Tag Archives: resources

Out of order sign.

The 2017 Earth Overshoot day is here almost a week earlier than last year

Unplug the speakers and push the cork back in the champagne bottle, it’s Earth Overshoot day!

Out of order sign.

Image credits Gordon Joly / Flickr.

This year’s least expected festivity falls on the 2nd of August, the WWF and Global Footprint Network report. Is that earlier than last year? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Also yes!

That’s because the Overshoot marks the day humanity used up all the resources our Earth can (re)generate in a year; everything we eat, drink, burn, or otherwise consume past this day puts us in a kind of environmental overdraft. And I use ‘resources’ here in the broadest sense possible, ranging from food and water all the way to how much carbon plants can sequester in a year.

“By August 2 2017, we will have used more from Nature than our planet can renew in the whole year,” the groups said in a statement.

“This means that in seven months, we emitted more carbon than the oceans and forests can absorb in a year, we caught more fish, felled more trees, harvested more, and consumed more water than the Earth was able to produce in the same period.”

The date comes down to the balance between what we use and throw out as trash — humanity’s global footprint — and what the Earth can produce and absorb — known as biocapacity. At present consumption patterns, humanity would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to supply all the natural resources we’ll use this year and deal with all the mess we’ll make without going into overdraft. But we only have one, meaning our activity from now on will place extra strain on environments, and eat into their ability to provide the things we need in the future.

Spending spree

Credit: Earth Overshoot Day.

Credit: Earth Overshoot Day.

Which isn’t good news. But then again, who hasn’t gone a few days with an overdraft card, right? It’s not ideal, but you get it fixed sooner or later and life moves on. Sure, as an isolated incident, but have you ever tried being in overdraft for 45 years? Because we as a species did just that.

And we’re getting into overdraft territory earlier each year. The Global Footprint Network has calculated the date of the Overshoot since 1986 based on data from thousand of economic sectors (fisheries, forestry, or energy production for example) from the UN. In the 1980s it fell in November. By 1993 it advanced to October, and by the 2000s it was well into September. Last year, it happened on the 8th of August, a full 6 days later than this year. One cause for hope is that the rate at which the Overshoot advances through the calendar seems to be slowing down, at least.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that we’re just two-thirds through this year and we’re already living on borrowed time. People in some countries consume way more than others on average — you can see when the date would fall for each country here — but finger-pointing won’t solve the issue here. We’re dealing with systemic issues that will require us to work together to solve, not split into blame-throwing camps. Most of us have a personal overshoot day. If you don’t believe me, you can calculate your own here.

The single biggest factor in our footprint, for example, is carbon emissions, gobbling up 60% of our allotted resources. We’re seeing a big drive behind clean energy recently, but there’s still a long way to go before we put a meaningful dent in that number. Food makes up 26% of our footprint, The Global Footprint Network reports. If we cut food waste in half, and swap protein-intensive foods for more fruit and vegetables, it could be reduced to 16%.

The easiest place to start, however, is with one’s own garden, so to speak. If you want to do your little part in helping humanity repair its credit rating to Bank Earth, you should consider eating less meat, driving less and always taking on passengers, and cutting down on trash by recycling and limiting food waste.

The auxiliary cutter.

First deep-sea mining operation scheduled to start in 2019 — here are the bots that will do it

Canadian-based firm Nautilus Minerals Inc. plans to launch the world’s first deep sea mining operation in early 2019. The company will launch three remote-controlled mining robots off the coast of Papua New Guinea to the floor of the Bismark Sea to mine rich metal deposits.

Each of the robots is the size of a small house and equipped with huge rock-crushing, teeth-riddled devices to chew through the ocean’s bottom. The smallest one weighs 200 tons and they will be propelled from spot to spot on huge threads in their search for paydirt.

The auxiliary cutter.

The first bot, known as the auxiliary cutter, clears the way for the other two to operate.
Image credits Nautilius Minerals Inc.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are more mineral resources on the seafloor than on land,” Michael Johnston, CEO of Nautilus,  said for Seeker. “Technology has allowed us to go there.”

