Environmental Challenges 2020


The rate of deforestation is slowing but the world’s rainforests are still overexploited. Trees continue to be felled for their valuable timber and to convert land for grazing livestock and planting crops. Deforestation reduces abundant reserves of biodiversity and accounts for 11 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the revolutionary practice of vertical farming is gaining traction and would relieve the pressure on farmers to clear swathes of rainforest in order to expand production. Vertical farms cultivate crops in stacked layers in a controlled environment, drastically reducing the area of land required to grow crops to a fraction of current levels.

The indoor environment also allows for humidity, temperature and light to be tailored to the crop being produced, optimising growth and yields while reducing the need for pesticides and petrochemical fertilisers. The technology underpinning vertical farms is being refined and simplified, offering the prospect of adoption by small-scale farmers in poorer regions.

Ocean plastic

The world’s oceans are full of discarded plastic which disrupts ecosystems and chokes and entangles millions of sea creatures each year. Plastic’s low cost and incredible versatility has seen production increase exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015. The problem is that plastic fragments into ever-smaller pieces but takes hundreds of years to decompose.

To combat the problem, Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit, has patented a floating tube that skims the surface of the ocean to catch plastic debris, from giant fishing nets to shards of micro-plastic 1mm wide. The retrieved plastic is then transformed into sustainable products, with profits funding further cleanup operations.

Air pollution

Worsening air pollution is a significant burden on global health, directly contributing to nine percent of worldwide deaths every year. China, Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent are disproportionately affected. Megacities like Delhi and Beijing have recorded concentrations of harmful particles three times higher than the threshold considered “hazardous” by the WHO.

But developers are looking into ways of cleaning air in urban environments. Dutch and Pakistani design companies have developed variants of a “smog-free tower” – an air purifying column which sucks in pollution and expels clean air. The first tower was installed in Rotterdam in 2015 and the concept is starting to be exported to other global cities. The Chinese have already installed a 100-metre tower in Beijing which has produced 10 million cubic meters of clean air a day and reduced the average concentration of harmful airborne particles by 15% during periods of high pollution. The regional government of India’s northern Haryana state is on the verge of adopting the new technology.

Water insecurity

From the Congo River to the Mekong Delta, communities are experiencing shortages of uncontaminated water for domestic and agricultural use. Despite an apparent abundance, very little the Earth’s water is both drinkable and accessible. Only two percent of all water is fresh. Of that two percent, only 30 percent is either groundwater or surface water, found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Emerging technologies such as big data, AI and the internet of things (IoT) are being used in conjunction to improve the efficiency of water recycling, desalination and redistribution. Firms like Geosyntec are starting to use smart sensors installed at critical junctures in water piping to alert managers when water levels are unusually high or low, so anomalies such as leaks or floods can be quickly identified and addressed. IoT sensors can detect chemicals in water, meaning unexpected or dangerous concentrations can be spotted and dealt with immediately. Data collected by these devices can be analysed by AI algorithms to predict when weather patterns are more likely to result in chemical spikes allowing for water supplies to be preemptively treated.

Food insecurity

One in nine people is currently undernourished. This number has halved since 1991 but the stability of food production underpinning this positive trend is under threat. Intensive farming methods and the overuse of agrochemicals have sapped nutrients required to sustain crops from the planet’s soil and global food systems remain vulnerable to droughts and floods.

But a new generation of apps is helping farmers adapt to these challenges. Apps like iCow allow livestock farmers to track the gestation periods of their animals, find vets and monitor best practices. An app called Esoko sends information to farmers about market prices, weather forecasts and advisory services. FarmBee and AgriApp are peer-to-peer platforms for farmers to share crop data with one another. WeFarm offers a similar service but without the need for internet access. The proliferation of agricultural smart sensors connected to the IoT coupled with data analytics will continue to improve farmers’ ability to use land more effectively, optimising crop yields and reducing the need for chemicals.

Mining pollution

Rare earth metals are in high demand for use in smartphones, wind turbines and hybrid cars. But extraction tends to involve intensive surface mining that radically alters the topography and drainage of land by stripping it of rocks and vegetation. Rainfall then leaches the toxic chemicals used in mining into the earth, contaminating soil and groundwater.

But innovative solutions are being provided by the burgeoning green mining market, set to grow by 40 percent by 2024. Methane capture and carbon storage techniques are increasingly being employed by mining giants like Rio Tinto. Ecosphere Mining is pioneering water treatment and recycling processes that cut pollution as well as waste and costs. A Chilean mining company, Mineria Activa, has developed a sustainable mining strategy that involves sifting earth by passing it through a tank of biodegradable chemicals rather than injecting the chemicals into the ground. The cleaned soil is then returned to the ground in which pine trees are planted to prevent erosion. Investment-driven technological improvements are making similar techniques increasingly cost effective.

Katja Hoyer

Germany after Merkel