By Dr. Jenny Lawler
When I think of a post-apocalyptic world, images from popular movies such as Mad Max come to mind: a world in which we battle for water, food, and shelter, against each other and the elements. Sadly, this is already a reality for people on some parts of our planet. Regions with poor governance, where poverty is rife, and where infrastructure investment is lacking, are already suffering from the effects of climate change, drought, and famine. Developing countries, where economic prosperity is tied to abundant natural resources, stand to be hit hardest and first, but none of us are immune. Our survival as a human race depends entirely on Planet Earth.
In 2019, the United Nations warned that we had just a decade to save the planet. Making a change in how we treat our environment is catalyzed by many factors, from social and corporate awareness and responsibility to governmental pressure, legislation, and enforcement, to name but a few. But are we erring on the side of an approach that is too little, too late?
Over the last 30 years, approximately 500 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide was released due to anthropogenic activity – which is nearly half of what had been released in the 150 years prior, showing what a poor job we’ve been doing in curtailing carbon emissions. A number of countries, including New Zealand, the UK, Sweden, and France have brought climate change legislation into law, pledging net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Other countries have sought to ban single-use and disposable plastic items, while various “carbon taxes” on vehicles have come into force in various regions.
At the same time, fossil fuel prices have been at an all-time low, while coal mining and coal-fired power plants are touted as essential to rebuilding large economies and providing jobs. Soil quality and food quality are deteriorating, cheap food and cheap fashion are poisoning our environment, convenient packaging is polluting our waterways, and exported trash is turning up in poor countries. Microplastics and nanoplastics are found in every single part of our planet, in the snow in the Arctic, in the air over the Pacific, in the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the food that we eat. Plasticizers and endocrine-disrupting compounds that we are ubiquitously exposed to are impacting the fertility of the human race. Although, it can conversely be argued that the Earth’s natural resources cannot continue to sustain the growing global population. We are facing a major worldwide biodiversity crisis, with knock-on effects on food security, water security, pollution breakdown; the sixth major extinction event, an insidious barely-noticed loss of species is underway – and it is entirely our fault. Forests are cut down for throwaway consumer products and to provide space for more and more managed agriculture, and while coral reefs and rainforests are destroyed; species we had never even managed to discover are eliminated. There are no asteroid impacts or volcanic eruptions to blame this time.
The way we have been living is literally killing us and the planet that we live on.
So much of what we need in this world is provided entirely by nature. From water and food to medicinal products, and the lithium and cobalt for our e-car batteries that we mine in countries like Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which suffer heavily from the associated environmental issues – without these natural resources we are in real trouble.
As a global community, we need to stop paying lip service to the environment and really start to engage. Initiatives like the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide guiding actions to bring us toward 2030, with 17 Goals underpinned by a broad range of initiatives. However, setting goals is only the first step – the hard work is implementation. That requires strong governance and a level of focus and determination that we have yet to see, with transboundary co-operation and thinking on a higher level that does not yet seem to be attainable. The deep divides in access to resources such as education and water, and in levels of poverty and basic standards of human living mean that although we are a global community, the onus remains on the privileged. While every action matters, it is not enough for us to do home composting and put our glass bottles in the recycling bin (without even bothering to wonder where it might end up).
The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled investment, research, and development on environmental issues around the world, which is a major lost opportunity. If the events of 2020-21 have taught us anything, it should be how vulnerable we really are. Our focus on rebuilding economies and livelihoods in this aftermath should be on how to do so in a sustainable way, with the environmental impact of our activities at the forefront. I can think of many aspects of my life that are not likely to ever be the same after the pandemic outbreak, such as reduced business travel and a generally slower pace of life, but I speak as part of the privileged few.
At Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, (QEERI), under Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), we are striving to play our small part in protecting the world around us and providing the best possible environment for current and future generations. As scientists, engineers, and technicians, we work to support Qatar in addressing its grand challenges related to the environment, through the development of technologies, and by gathering data, educating, and raising awareness.
We’ve managed to stave off the apocalypse so far, but for how long? Our children and their children deserve a chance; we owe it to them to protect and cherish this Earth, our home.
Dr. Jenny Lawler is a Senior Research Director of the Water Center at QEERI, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
This article is submitted on behalf of the author by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance.