By Sukanya Randhawa |
The long ignored Human-Nature Interface
The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has exposed, in grim terms, the deep environmental wounds that the human race has created over the several last decades. Before touching upon the report, let’s take a look at a few environmental facts: a catastrophic 68% global species loss over the last 50 years, modification of over 50% of available land surface with over 25% of total land already rendered degraded, loss of 46% of total tree cover, disappearing global wetlands. The IPCC report presents overwhelming evidence of human’s “irreversible” footprint that has led to the planet’s climate extremes and observed weather changes. The report reaffirms that there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming. The world may have lost the opportunity to keep global warming under 1.5°C. It is likely to be breached within the next 10 to 20 years in all emission scenarios, including where CO2 emissions decline rapidly to net zero around 2050. As human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate change, it is critical to reflect upon some major lapses, current vulnerabilities and potential solutions.
As the global economy increased more than 6-fold between 1960 and 2000, with the global population doubling over the same period, there was a massive increase in demand for goods such as food, fuels, fibre and timber etc. Ecosystems were altered to increase their productive capacity. Farms replaced forests and savannahs, fresh-water aquifers were depleted (three-quarters by 2025). This kind of relentless modification of ecosystems to enhance supply of a particular service, ended up degrading the capacity of the environment to provide a range of other services, eventually resulting in ecological imbalance. The interface between ecosystem services and environmental assets needs to be better managed. A nexus approach that recognises the complex and critical interrelations between systems needs to be adopted across the different sectors enabling a more integrated perspective while ensuring sustainable resource management. At the core of climate change crisis lies a missing interfacing of environment and society in the decision-making which means crucial trade-offs between ecosystem services are often ignored when decisions about environmental assets are made. Are the barriers to this interface too thick to undergo a timely transformation? At the core of which lies human selfishness. And at the cost of which might be the human future itself.
Widespread concerns with alarming weather patterns such as historic heat waves across US-Canada and increased frequency and intensity of cyclones for coastal areas, is now taking a more global form and shape. As we burgeon into another decade, widespread global efforts are being launched to cut down CO2 emissions. UN has declared this decade (2021–2030) as critical for ecosystem restoration with a clear goal to prevent, halt & reverse further degradation. From a practical perspective, global organisations such as the UN typically end up funding a few limited projects in especially fragile global regions. That is not enough. There is more that needs to be done.
One possible solution lies in blending sustainable development with the right technologies, regulation and policies with an ability to scale. Additionally, instead of focussing on corrective action for remediation, a paradigm shift towards preventive action to secure global environmental assets could be taken up at scale. This can be accomplished only when mainstream decision-making is integrated with digital environmental solutions. But before I touch upon the “how” in the third section, lets first take a deeper dive into the systemic dispositions that are the major impact drivers.
The classical developing world vulnerabilities
The twenty-first century world has witnessed myriad challenges — some common such as the pandemic, natural disasters and climate change while other more culture or region specific such as financial market turbulence and shocks of terrorism. Yet there is no denying that the populations most exposed to the panoply of risks are living in the developing world.
The fact is that the developing world continues to grapple with unplanned growth and development further exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. Rapid & haphazard urbanisation has driven failure of the infrastructure and water crises along with social instability. In June 2019, all the four water reservoirs feeding the city of Chennai ran dry. This was the first time in history that a large metropolis ran out of its water supply. The Asian Development Bank predicts that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%. This primarily affects the larger and more vulnerable rural populations. For example — unsustainable groundwater consumption for irrigation and other uses, without any planned recharge systems, is projected to put 60% of India’s aquifers in critical condition in the next 10 years. Water being the lifeline of any rural agrarian society.
The majority of the developing world population lives in rural areas and poverty is primarily a rural phenomenon. An estimated 3 billion people — around 40 per cent of the global population — live in the rural areas of developing countries. Hunger, poverty, youth unemployment and forced migration — all have deep roots in rural areas; and all can be vastly improved through investing in sustainable rural development. As we improve rural ecosystems we cannot do it at the cost of climate crisis. Vulnerable rural ecosystems have to be restored and developed keeping in mind the natural local ecosystem needs and risks — to regain more resilience and to prevent any dangerous social and environmental fallouts. The key is an integrated approach that highlights the interdependencies between achieving water, energy and food security for livelihood prosperity and human well-being, while ensuring ecologically sustainable use of essential resources. This would go in parallel with the strong global drive towards decarbonisation across all economies by cutting down emissions.
