On Sunday night Sir David Attenborough provided a sobering reflection on the state of our planet during the one hour TV special, Extinction: The Facts. The episode called to attention the significance of biodiversity, analysing human impact and highlighting the importance of learning from the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, to guide us in building a more sustainable future.
Put simply, biodiversity is the diversity of living organisms. These organisms are delicately balanced to support each other’s existence, for example, from bee to plant to human. The programme highlighted how overconsumption, habitat destruction and climate change are all ways in which humans are destroying this balance, leading to mass extinction. In 2020, one million out of the eight million species that exist on planet earth are at risk of rapidly becoming extinct, including one in four plant species.
But as David Attenborough points out, “[…] this is about more than losing the wonders of nature. The consequences of these losses for us as a species are far reaching and profound.” Currently, a quarter of the world’s crops rely on pollination. This pollination is carried out by bees and other insects, providing ecosystem services worth billions ‘for free’. However, as is widely reported, bees are becoming extinct largely due to rising temperatures as a result of climate change. A significant contributor to climate change is the building and construction sector, which is responsible for 39% of all global carbon emissions. Alongside contributing to climate change, the impact of engineering also directly hampers other critical ecosystems which humans rely on heavily to survive. To some, it is easy to spot the direct correlation of today’s over consumption on future resource scarcity. To others, it is not. Many still struggle to see humans as part of the ecosystem, instead ignoring our impact on the environment, and continuing mass deforestation, construction and production.
Attenborough’s programme discusses how industries such as fishing, fashion and farming, which are filling the wants and needs of humans, are having some of the most rampant effects on today’s biodiversity levels. These are all industries that engineering plays a role in through machinery, processing and chemicals. It is estimated that 3.8 million hectares were cleared last year to support our unquenching thirst for consumption, resulting in loss of biodiverse habitat. This is not as a result of insufficient farming land, but because it is often easier and cheaper to deforest than restore soil of existing farmland which has been degraded through unsustainable farming practices. As a result, the loss of natural habitat opens up more opportunity for humans to come in closer contact with species who carry unknown diseases, increasing the risk of future pandemics and further reduces the natural capital that is critical to human life.
So what’s driving our over consumption of the planet’s resources and bringing us to the brink of mass extinction? In the UK alone, it is reported that on average, an individual consumes four times more than an individual in India, a country often cited when referring to rapid global population growth. Begging the question, what is having more impact; rising populations or increasing levels of consumption?
There is no doubt that our global populations will continue to rise, it is estimated that by 2050 we will have a global population of approximately 10 billion people. It is also expected that consumption will increase as people aspire to live a life similar to those who currently use the majority of the world’s resources.
There is very little agreeable moral ground upon which to challenge population growth. Consequently, to address the scale of human consumption effectively we must recognise there needs to be new alternatives to the way we all live, and engineering is key to realising this. How can we produce food without clearing forests, reducing natural habitat or destroying global fish stocks? How can we produce our everyday items, such as the clothes we wear, without polluting the environment in the process? These are all engineering design challenges that require ingenuity to reconsider what it is we really need and how we can achieve it within the true constraints of the planet we inhabit, for our generations and those to come.
To slow the decline of the natural world, guard future generations from the threat of more unknown diseases and recover financially from the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, engineering companies must challenge the status-quo, following examples of more conscientious practices benefitting both the environment and people. Doing this does not mean a trade-off in economic benefit. There is increasing evidence to support that investment in sustainable practice performs as well as investment in traditional practice, moreover that sustainable funds have proven to be more stable during periods of extreme volatility – such as now. For engineering companies looking to the future, not only is there a moral obligation to mitigate biodiversity loss, given the central role engineering plays in causing that loss, but the company is likely to be increasing risk if it does not evolve and adapt to sustainable practices and investments.
Hope is not lost, when given the opportunity, nature does recover and when paired with engineering it often reveals new alternatives that are effective, restorative and economically viable. For example, a US study showed that restoring wetlands on just 1.5% of a landscape can reduce flood peaks by as much as 29% and in the case of the city of Boston this would only cost one tenth of the cost of new ‘grey infrastructure’. Simultaneously, restoring wetlands recreates habitats for birds, insects, plants and aquatic life.
We can create positive change, we have to break our habits and make more conscientious choices, as individuals and engineers. As David Attenborough says; “What happens next is up to every one of us.”