Pressed by looming shortages on one hand and the prospect of lucrative exploitations on the other, companies and governing bodies have started joining hands to bring sea-bed mining into the picture. To date, over twenty exploration contracts have been issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a part of the UN tasked with regulating areas of the seafloor that lie outside of any national jurisdiction.

“In the seabed, resources are incredibly rich,” said Michael Lodge, Secretary-General of the ISA. “These are virgin resources. They’re extremely high-grade. And they are super-abundant.”

We’ve recently talked about how current levels of mining exploration and exploitation just won’t be able to supply future demand. As populations grow and economies develop, current raw material exploitations will need new additions to satisfy that extra demand. There’s also the need to create a strong mining base to support the development of low-carbon economies — which rely on technology materials that are in short supply currently.

Seabed mining offers an attractive solution to this problem: untouched resources just waiting to be taken in the form of massive sulfide deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, and platinum.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that there are thousands of years’ supply of minerals in the seabed,” Secretary-General Lodge said. “There is just absolutely no shortage.”

The Auxiliary Cutter.

The Auxiliary Cutter removes rough terrain and creates benches for the other machines to work on.
Image credits Nautilius Minerals Inc.

Nautilius says that early tests in the Bismark Sea site, have shown the area is over 10-times as rich in copper as comparable land-based mines, and has more than three times the concentration of gold than the average figure of land exploitations. These fantastic numbers generally come down to the fact that surface resources have been thoroughly explored and long exploited, meaning that the richest deposits on land aren’t around anymore — they’re now cars, or copper wires, or planes. So by comparison, the deposits locked on the sea floor look like a cornucopia of resources just waiting to be harvested.

And I’m all for that. Considering the need, it may not be a question of ‘do we want to exploit the sea floor’ but rather one of ‘how are we going to make it if we don’t?’ That being said, we’ve had a lot of time and opportunities up here on dry land to see what rampant exploitation without care for the places being exploited leads to. As the idea of seabed mining comes closer to reality, we should really think about what the consequences of our actions would be — and how not to make a mess down there as we did topside. Some think that we’re better off just banning the practice altogether.

“There are too many unknowns for this industry to go ahead,” said Natalie Lowrey of the Australia-based Deep Sea Mining Campaign. “We’ve already desecrated a lot of our lands. We don’t need to be doing that in the deep sea.”

“There’s a serious concern that the toxicity from disturbing the deep sea can move up the food chain to the local communities [who live along the coast of Papua New Guinea].”

The Collecting Machine.

The Collecting Machine gathers cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and pushing it through a flexible pipe to the riser and lifting system.
Image credits Nautilus Minerals Inc.

One of her main concerns is that plumes of sediment stirred up during mining operations will travel along sea currents and interfere with ocean ecosystems. The clouds of silt could prove harmful to filter-feeders which often form the lower brackets of food chains — so a hit here would impact all other sea creatures.

Michael Johnston said that the company is taking the sediment plume issue seriously and have designed their equipment to minimize any undersea clouding generated by the collection procedure.

“When we’re cutting, we have suction turned on,” he said. “It’s not like we’re blowing stuff all over the place. We’re actually sucking it up. So the plume gets minimized through the mining process.”

“We go to great efforts to minimize the impact of the plumes. We’re quite confident that the impact from these activities will be significantly less than some of these people claim.”

Still, going forward we should primarily be concerned with not messing stuff up that much — because as we’ve seen, there’s no such thing as a free meal. We’ll have to wait and see how it all develops. In the meantime, one thing is certain.

“If Nautilus goes ahead, it’s going to open the gateway for this industry,” Lowrey concludes.

Even ubiquitous iron could run short.

We may face a huge shortage of essential raw materials stiffling green energy if governments don’t step up their game

An international team of researchers led by Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware, warns that greater international political and scientific cooperation is needed to secure the resources we’ll need in the future.

Even ubiquitous iron could run short.

Even ubiquitous iron could run short.
Image credits nightowl / Pixabay.

To say that humanity today faces some challenges would be an understatement. Political unrest, climate change, income inequality, drug resistance, they all add up. Still, as a species, we’ve shown a knack for eventually overcoming all the problems that’ve been thrown our way — be them by chance or our own hand. All we need is enough time to think about a solution and enough stuff to put it together and voila! Progress.

But we may be soon running short on the second part, the raw materials, an international team of researchers warns. They say that greater international transparency and a free exchange of geophysical data between countries is needed to secure the future’s supply of raw minerals.

What’s (low) on the menu

The team includes members from the academic, industrial, and government sectors in institutions throughout the U.S., South America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They are primarily concerned with future supply of a wide range of technology minerals, which are indispensable in all kinds of industries — from copper wiring in homes or laptop batteries all the way to solar panels and superdense batteries for electric cars. However, they say there’s also cause for concern regarding base metals such as copper or iron ore.

“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said Ali, who is the paper’s lead author.

They looked at demand records and forecasts, as well as estimates of the sustainability of mineral supplies in the coming decades. They write that current mining operations won’t be able to keep up with the rise in demand, especially considering the fact that “implementation of the Paris Agreement requires technologies that utilize a wide range of minerals in vast quantities.” When push comes to shove, no matter how green our policy and technology gets, if we can’t build it and field it, it won’t do us much good. So we need to up our extraction game.

“Metal recycling and technological change will contribute to sustaining supply, but mining must continue and grow for the foreseeable future to ensure that such minerals remain available to industry,” they conclude.

The materials required for the transition to a low-carbon economy, the stuff that goes into manufacturing clean tech, will be particularly tricky, the researchers say. While base materials are used extensively in current economies –so it’s only a matter of expanding on well-established methods and deposits –traditionally there hasn’t been a wide-scale demand of the more exotic minerals required for clean energy sources, leaving society ill-equipped to meet the extra demand for these materials.

Neodymium is used to make the strongest permanent magnets we know of.

Neodymium is used to make the strongest permanent magnets we know of.
Image credits Brett Jordan / Flickr.

We’ll have to both find suitable deposits and develop more efficient methods of extracting, refining, and handling these elements. Metals like neodymium, terbium, or iridium, although only needed in small quantities, can’t be substituted for anything else in certain clean energy applications and other advanced tech. So while they seem to only make up a tiny part of the overall requirements, they are vital for future applications. A bottleneck in terms of material production for these vital minerals would bottleneck development of the industry and ultimately energy production.

According to the team, the best way to prevent this is to work together. International coordination is needed to determine where to focus future exploration efforts, what areas are likely to be rich or poor in which resources and thus what kind of economic agreements are needed between different countries to make sure that there aren’t any deficiencies anywhere.

Supply and demand

Those of you who think laissez-faire systems are the bee’s knees are probably prickling in horror at the mere thought of international government meddling in the market. But the team points out that the forces which dictate the prices of major commodity minerals don’t (currently) apply to rare earths and other technology minerals.

For example, the largest percentage of exploration investment in a single mineral is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry. It, along with other major commodity metals such as copper or iron ore are sold on a global market the same way grain or oil is, a market which fluctuates according to supply and demand. But rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary wildly between them.

Even more, the UN expects global population to reach about 8.5 billion by 2030, which means more demand for these substances in the next decade or so. For your run of the mill goods, take clothes or newspapers, a growth in demand (reflected in a greater price) is swiftly and easily followed by an increase in production. But mineral supply doesn’t follow that same relationship to demand, because of the huge spans of time required to get an exploitation up and running — the horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit, from exploration and subsequent discovery to actually mining the thing, is 10 to 15 years, the team says.

Rare earth elements are usually produced as oxides. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

Rare earth elements are usually produced as oxides. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.
Image credits Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture / Wikimedia.

