From the Editor: Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui

February 09, 2007

Paris Report on the Environment

A US geological survey recently found that polar bear cubs in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea were less likely to survive compared to about 20 years ago. Reason: melting sea ice. “The effects of greenhouse warming are starting to rear their ugly head,” says Mark Serreze, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Another researcher, Marika Holland, working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, projects a slow, steady decline of arctic ice as global warming continues, with a dramatic “tipping point” in about two decades.
On February 2, an international group of scientists issued somber findings to furnish fresh proof that fossil fuel account for the present disconcerting environmental scene. “Even if the industrial nations start to immediately reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, the past and future gases will continue to contribute to global warming and the rise of oceans for more than 1,000 years,” warns the long-awaited report released in Paris.
“The release of the international assessment, heralded by shutting off lights in the Eiffel Tower for five minutes as the scientists rushed to finish, comes after six years of work and is built on a previous dozen years of study by hundreds of researchers from more than 100 nations. In the next two months, two more bodies of work dealing with different aspects of climate change will be released,” says the report.
How did it all begin and what needs to be done to save the environment from further damage? Are environmentalists justified in branding fossil fuel the villain as the world feels the catastrophic effects of the worsening environmental scene? The answer is simple and convincing. Which brings us to a reiteration of the argument spelled out several times in these columns.
The outstanding change heralding the advent of the Industrial Revolution was the innovation in the use of energy, with steam taking the place of animal, wind, and hydropower. Fossil fuels - coal, gas, and oil - which catalyzed the change, polluted the air and their harmful residues found their way into rivers and oceans.
As technology proliferated and factories crisscrossed the landscape, fossil fuel was burned in stupendous quantities. During the first 83 years of the Industrial Revolution, the world burned the first 50 billion metric tons of fossil fuel. It took only 23 years to burn the next 50, and barely 11 years to burn the next, which brings us to almost the present time.
If the current trend is any indication the next 50 billion metric tons will be extracted and consumed in only 8 years. By the year 2032 AD, such an amount will be extracted and consumed in one year alone! The trend is disconcerting and unless a clean substitute - one which does not pollute the air or water - appears on the global scene the world will continue to burn fossil fuel in large quantities to sustain its industrial march and thus remain precariously exposed to increasing levels of pollution.
Nuclear power, a clean, nonpolluting form of energy, raised the hopes of many optimists that the atom would free man of his unwholesome reliance on fossil fuel. The promise was stupendous. It still remains so, despite the setback following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. Nuclear power reactors have been described, and rightly so, as inexhaustible sources of energy. Perhaps fissile fuel will succeed where fossil fuel has failed.
But it was not the burning of fossil fuel at the advent of the Industrial Revolution alone that contributed to pollution. Industrialization led to urbanization and its attendant problems of pollution. Until 1800 AD, 80-95 percent of the population of England, where the Industrial Revolution transformed the landscape, had turned urban, and by the 1900, only 10 percent of the country’s population was tilling the soil. The remaining was gainfully employed in factories!
The growth of new industrial cities, particularly in Britain, unmistakably denoted what historians described as ‘a major failure of imagination’ - a dreary look, lack of playgrounds, little effort to plan streets according to the sun and wind, poor public services, polluted air, etc. No wonder, William Blake called factories ‘black Satanic mills.’
Yet the early industrial cities grew faster than others. In the United States, cities of over 8,000 inhabitants grew five times faster than the country as a whole in the 19th century. Big cities in particular grew at an astounding pace: London reached the one million mark in 1800, Paris in 1850, Berlin and Vienna in 1880, and St. Petersburg in 1870.
Today, there are a hundred cities with population equaling or exceeding the one million mark, ‘a hundred cities which are the size of Rome at its height, and many much larger!’
The trend continues. Tokyo’s population today approximates 26 million while Cairo houses 16 million and Mexico City 31.6 million. Indications are growing, as historians testify, that ‘the world of the future will be a world of cities.’
The demographic pattern in the last 2000 years also makes interesting reading. A phenomenal growth in world population has taken place since man took to industry. The accelerated growth is in no way attributable to the advent of technology, but in the years to come, it may cast its shadow on the pollution problem.
The world population stood at 250 million in 1 AD, 500 million 1500 AD, 1,000 million 1825 AD, 2,000 million in 1925 AD, 4000 million in 1975, and 6,000 million in the year 2000. Thus the doubling period has been drastically reduced - from the first 1500 to 325, 100 and 50 years. ‘Global 2000’ rightly predicts that the astronomical demographic explosion would severely test the carrying capacity of planet Earth.
It is thus not difficult to envision the future - an overly populated world and the accompanying specter of pollution. “Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make peace with Nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?” asked Richard Nixon in 1970.
Both the developed and the developing world have to contemplate the answer to conserve a livable world.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.