One Planet Earth

“Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist

David Attenborough

Planetary Boundaries

Industrialisation has come at the expense of the environment, which is treated as an unpriced economic ‘externality’. Humanity inhabits one Planet Earth with finite environmental resources, yet the delusion that these resources are unlimited persists. We over-consume nature, a finite resource, and under-consume the most abundant resources on the planet – human labour and ingenuity. 

There is now some recognition of the ecological constraints humanity faces as the swelling global population continues to consume at an increasing rate. Any possible solutions to climate change will only be effective if addressing systemically the other processes that interact to make our planet a living one. These other planetary boundaries are ozone layer depletion, ocean acidification and freshwater withdrawals, air pollution, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, land conversion and biodiversity loss. We are moving closer to the limits of each of these planetary boundaries. Should we exceed these incalculable limits, the tipping point to irreversible shifts in the Earth’s systems moves closer. 

Lifelines and supply chains

The modern economy requires a global web of interconnected lifelines and supply chains. Lifelines—electric power, gas and liquid fuels, telecommunications, transportation, water and wastewater systems—are the delivery systems that provide the amenities which modern society takes for granted. Alongside these lifelines are the supply chains that provide food, goods and services across the globe. Lifelines and supply chains play an essential role in the economic wellbeing and security of the communities they serve. Their effectiveness is critical to economic competitiveness, GDP, household income, jobs and energy independence. 

When lifelines malfunction, a domino effect can magnify this and create further disturbances to their flow, with further loss of functionality.  Interdependence means that disruptions to, for example, electricity supplies, affect the functionality of other services, for example water supply. The multiple interlinkages and vast geographic dispersal of networks lead to system vulnerabilities, so impacts can materialise a long way from the original source. When lifelines and supply chains fail, our extreme dependence on these systems is exposed, as becomes apparent in the wake of disasters. This causes extensive direct and indirect economic losses that ripple out through society, with social and political ramifications. 

Resource demand

The world is facing a ‘perfect storm’, due to rising demand for critical resources, particularly water, food and energy. By 2030, demand for water is estimated to increase by 30% and demand for both energy and food by 50%. This precarious resource security is fast becoming a major global risk. Security has four dimensions, the 4 A’s: availability – the physical availability of resources; accessibility – the geopolitical aspects of access to resources; affordability – the economic costs of the resource and acceptability – the social and environmental aspects of resource stewardship.

Climate change exacerbates resource security, as rising sea levels, increased water demand for food production, and pressures of migration can all cause disruptions to lifelines and supply chains. Supplies of the energy required by these networks to perform their functions are no longer assured. The proposed shift to renewable energy produces an energy source that is intermittent and no longer available on demand 24/7. This fluctuating electricity source has implications for software and technological equipment, and electricity for our homes, schools, offices and transport. Even recycling and reuse require extensive resource use. As resource security becomes more pressing and demand exceeds supply, prices rise and priorities shift. We are already starting to see early signs of this.