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The population of the Earth is now consuming 1.3 times its available resources, Will Day, chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission and an advisor to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warned Ireland's business leaders today, but out of the chaos come opportunities, reports John Kennedy.
Speaking at the Green Economy Business & Leadership Briefing in Dublin this morning, Day (pictured) said that sustainability is the single biggest business opportunity of the 21st century. Everything from the carbon challenge, global warming, food supply and security suggests the world is at a serious tipping point. But on the other hand, in all of these challenges, Day said, there are opportunities.
"Human society is part of the biosphhere and we forget that. The economy is a subset of human society, so in theory we're in charge of this thing - in practice, the last two years have lead me to question whether we are in charge...but that is the theory."
Day presented an self-confessed apocalyptical assessment of where humanity stands in relation to what we've done to our planet. "Is our economy fit for purpose or will it drag us over the side of a cliff? We've not done very well recognising the cost of our activity and we're about to pay the price of that failure. 25 September was the date we started using more than this planet's stuff. We are now consuming 1.3 times the earth's supply of resources."
To illustrate his point he described how farmers in China are now collecting pollen, drying it and are painting flowers because they are running out of crops to feed their animals. He said there's a chance we're still breathing the air that would have been Julius Caesar's last breath, because it takes 18 months for any release of gas to be mixed completely with global atmosphere. "What comes out of a factory chimney matters."
Day said that firstly the earth is running out of water. Out of the world's water supply - 1.4bn cubic kilometres - 98pc of that is salt water. Of what's left two thirds is frozen in glaciers. "That doesn't leave us with much drinkable water and remember we have to share it. Extreme water stress does not lead to a functioning economy. The Murray River in Australia does not have enough water to secure critical human needs in 2010. There are cities running out of water around the world. Bankers are suggesting we create a financial market in water rates, I'm not reassured by that."
Agriculture, he says, is the biggest user of water globally, industry curiously is more modest. "But reality bites - by 2030 India, home to 1bn-plus people will have a 50pc gap between supply and demand. In China, that gap will be 30pc."
Food, Day warns, will be a big deal in the future. "One pound of grain fed beef requires 3,000 gallons of water. Water and food are completely linked. When climate change starts to bite we will see up to 50pc reduction in food production."
Other resources the world is likely to run out of include tin which will disappear in 20 years, lead which will run out in 18 years, copper which will run out in 25 years, iron ore which will run out in 64 years and bauxite (aluminium) which will disappear in 69 years. "We will be mining municipal rubbish dumps in the future. The Chinese economy is sniffing out where the lithium and chromium is in the world and are sealing deals for the next 20 years."
Opportunity out of adversity
Sustainability will be a vital business opportunity in the 21st century, said Day. "Europe is bracing itself for a 20pc drop in food yields from new pesticide regulations. Fisheries are peaking because we have over-fished. Ask Somali pirates why they are pirates and they say they used to be fisherman."
Day says the world is seeing a rise in health issues related to climate change and food shortages. "Since the year 2000 one in two children born to Hispanic parents will become diabetic. In the years ahead one in four children in the world will become diabetic."
He said the world's population is rising exponentially in underdeveloped countries while in the developed world people are living longer. "The next 2.5bn people in the world will all live in cities, mostly in developing countries. Plagues are returning - we are building the most fantastic laboratory for human diseases. This is not the slums of Nairobi, this is here and now."
In terms of climate change, Day said that CO2 levels are at their highest level in 650,000 years. "Climate change is unequivocally happening and I'm 90pc certain that this is due to man-made emissions. We are worse than the worst projections - it's depressing really because it's not as if we didn't know. Power stations, agriculture, industrial processes and transportation fuels - it's all in our control and we need to be doing something about it."
Day said that the current threat is that global warming could exceed two degrees. "Even up to two degrees, it's ugly. We are heading to three to four degrees unless we do something radical it's going to look apocalyptic. Remember the hot summer in France in 2003 that led to all those deaths, and tyres sticking in the tar. Well, by the 2040s that will be average. By the 2060s that will be considered a cool summer."
On the peak oil debate he says: "It's no secret that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one. BP reckons that there's 40 years of oil left - that's not very long if you have a grandchild or teenage daughters."
In all of this chaos Day says there is opportunity. "The dark forces eating the world are simply our way of life.
"Decarbonisation of economies - that will happen. Global markets will need to get off their addiction to oil. Supply chains are facing uncertainty and change. Consumer awareness - people will really ask about what businesses are doing. There will be migration - in this lies risk and opportunity. Demographics, the world has an ageing population. And in terms of food security - there are going to be real economic and social implications.
"This is filled with opportunity. The CEO of Walmart said that 'sustainability is the single biggest business opportunity.' Nicholas Sarkozy, president of France says that 'economic growth was destroying more than it was creating'.
"Business leaders need to be asking themselves, 'how resilient is your business model and strategy? How exposed are you and your company to carbon?'
"This is happening, this will happen and fortune will favour the brave," Day concluded.
Video highlights from the event are available here.