The Earth’s resilience is limited

Over Rapid Creek - Colourliciousness
© Charles Rantz Strebor, "Over Rapid Creek - Colourliciousness". (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Our survival depends on the services provided by nature. Nature has provided numerous goods and services free of charge up to now. These include the air we breathe and the water we drink. They also include biodiversity, a sufficient supply of food and a life-sustaining climate. In many cases we do not understand how nature ‘produces’ these ecosystem services. However, we do know that our survival and well-being depend on these services.

Humanity has already exceeded the limits of nature’s resilience in several areas. This is the conclusion reached by an international study carried out under the leadership of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and published for the first time in 2009. An updated version of the study was presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015. The study examined nine complex biophysical processes which control the balance of nature. It established that human intervention in the climate and biodiversity, for example, are reaching the point at which the balance of nature will be destroyed. The consequences of this can no longer be predicted by science and are almost impossible for humans to overcome.

Ground-breaking study demonstrates Switzerland’s impact

In a 2015 study commissioned by the Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, a team of researchers from UNEP/GRID-Geneva and the University of Geneva demonstrated the extent to which Switzerland’s footprints are reconcilable with the planetary boundaries. In its study entitled “Naturverträgliches Mass und Schweizer Fussabdrücke” (“Environmental Sustainability and Swiss Footprints”) the authors developed new approaches that have not been tested before and did ground-breaking work based on them. The results of the study show that Switzerland's footprints for climate change (CO2 and other greenhouse gases), ocean acidification (also caused by CO2-emissions), nitrogen (overfertilisation) and biodiversity are particularly critical.

FOEN: Fact sheet on the study (PDF, 160 kB, 09.07.2015)
FOEN: Abstract of the study (PDF, 818 kB, 09.07.2015)
FOEN: Original study (PDF, 3 MB, 09.07.2015)

Climate change is currently the most visible expression of the over-exploitation of nature. It threatens the capacity of nature to keep the temperature of the planet in check. Over millions of years, nature removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stored it in the ground in the form of coal, oil and gas. The life-sustaining climate we enjoy today was only made possible through the resulting cooling of the atmosphere. Humans have reversed this process over a period of just a few decades. The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased from around 280 ppm (parts per million) to 385 ppm. Drastic action must be taken to halt this development if humanity does not want to be faced with its uncontrollable consequences.

Nature’s capacity has already been exceeded in the case of biodiversity. The extinction of species is part and parcel of nature. However, since humanity has been intervening in nature, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate at which species become extinct. The researchers associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre classify the present as a continuation of the five phases of catastrophic mass extinction – the best known of which is the sudden demise of the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Tertiary era. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is based in Gland in the canton of Vaud and publishes the Red Lists, 41 percent of all amphibian species, 33 percent of all coral species and 25 percent of all mammals are at risk of extinction. Humanity is living at the expense of the other creatures that inhabit our planet.

Nature is also being over-exploited in relation to nitrogen. Although nitrogen composes 78 percent of the atmosphere, it has only been used intensively as a fertiliser for around a century. As the researchers associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre show, nature cannot keep pace with decomposing it. As a result, large volumes of biologically active nitrogen are entering the air, soil, surface water bodies and groundwater. It impairs human health, the climate, biodiversity, forests and drinking water. Nitrogen fertiliser is beginning to suffocate nature. The situation in relation to phosphorous is similar. Thus what began as a way of making the earth more fertile, could be the very thing that renders it infertile one day.

Land and freshwater use are reaching the limits of their capacity. The researchers associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre say that some scope remains in both cases. The same applies to the acidification of the oceans. However, this scope is likely to decrease in the decades to come as the size of the human population to be fed increases.

Nature does not recognize national borders. It is important to protect the environment in our own country and to use resources sparingly. However, it is also important to note that many of the impacts arising from our activities arise abroad – and Switzerland is also dependent on how other countries manage scarce resources. Therefore Switzerland must also engage at international level to ensure that nature does not suffer even more irreversible damage.

Many resources are finite

All resources that are not renewable will run out one day. As a country that has few natural raw materials, Switzerland is particularly affected by this. Today, it obtains these raw materials from all over the world. This arises directly through the import of the raw materials themselves, for example, fuels, animal feedstuffs and metals, and, indirectly through the import of goods, which are produced in other parts of the world using natural resources and range from food products to mobile telephones. Thus the scarcity or disappearance of natural resources in other parts of the world also has consequences for Switzerland and its prosperity.

Important resources will become scarce in the foreseeable future. The mining of important metals like zinc, gold and indium will only be able to continue at previous rates for around two more decades – this is how long the known reserves will last. The same applies for the important mineral raw material phosphorous. Copper will last for four decades as will conventional oil. New extraction and mining methods often involve higher costs and have greater impacts on the environment. The increase in food prices in the first decade of the new century is a clear reflection of the finite nature of the resource arable land. Switzerland will remain dependent on foreign resources. The more efficient management of these resources increases the security of supply and guarantees prosperity.

Last modification 15.10.2015

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