Considering that only about 10% or early exploration efforts result in a mineable deposit, the outlook is even bleaker. Most deposits prospectors find simply aren’t big enough or concentrated enough to be economically viable. Companies can also have a lot of trouble getting exploitation rights or run into zoning problems due to geopolitical factors.

“Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this,” Ali said.

The authors also warn that for many of the minerals their paper calls into discussion, there aren’t any substitutes. With so few commercially viable alternatives even for the humble copper wire, it’s simply a matter of produce enough stuff or run short.

Ali and his team hope that the paper will form the foundation of an intergovernmental framework or another similar system which would allow countries to plan and prevent mineral scarcity in the future — as both private and public sectors are dependent on raw materials. They say that quick improvements can be made through expansion of developing organizations, such as the United Nation’s International Resource Panel or the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development. Longer-term solutions will need greater international transparency and could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit ‘finds’ much like we protect intellectual property.

“It’s about managing the flow of resources from the ground to product to consumer to recycling,” Ali said.

“People have been so concerned about climate change that it’s created a real movement around it. We don’t see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis.”

The full paper “Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance” has been published in the journal Nature.

We’ve gone into resource overdraft for the 45th year in a row

Earth Overshoot Day, also known as the Earth Debt Day is one of the less enjoyable days in the calendar. It is on this day that humanity’s consumption exceeds the amount of resources that our planet can supply in a year. Overshoot day comes sooner each year; we hit that day on August 19 in 2014. This year it was August 13, a full six days earlier.

Biological capacity reserves and deficits

Biological capacity, or biocapacity, is a way to measure an area’s ability to produce biological materials necessary for life, such as food, timber, textiles, and to absorb its waste, most notably carbon dioxide emissions. Deficits and reserves are determined by measuring an area’s capacity against its ecological footprint—the area required to support an ecosystem’s population.

Biocapacity reserves and deficit per country. Image via footprintnetwork

Biocapacity reserves and deficit per country.
Image via footprintnetwork

The Global Footprint Network estimated that humans would need the resources produced by just over one-and-half Earths to keep up with what we will use this year. And given the rate at which increasing global consumption and population has been exerting pressure on available natural resources, this day would eventually move to May 8, WWF says.

The Global Footprint Network estimates how much we consume, how efficiently we produce, how many people we are and how much the earth’s natural systems generate. “We can’t sustain such growth models and consumption patterns anymore”.

The Global Footprint Newtork says the largest proportion of the ecological budget is being used up by the vast amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. However, it is not clear whether a sustained level of overuse is possible without significantly damaging long-term biocapacity, with consequent impacts on consumption and population growth. Japan would need 5.5 countries of its own size to meet its consumption requirements.

“It’s quite simple,” says Dr. Mathis Wackernagel of the think tank Global Footprint Network. “We look at all the resource demands of humanity that compete for space, like food, fiber, timber, et cetera, then we look at how much area is needed to provide those services and how much productive surface is available.”

His bottomline metaphor is that biological capacity is like your year’s salary, and Overshot day is the day you begin to live off debt because you’ve spent it all. Ideally, it should come on the last day of the year – December 31st. However, since 1970 when Overshoot day fell on the 23rd of December, it’s been steadily creeping up, and this year’s August 13 is the earliest recorded date.

Living today at the cost of tomorrow

Passing Earth Debt Day doesn’t mean there aren’t any more resources and we just tighten our belt and wait for next year. It means we’ll be using more than the Earth can actually give in a year, and there will always be interest.

Wackernagel cites struggling fisheries, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, soil erosion and deforestation as some of the consequences. Spiking food prices and diminishing water supplies worldwide, more costly and extreme weather events, and violent social conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, can also be seen as direct consequences of the increasing strain we’re putting on our planet’s dwindling resources.

The only way this game ends well for us is for developed countries to cut back on their overall resource consumption, switch to renewable energy sources, and recycle more.

Some countries “spend” their salary much faster than others. America and China for example, overshoot much faster than others, while large portions of South America always end the year with biocapacity to spare.