One technology, based on a digital approach can help here. Digital solutions have been applied to every facet of our life — health, logistics, communications and marketing, but has not come in a big way in management of environment.
Climate Intelligence with a 360° view
Recent advances in satellite imagery have enabled open-access revolution when it comes to earth observation data — which now comes at increasingly higher resolutions (10m to sub-meter). This coupled with technological breakthroughs in handling large volumes of data storage and processing, advanced artificial intelligence (AI) methodologies for rapid and complex analysis, has open doors for developing novel digital solutions for a range of applications such as precision agriculture and disaster mitigation recovery, for example.
The ecosystem restoration arena is a complex and multi-dimensional one. A hybrid digital solution that combines remote sensing, AI and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping presents an unprecedented ability to tackle multiple facets of a socio-environmental problem, provide flexible solutions with in-built climate intelligence that enables to understand the physical constraints and social demand of a local region and facilitate rapid decision-making & implementation. Moreover, this would replace the current outdated ways of infrastructure expansion that involve long lead times and lack of reliable data for planning and impact measurement. By creating more transparency and delivering sustainable development goals (SDGs) faster in a more diligent and precise manner, race to restoration without digital tools would be quite incomplete. Though such an integrated digital approach shows tremendous potential, the longer-term efficacy has to be still proven. But we know it is coming.
At Auroville Consulting, we are developing a global tool called LifeLands (LiLa)* that identifies barren lands, evaluates their potential in terms of solar energy, sustainable water management, and ecological restoration. It allows a 360° view of a highly interlinked problem by analysing multiple layers of information at once and to create rapid data-based insights derived from earth observation data, machine learning algorithms, integrated public datasets and in-depth subject expertise. We bring experts together to help solve a diverse problem of ecosystem restoration with its multiplexed facets. An automated data pipeline performs a comprehensive evaluation of the natural potential of a land w.r.t its ecosystem as well the socio-economic context, to ensure that its protection and development get the “right” context.
Without urgent action, climate impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030. By 2050, without concrete climate and development action, over 143 million people in just three regions (Latin America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa) could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change. With growing interconnectedness of economies, this is a problem of global concern as advanced economies cannot ultimately reduce their own vulnerability, without giving due attention to these global challenges.
The long neglected crisis of climate change is beginning to gain new momentum in view of the accelerated deterioration of planets’ vital signs. The Digital Zeitgeist presents the potential to accomplish sustainable development with an integrated approach- at a scale and pace that is the need of the hour. Smart decision making with data-driven scientific tools interfacing the environment & society, would amongst other efforts, not just prevent us from an impending humanitarian and environmental crisis, but also help secure a more resilient future for the planet.
*LifeLands (LiLa) is a product offering developed at Auroville Consulting. If you are interested to learn more about it, please contact the leads — Martin Scherfler email@example.com or Dr. Sukanya Randhawa firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author — Dr. Sukanya Randhawa is a research scientist with focus on impact science & technology for environmental sustainability and climate action. She develops innovative digital tools that utilise satellite imagery & public datasets integrated with GIS and machine-learning algorithms, for creating powerful data-based insights that enable smart decision-making
This article was posted on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/sukanya-randhawa_ipccreport2021-science-sustainability-activity-6832219772873125888-2ykE
 IPCC Report https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf
Joseph Hancock, The case for an ecosystem service approach to decision-making: an overview, Bioscience Horizons: The International Journal of Student Research, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 188–196, https://doi.org/10.1093/biohorizons/hzq013
Auroville Consulting, 2019. WaterEnergy-Land-Livelihood (WELL) Nexus. Energy as lever towards a sustainably integrated resource management for Tamil Nadu’s Agricultural Sector
Vulnerability in developing countries, World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER)