With increasing CO2 emission and nature taking its toll, it is time for us to shoulder the responsibilities.
by Brian Peng Weng Kung
I was sitting on a beach when I saw a half-empty bottle of mineral water swept towards the shore. Have you ever wondered how much it costs to convert one litre of water to a level which is drinkable? When close to a billion people are lacking access to clean water, such wastage is certainly distasteful! What will the fate of this non-biodegradable plastic be? Continue to float in the open sea? I thought as I reflected back enthusiastically. Few people know that 80% of the marine pollution is from plastic debris, which has been rapidly accumulating since the end of World War II. It is estimated that there are hundreds of million metric tons of plastic floating on the sea1. Plastic is often mistakenly consumed by jellyfish, through which plastic ‘sneak’ into the food chain and eventually ended up on our dining table. Accidentally or incidentally, we humans who sit on in the highest hierarchy of the food chain would have the real ‘catch’!
For centuries, we have been enjoying unprecedented productivity, the fruits of labour of the industrial revolution. Machines were the key to industrialisation, although the much earlier and simpler version of machines, such as the trolley, can be traced back to ancient times. Expectedly, it was also during the industrial revolution that global CO2 emission started to increase sharply. The onset of the industrial revolution was closely linked to a few events e.g., the development textiles manufacturing and the creation of steam engines. With the adoption of factory system, which started in the mid-18th century, the concept of mass production took off and has since then benchmarked the evolution of consumerism. A reduction in labour costs, as well as an increased rate of production, enables a company to produce larger quantity of one single product at much lower cost than using traditional, non-linear methods.
Today, if you walk in the city of Dongguan, about 90km away from Hong Kong, you can buy practically anything from jeans to iPhone covers at unimaginably low prices. When China changed its foreign policy in the 80’s, the ‘world-factory’ went on to rewrite the history of consumerism and the concept of consumption. With the surge of cheaper labour coming from China and India (arguably due to undervalued currency) we are able to enjoy even cheaper goods, although that came at the high price of our ‘unsung heroes’, the seemingly cheap labours. So much so that humans have become recklessly wasteful with things that come cheap and little did we know that natural resources are depleting fast. Sadly, we were taught to believe that as money changed hands; we are the rightful owner of our purchases. However, no one taught us that our obligation to the nature is beyond the business transaction. What was once a simple wasteful action became a habit and finally etched into the belief system.
How much longer can the recipes of Industrial Revolution sustain the ever increasing population without hurting the planet? And this is happening when the world population continues to grow! As of 31st October 20122, the world population crossed the 7 billion mark. How do we welcome the new born babies?
As you are reading this article, the iceberg in the Arctic is melting at an amazing pace. As the ice gets thinner, lesser sunlight is reflected, causing more heat to be trapped. This triggers a domino effect. Satellites images are indicating that ice in Arctic Sea is at its lowest point. Scientists believe that at the rate the ice is melting, the Arctic Sea will see its first ice-free ocean by summer 20203. What are the looming larger climate effects? Cold and salty water is denser and therefore tends to sink to the bottom of the ocean while the warm water is less dense and rises to the surface. It acts like a giant ocean conveyor belt which helps shape the Earth’s climate. Like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, its collapse will trigger a catastrophically rapid climate change throughout the world.
While scientists and lawmakers are busy looking for ways to reduce carbon emission, for many in the shipping industry, the melting means opening up entirely new shipping routes to Asia. Vessels can now travel from Rotterdam to Tokyo through the shorter northern route. While it may not entirely replace the Malacca Strait, it will certainly change the shipping landscape very much like how the Suez Canal once did. If there is anyone who would anxiously usher in the melting of icebergs, it would be the CEOs of petroleum companies. Hidden for years, like a gem waiting to be discovered, is the ever thriving business of mineral explorations including the one most fought-after: petroleum. Large net- importers of petroleum like the US and the EU are certainly looking forward to an open Arctic, which will bring some temporary relief to the already strained traditional oil-field. Until the day the current combustion engine can be replaced by a new form of cleaner energy, no one can rest on the laurels. Will Arctic be the next battlefield and who will win? But one thing for sure: more CO2 will be produced!
One critical question remains to be answered: are we doing enough to reduce the emission? Sadly, the fact is even if we are to immediately drop CO2 emissions to zero tomorrow, the gases that are already released would take decades to dissipate. Yes, the odd is stacking strongly against us. A whole new paradigm shift is needed. However, time and again, mankind has shown immense capability to rise up against the odds, and this time around, we are no different.
In fact mankind has never looked back ever since the industrial revolution. What was once a simple mechanically constructed machine designed to perform dedicated tasks has now transformed into a much more complicated machine which can ‘think’ (read computers). On 9 th of August 1995, when Netscape went on IPO, the world entered a new era of Information Age where sharing and connectivity happened at unprecedented speed of a mouse click. To quote Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat ): “It gave us the first broadly popular commercial browser to surf the Internet. The Netscape browser not only brought the Internet alive but also made the Internet accessible to everyone.”
Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have imagined that hundreds or even thousands of mails can reach our mailbox within seconds, paper-free and no postman needed. With fewer postmen roaming the streets to deliver our mails, fewer fossils will be burnt. The advantages of emails are so strong that post office could soon be renamed as ‘billing office’. More post offices have become dependent on bill-payment and other services to ramp up their revenue.
In 2007, the first hard disks with terabyte capacity were released by Hitachi. A terabyte hard disk which occupies roughly the size of a wallet, can store up to about 143 million pages of Microsoft Word documents. A forest would have been needed to produce such massive amount of papers. There are just so much space and resources that we would never have thought of before which has now become available to us. What about YouTube, Facebook, Instagram …? This is the power of ‘unseen abundance’!
Today, when you fly, you are given an option to offset your carbon footprint left. If you fly from Heathrow Airport, London to Changi Airport, Singapore, you would have burnt an equivalent of 2.27 tonnes of CO2 . Now, for as little as £22.70, you are able to offset your carbon footprint as the extra payment will be used to fund green energy projects. Many airlines and other mobile industries (e.g., cars, ships, and trains) are expected to follow suit in near future. Thus, welcome to the carbon-tax world.
Is the world really short of resources? That would depend on our innovation and the management of our resources. There is certainly more space and resources than we would have ever imagined, now available to us with much more yet to be discovered. This is the power of ‘unseen abundance’! With a little bit of imagination, faith and focus, we can do it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brian Peng Weng Kung received his BSc (1st Hons) in Theoretical Physics from University of Malaya, Malaysia. He obtained his PhD from Osaka University, Japan under the Japanese Government Scholarship and in 2009, he joined MIT (based outside of Boston) under the SMART fellowship. His research interests include spin physics and developing miniaturised radio-frequency system. Weng Kung can be contacted at wkpeng79[at]hotmail.com. Find out more by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/wengkung/
Disclaimer: The opinions in this article belong to the author and do not represent SMART’s positions, strategies or opinions.
Weisman, A. The World Without Us, (Virgin, 2007).
Ending Its Summer Melt, Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Low That Leads to Warnings. The New York Times, A8 (September 20, 2012).
Jeff Tollefson. Seven billion and counting. Nature 478, 300 (2011)