It’s also a question of income – Singapore, for example, exceeds its biocapacity on January 2nd, just after “payday”.

“It’s just a city,” says Wackernagel, noting that a small, densely populated island doesn’t have much capacity to begin with.

Some countries operate within their limits and don’t have overshoot days. That doesn’t mean Wackernagel lets them off the hook

“They are extremely resource rich,” he says of one country that isn’t overshooting. “That doesn’t mean they use their resources wisely, but that’s the privilege of being rich.”

Waste not, want not

Some countries such as Singapore, will never be able to not overshoot. Wackernagel doesn’t expect every country to reduce consumption enough as to never reach debt, but advocates a wiser use of resources for all and plans for the surpluses of some to balance out countries that overshoot.

He says that while the “metabolism of the Earth” is accelerating too fast for us now, he sees some positive signs.

“There are some international negotiations, like what’s going to happen in Paris,” he says, referring to the UN Conference for Climate Change, where nations will try to reach a global agreement for how to address the environmental issues we’ve been seeing recently.

“But it’s not enough to turn the boat around,” he adds, saying it might be time for a resource diet, so we won’t have to keep preparing for Overshoot Day earlier every year.

A new species of chameleon discovered

Dr Andrew Marshall, from the Environment Department at the University of York is the first who spotted a member of the species (and reported it) while surveying monkeys. The meeting however was extremely unfortunate for the chameleon, which was shortly after eaten by a snake.


A random chameleon, not from the recently discovered species

The specimen was collected (I really have no idea how), and compared to two other specimens found in the same area. After it was concluded that it was in fact a new species, it was named Kinyongia magomberae (the Magombera chameleon).

Dr. Marshall:

“Discovering a new species is a rare event so to be involved in the identification and naming of this animal is very exciting. Chameleon species tend to be focused in small areas and, unfortunately, the habitat this one depends on, the Magombera Forest, is under threat. Hopefully this discovery will support efforts to provide this area and others like it with greater protection.”

The project in which the doctor is involved is extremely interesting and important, because aside from studying the wildlife, he also teaches the local population how to manage and protect the forest, which is a valuable resource for them, but also the only thing that keeps numerous species alive.

Private Company SpaceX Delivers First Payload to Orbit

razaksat-launch-youtube-linkPrivate company SpaceX has successfully delivered its first payload into orbit. It was the second successful launch for the company, which aims to reduce the cost of reaching orbit by a factor of ten.

The launch took place Monday from Omelek in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket carried RazakSAT, a Malaysian satellite that will be used to monitor natural resources.

Later this year, SpaceX plans to make the maiden flight of its larger Falcon 9 vehicle, which has been tapped to carry cargo to the International Space Station starting in 2010.

Incredible waster; half of Earth’s food is wasted

It’s hard to believe that about half of the food produced on our planet is wasted, especially when about a quarter of Earth’s inhabitants are suffering from hunger; this, my friends is the wonderful world we live in. Not a world without resources, but a world in which we do not know how to use the resources which are given to us.

Just a few days ago, the Stockholm International Water Institute, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Water Management released a paper in a join effort, called “Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain”. The work itself is really interesting, but probably the most interesting and shocking fact is that half of the food produced worldwide is wasted, and that includes water too.

“As much as half of the water used to grow food globally may be lost or wasted,” says Dr. Charlotte de Fraiture, a researcher at IWMI. “Curbing these losses and improving water productivity provides win-win opportunities for farmers, business, ecosystems, and the global hungry.” – Environment News Service

Also, this is not an exception in the developed countries which know should know how to deal with their resources better.

The paper points out that the food crisis which is ever present in today’s world is not just caused by over population and other external causes, but by some internal causes as well.

“Inefficient harvesting, transport, storage and packaging make a considerable dent in the potential availability of food. Additional and significant losses and wastage occur in food processing, wholesale, retail and in households and other parts of society where food is consumed.”