less than five percent of the world population, the United States uses one-third of the world’s paper, one-quarter of the oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.
· American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain. It’s also 2.5 times that of the average Japanese.
· Americans also produce one-half of the world’s solid waste.
Around the globe, each U.S. dollar spent equals roughly the consumption of one-half liter of energy.
The Freshwater Crisis
The freshwater crisis may very well be the line that can’t be crossed if humans are to continue existing on planet Earth.
As already pointed out, water is the medium of life. Where there’s no water, there can be no life. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci was correct when he called water the driving force behind all life. The current supply of freshwater in Earth’s hydrosphere is about what’s been available to terrestrial (land surface) life forms for millions of years. About 2.5 percent of the planet’s water is fresh, with about 1.5 percent locked up in glaciers and ice caps. Only a precious 1 percent of freshwater on the planet is easily obtainable.
This image from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the harsh realities in the situation. This image shows the volume of water on Earth compared to land mass.
In this image,
· The largest blue sphere represents the total amount of water available on Earth.
· The middle blue sphere represents the total amount of freshwater. This water is available in lakes, rivers, swamps, and ground stores.
· The smallest blue sphere (barely visible!) represents the amount of freshwater accessible from lakes and rivers.
https://courses.ashworthcollege.edu/content/enforced/10698-SO245_21_1/Images/SO245V%20Lesson%208%20Image%204.png?_&d2lSessionVal=fHqk1vNzEItE1a4Jdaq4e2uUq&ou=10698Representations of Volume of Water on Earth Source: U.S. Geological Survey – https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html (Public domain image)
The total of all the freshwater on Earth (the second blue sphere) amounts to about 10.6 million cubic kilometers. As shown in the graphic, this would have a diameter of about 272 kilometers (about 170 miles). Additionally, 99 percent of this water is groundwater, much of which isn’t easily accessible. By contrast—as the world gets warmer and warmer—if all the freshwater available to us from lakes, streams, rivers, and captured rainwater were compressed into a water sphere, it would be that tiny blue sphere in the image, which is about 56 kilometers (34.9 miles) in diameter. That’s our little life bubble. That’s the precious life sphere we must all share.
If Earth’s burgeoning human population is not checked soon, we could very well run out of water needed to meet the needs of over seven billion people. Additionally, because of climate variations, geography, and resource competition for resources, some regions on our planet seem to have plenty of freshwater, while others find freshwater scarce. The latter situation exists in many underdeveloped countries that must deal with factors like armed conflict and persistent drought. Both of these factors contribute to freshwater scarcity.
Even in the United States, prolonged drought has created crisis conditions. Parts of California and the Southwestern states, for example, have been seriously impacted. In California, officials reported the fourth year of sustained drought through January 2016. That’s the driest period recorded since meteorological data has been available. Over this same period, forest fires have become more frequent and intense. And, in other parts of the country, per capita water use has continued to rise.
Here’s a striking illustration. The Colorado River flows over a 1,450-mile course from its source in the Rocky Mountains. You may know that the Grand Canyon was carved out by the Colorado River. But you may not know that the Colorado River provides water to 30 million people. However, according to sources, “… it is so heavily tapped for agriculture, industry, and municipal uses” that it seldom reaches the Gulf of California. In fact, only about one-tenth of the river’s former flow now makes it to Mexico, where a dam captures it to supply water to farms and cities south of the border.
According to the United Nations, international water use has increased at more than twice the rate of population in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity. That means about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions, the result of inefficient water use, destructive farming practices, and climate change. Even today, one in seven people don’t have access to clean drinking water.
In the Middle East, great swaths of the countryside have been reduced to desert, primarily due to the overuse of water. Among Middle East states, Iran has sustained the most damage related to freshwater misuse and overuse. In that country, agricultural output has been devastated as water overuse is compounded by insufficient rainfall, year after year.
The overconsumption of water resources in the United Arab Emirates, coupled with negligible and infrequent rainfall, has spurred efforts to desalinize saltwater from the oceans. UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has commented, “For us, water is [now] more important than oil.”
In south Asia, up to 75 percent of farmers rely on pumping groundwater to the surface. That’s a sobering statistic as it reflects the water needs of around 600 million people living in 2,000 square kilometers of dry terrain. This terrain extends from eastern Pakistan, across northern India, and into western Bangladesh. Satellite images confirm that groundwater supplies are rapidly shrinking.
A direct effect of global warming is glacial ice melt everywhere on the planet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the percentage of people likely to be negatively impacted by changing patterns of precipitation and glacial melting is likely to increase during the twenty-first century. Just look at the increase in ice melt in Greenland over time.
https://courses.ashworthcollege.edu/content/enforced/10698-SO245_21_1/_course-system-files/Lesson_08/PastedImage_5tgd36rs8u8z270nth501nnivfruoet500112494738.jpg?_&d2lSessionVal=fHqk1vNzEItE1a4Jdaq4e2uUq&ou=10698Changes to Ice Stores in the Greenland Glacier Source: NASA Earth Obervatory (Public domain image)
Asia is particularly at risk. This is largely due to melting patterns in Asia’s “water towers,” the Himalayas. The Himalayas are the tallest mountains in the world. Their snow melt feeds a number of major rivers, including the Indus in Pakistan, the Ganges in India, and the Yangtze in China. The Himalayas also feed the Mekong, which is a vital water source for many nations of southeast Asia, including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Overall, the regions’ glaciers provide water for irrigation, hydroelectric power, and drinking water for roughly 1.5 billion people.
One inevitable outcome of freshwater scarcity is rising conflicts between nations competing for dwindling resources. For example, the Nile is the world’s longest river. It has two main branches: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile emerges from the highlands of Ethiopia. The White Nile emerges from the region of Lake Victoria in Uganda. The two branches meet at the city of Khartoum in Sudan. To better meet its regional water needs, Ethiopia is nearing completion on what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Its reservoir will have a storage capacity amounting to 74 billion cubic meters of water.
Egyptian officials are concerned about this. From their perspective, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project poses a direct threat to Egyptian agriculture. According to Egypt’s irrigation minister, Egypt is currently coping with an annual water deficit of 20 billion cubic meters. Water recycling technology makes up some of this deficit, but this won’t fully address the problem in the long run. Negotiations between the two countries are ongoing.
As another example, consider the tension between Pakistan and India over the mountainous territory of Kashmir. This region has experienced several wars since 1947. Today, Pakistani Muslims occupy about half the northern area. Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs occupy about half the territory in the south. As the southern groups seek independence and the right of self-determination, sporadic violence claims lives along the disputed boundary separating the two regions. One major concern is access to water resources, as these are mainly located in the northern region. Regional glacial melting due to global warming greatly aggravates the Kashmiri dilemma. Given that both nations possess significant nuclear arsenals, this is a dangerous situation.
From a global perspective, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien comments, “The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating. Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in the future.”
Toward a Paradigm Shift