Using named examples, evaluate the environmental and social costs of adopting new technologies  June 2012
The world is facing significant challenges as it progresses into the 21st century, as population growth continues inexorably towards 9 billion the pressure on earth’s resources and natural systems is becoming unsustainable. Although global in nature their impacts are often felt at a local level and disproportionately with respect to levels of economic development. New technologies offers the potential to address these challenges but with that hope comes the risk and costs to people and the environment. Focusing on global health, climate change and the water-food-energy nexus this essay will evaluate these costs and reflect upon whether they are worth paying.
Climate change is an issue that affects people economically, environmentally, and socially, and is affecting the poor and rich disproportionately, with the poor being more heavily affected. There any many new technologies and policies that we could, and in many cases, are applying in order to stop the effects of climate change. This human intervention is called geoengineering.
Geoengineering represents a way of giving nature a ‘helping hand’ in fixing the problem of climate change, however, there is a chance that it might lead to unforeseeable, unintended consequences that could be hard to overcome. The spread of myxomatosis among rabbit populations is an example of human intervention in the natural world gone wrong, showing that these large approved schemes, don’t always have the intended consequences. Global schemes such as promoting Stratospheric aerosols which are produced by aeroplanes, reflect sunlight back out of the earths atmosphere, in a process known as global dimming, seem to be very effective at reducing climate change for very little investment, however, these present an unknown risk to the environment, with studies linking them to droughts in many African nations, such as, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and also to the development of Alzheimer’s, and certain respiratory diseases. Another similar scheme is changing the deserts surface to have a higher albedo, in an attempt to increase the amount of sunlight reflected off the earths surface. This is similar technique to fertilising oceans with iron, but our knowledge of the environmental effects of these are unknown, and could be devastating. If pollution of resources such as fresh water did occur, there could be very severe consequences, causing many social issues, especially in poorer, developing countries.
The impacts of climate change, and also the impact of geoengineering techniques that we use, can have large economic impacts, affecting infrastructure, many business, and most importantly agriculture. The effects of climate change can have catastrophic impacts on agriculture, changing the type of crops that can be grown, and what land is useful for agriculture. This shift in crops grown, and areas that can be grown on can be very costly to many people. The ongoing economic costs, can hinder the ability of governments to tackle the issues early, causing even worse consequences.
Developing countries struggle to adapt to any changes that climate change and geoengineering cause due to their lack of wealth, whereas more developed, richer nations have the funds to tackle these issues more readily. This causes these issues that we face to widen the development gap even further.
Health technologies have the potential to save millions of lives each year. The world urgently needs new vaccines, drugs, microbicides, and diagnostic tests to slow the global threat of diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV and AIDS, and to tackle many other pressing health needs. Sufficient funding for research and development, a simpler regulatory process for new technologies, and increased interest by private industry can help deliver new health solutions for the developing world. Organisations like the Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC), which is diverse group of nearly 30 non-profit, non-governmental organisations, aims to help accelerate the development of health solutions for poor countries. GHTC does not advocate for any specific diseases or devices, but rather for policies and funding that advance the goals of global health research and development more broadly.
Many countries are aiming to become more equipped to respond to an outbreak before it happens. Technology is especially being developed into the prevention of a future pandemic. Over the last 10 years the approach of officials has also changed, with officials no longer hiding the outbreaks of diseases, as they did with SARS, 10 years ago, which killed 800 people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) are trying to make deals with pharmaceutical companies. For example, GlaxoSmithKline which will donate 7.5% of its vaccine production in the event of a pandemic! and 2.5% will be sold at tiered prices depending on the country’s income.
However, not all of the new technology that is being developed is helping improve global health, or being used in the right places. For example., there has been criticism that he International Monetary Fund has been causing a decline in global health. The IMF loans money to countries with financial problems and in return requires governments to undertake “structural adjustment” policies aimed at improving their financial management. This happened with cases of TB. The countries started with TB death rates averaging six per 100,000 of the population. This rose to 12 per 100,000 by 2003 in countries with IMF loans, but sank in countries without them. In a detailed statistical analysis of the timing of the loans, the team found that this was not because countries with worsening TB simply attracted more IMF attention. Some companies also patent these drugs so countries that need them, such as Kenya, have a reduced supply of need drugs to countries that need the the most. Technology can provide the solution to global health, however it can also hinder it.
The greatest challenge to the developing, and the developed, world is the water-food-energy nexus. As the world develops there is an increase of social and environmental pressure on the key resources, which are water, food and energy, which are intertwined and dependent on each other. There are a variety of techno fixes for these problems, including increasing the use of biofuels, solar micro-grids, water transfer and building more sustainable cities or adapting existing cities to make them more sustainable. Techno fixes are not the complete answer as in order to achieve their full potential they must be paired with an attitudinal fix.
By increasing the use of biofuels you are providing a green fuel source however when they are burnt they release the carbon they have stored back into atmosphere also if pesticides and fertilisers are used to increase the rate of crop growth then eutrophication can occur, which then will have a negative impact on the local water supply and will damage the ecosystem. From a social perspective the land used for biofuels cannot be used for crop growing and so as the pressure for affordable food grows prices will increase. The need for an affordable and stable food supply has resulted in bigger farms, which are more energy and water intensive. In the US farm size has nearly doubled between 1982 and 2007 form about 585 acres to 1,105 acres. The USDA expects the trend to continue, given that larger farms typically have better financial returns. According to biologist and writer Janine Benyus, “since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3,300 percent, but overall crop loss to pests has not gone down. In fact despite our pounding the United States with 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, crop losses have increased 20 percent”. If these pesticides leech into the water supply they can cause eutrophication and dead zones.
Vertical farming in sustainable cities is perhaps the answer, this is stacked farming acreage in the middle of urban centers that allow for local food production in a closed environment. This is less energy and water intensive and so will decrease the pressure on the water-food-energy nexus and could lead to a zero waste economy. If designed properly, the vertical farm should have no material waste. All plant waste from growing can be collected and dried on site while excess food clippings can be composted in basement space. The former can be burned as biomass while the latter can be stored in an anaerobic chamber to create methane gas byproduct. Both can be used to create power for the building while the excess heat can be used to heat the building in the environments that require it. The leftovers can be incorporated into nutrients for the next generation of crops. Its use of water is very similar as it could function as a closed loop supply system. Built on both hydroponics (growing of plants in nutrient-rich water) and aeroponics (growing plants in air with misting nutrient water on the roots). Hydroponics can use 75% less water than surface irrigation and aeroponics can use 75% less than that. As the system is closed, all of the water that is used can be collected either through drainage or through the transpiration in the air via dehumidification. Add a well designed rainwater catchment strategy and a vertical farm could pull relatively little water from municipal infrastructure and produce zero stormwater runoff.