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Vol. 14 No. 1 - January 2008

Environmental Challenges in the Anthropocene

By: J. S. Singh

The Earth today is experiencing environmental conditions which it has never experienced in the past. For example, the CO2 concentration has varied between 180 to 280 ppm during the past 420,000 years but it has now increased to 379 ppm. 40% of known oil reserves have been exhausted by humans in the last 150 years that took hundreds of million years to generate, 50% land surface has been transformed affecting biodiversity, soil biology and climate, more nitrogen is fixed synthetically for fertilizers than is fixed naturally, >50% of all accessible freshwater is appropriated for human use and ground water resources are being rapidly depleted, concentrations of climatically important gases have substantially increased, coastal and marine habitats have been dramatically altered; 50% mangroves have been removed and wetlands are reduced by one-half, 22% of recognised marine fisheries have been depleted and 44% are at their limit of exploitation, and extinction rates have been increasing sharply. This human-dominated era is therefore termed Anthropocene and is argued to have started since 1850. It should be emphasized that Homo sapiens is not only an invasive species capable of displacing all other species but is also a keystone species having the capability of changing profoundly the surroundings. This species appropriates more than 40% of the total terrestrial net production of the Earth.

The anthropogenic activities, to a great extent, are responsible for bringing about global climate change. Predictions indicate that the average temperature of the Earth’s near surface could increase by 5.8°C, and sea level may rise by an additional 88 cm by the year 2100. The total temperature increase from 1850 – 1899 to 2001 – 2005 is 0.76 [0.57 to 0.95]°C, and the rate of sea level rise was 1.8 mm/yr between 1961-2003, and 3.1 mm/yr between 1993-2003.  For India, predictions include: frequent dry days, 38% drop in per capita water availability by 2050, 50 million people would be displaced in coastal area due to sea level rise, by 2035 Himalayan glaciers may disappear and food grain production may fall by 30%, vector borne diseases and those associated with floods and droughts will increase, and 25% flora and fauna may be at a high risk of disappearance by 2030. World-wide, 2.2 billion people living under moderate or severe water stress will increase to 4 billion by 2025.The immediate task with Indian scientists includes (i) assessing climate change effects through systems and scenarios analysis, modeling, computer simulation, experimentation and data integration, (ii) developing strategies and policy options for adaptation with reference to food production, water resources, biodiversity and human health, and studying and analyzing trade offs, e.g. 3,500 litres of irrigation water will be needed for production of one litre of ethanol besides diversion of acreage from grain crops to sugarcane.

Dependence of humans on forest resources is high. 1.6. billion people rely heavily on tropical forest resources for livelihoods, 1.2 billion people in developing countries use trees on farms to generate food and cash, more than 2 billion people rely on biomass fuels (mainly fuel wood), natural products from forests are the only source of medicine for 75-90% of people in developing countries, thus one out of four of the world’s poor depend directly or indirectly on forests for their livelihood. However, 350 million ha of tropical forests have been deforested (0.8% per year) and 500 million ha of secondary and primary forests have been degraded, affecting the generation and flow of ecosystem services vital for human well-being. More the poverty greater is the human dependence on forests, and greater the dependence, greater is the stress on remaining forest. This calls for sustainable forestry, which should include (i) harnessing the potential of forests to reduce poverty, integrating forests into sustainable economic development, and protecting local and global forest values.

Apart from deforestation, vast areas (air, water and soil) have been altered and contaminated by industrial, mining activities, and use of fertilizers/pesticides. This calls for development of low cost technologies ( e.g. solar-powered pollutant removal systems) for decontamination needed; in this respect phytoremediation using genetically modified plants holds promise.

Biodiversity is the underpinning of ecosystem services. These services include (i) provisioning Services- goods such as food, fresh water, wood and fibre, (ii) regulating Services- disease control, climate regulation, water purification, flood regulation, etc., (iii) cultural Services- education, recreation, etc., and (iv) supporting Services- nutrient cycling, soil formation, primary productivity, etc. 14 out of identified 24 services are now declining. According to one estimate, the current economic value of the 17 ecological services for 16 biomes is in the range of US $ 16–54 trillion per year. Issues need to be investigated include (i) how do changes in ecosystem structure and functioning affect delivery of ecosystem services?, (ii) location, abundance, rates of renewal and resilience?, (iii) how is the delivery of ecosystem services distributed across social groups ?, and (iv) how do people respond to changes in ecosystem service provision?

Studies indicate that we have entered into a phase of mass extinction; today we seem to be losing two to five species per hour from tropical forests alone. This amounts to a loss of 16 million populations of various species per year or 1800 populations per hour. This calls for concerted efforts at documenting species, their threat status and conservation. This is specially relevant because between 1970 and 2003, the Living Planet Index (biocapacity of the Earth) fell by about 30 per cent and as of 2003 Ecological Footprint (area of biologically productive land or sea required to produce food, material and energy)  exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity by 25%. Evidently, there is a need to reduce the ecological footprint through sustainable development. Some of the possible actions required for reducing the ecological footprint include (i) slowing population growth, (ii) reducing consumption of goods & services, (iii) reducing footprint intensity, (iv) extending bioproductive area, and increasing bioproductivity per ha.

Solutions for all of the above need concerted research efforts.

Professor Emeritus, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 221005, India, E-mail: jssingh@bhu.ac.in

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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