Since the very first Earth Day more than four decades ago, the environmental movement has tackled a wide range of problems, including air pollution, contaminated water, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and more. But this Earth Day, I propose that there are two fundamental issues the movement must address over the coming decade if it is ever to defuse the tension between development and the environment. In fact, these two issues underlie many, if not most, of the world’s environmental challenges.
Food production has significant―but often underestimated―impacts on the environment. Take climate, for instance: About one-quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are agriculture-related. In particular, nearly 13 percent of global emissions comes from livestock, fertilizer use, and farm-related energy consumption, while another 11 percent results from the clearing of forests and other ecosystems, primarily for agriculture.
The world is on track to become a very different place in the next two decades. Per capita income levels are rising, the global middle class is expanding, and the population is set to hit 8.3 billion people by 2030. At the same time, urbanization is happening at an accelerated pace—the volume of urban construction over the next 40 years could equal that which has occurred throughout history to date.
While these projections would bring benefits like reduced poverty and individual empowerment, they have serious implications for the world’s natural resources. Global growth will likely increase the demand for food, water, and energy by 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively by 2030. Add continued climate change to the equation, and the struggle for resources only becomes more intense.
These are just a few of the estimates included in the new Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) that was released last month. The assessment, which the NIC puts out every four years, reflects in-depth research on trends and geopolitical changes that may unfold in the next 15-20 years—everything from urbanization to conflict to resource scarcity.
Assessments like the NIC’s are invaluable in providing decision makers with forward-looking insights and analysis. But while the report offers a glimpse into the future, what’s more important is how we respond today to the questions these “megatrends” raise.
Today is World Food Day, a chance for people all over the world to focus on approaches to end global hunger. Celebrated each year to commemorate the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this day provides us with an opportunity to assess where the world is today in regard to food security – and what we’ll all have to do in the future to achieve it.
How Do You Feed 9 Billion People by 2050?
For much of the planet, food security isn’t a concern on just one day of the year—it’s a daily struggle. According to the FAO, 870 million of the world’s poor are already undernourished, and yet global human population is projected to increase from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. To sufficiently feed these people, worldwide food availability will need to increase by at least 52 percent from 2007 levels.
Yet agriculture is already having huge impacts on the world’s environment and resources. For instance, agriculture is the direct driver of about 80 percent of tropical deforestation. Agriculture is responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s consumption of freshwater, and nutrient runoff is a major cause of water quality degradation globally. And according to WRI’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), food production accounts for up to 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year due to deforestation, livestock, energy consumption on farms, and fertilizer use.
The Cancun Adaptation Framework agreed during COP16 provides potential for a new action orientation to adaptation under the UNFCCC. COP17 in Durban presents a big opportunity to resolve several critical pieces of the Cancun Adaptation Framework, to integrate and streamline the many strands of adaptation negotiations, and to move forward on helping countries around the world adapt. Expectations of significant progress on adaptation are high – especially since Durban is an “African COP,” taking place on a continent where vulnerability to climate change is palpable and affects so many people’s future. But the Durban adaptation agenda is long, and negotiation time limited, so Parties have no time to waste. Key issues are summarized here:
A third of Thailand is under water. Epic floods have taken people's lives, destroyed businesses and crops, and are now sweeping into Bangkok.
As the capital braces itself, some people are beginning to point fingers at various culprits: the unusually heavy rains possibly linked to climate change, ineffective communications within government, and poor infrastructure decisions.
Population growth, however, is not the biggest skeleton in the closet when it comes to our planet's ability to absorb human impact. Far more damaging than the booming birth rate in low income countries are the resource-intensive lifestyles of the global rich and middle class.
Conditions are changing in our world. Some are feeling the
impact now, from the heat wave and wildfires in Russia of the last two years,
the devastating floods in Pakistan and Australia, tornadoes in the United States,
mudslides in Brazil, drought in China. Others are worrying about the impacts to
come: the tea growers in Kenya’s highlands who are seeing cases of malaria they didn’t see
only five years ago; the cocoa farmers in Ghana who think about how changes in rainfall will
affect their sensitive crops; the rice farmers in Vietnam who are increasingly concerned about
rising water levels.
Can the current food production system feed a growing population in a changing climate while sustaining ecosystems? The answer is an emphatic “no.”
A new approach is imperative and overdue, one in which the world feeds more people—an estimated 9 billion by 2050—with less ecological impact. To be successful, this new approach must address both how we produce and how we use food.
This post was written with James Anderson, Communications Coordinator at the World Resources Institute.
“This is unprecedented fire behavior. We’ve never seen conditions like this before. Not a single one of our firefighters has ever faced such extreme conditions.”
This statement from the director of the Texas Forest Service makes it clear that the recent wildfires that scorched Texas belong in a new category of disaster. Already, the state’s wildfires this season have consumed 3.6 million acres (an area the size of Connecticut), swallowed over 1,500 homes, and killed at least four people. According to NOAA, the current wildfire is costing more than $1 million per day and exceeds $5 billion in overall damages across the Southwest. These are costs that will be borne by government, business and residents, alike.