Science and technology correspondent at The Economist, Alok Jha, has spent nearly two decades reporting on everything from space to stem cells, particle physics to climate change. During his previous role as a journalist at The Guardian, Alok broke dozens of front-page science news stories. He has also worked as an ITV broadcaster; his assignments have included flying in a zero-gravity plane and getting an exclusive scoop from the scientists who made the world’s first lab-grown burger. Alok is also a former Welcome Trust fellow and the author of three books. His most recent book, ‘The Water Book’, follows the journey of water from its origins in the Big Bang, to society’s search for life in the solar system. It also details Alok’s own expedition to Antarctica and discusses the world-shaping weather systems of the Southern Ocean.
Quintet believes that a richer planet means richer lives for us all. That’s why Quintet is not only pursuing its own ambitious carbon reduction goals – for instance, by removing all single-use plastics from its premises by the end of 2020 – but is also encouraging other financial service companies to pursue planet-conscious business models and invest more sustainably. Quintet hosted an online discussion: ‘For a Richer Planet: Carbon reduction and the role humans must play’ as part of its commitment to sharing knowledge on how we can all live more sustainably.
Alok Jha explains why, collectively, we must share responsibility in order to secure the future of the planet:
If asked to think of an emblem for the climate crisis, most of us would probably settle on a very specific molecule: carbon dioxide (CO2). That seems fair. It is, after all, the major greenhouse gas emitted as a result of human actions and the most significant driver of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.
But what if I told you there was a different molecule that was as important, if not more so. This molecule is also a greenhouse gas (though we don’t often think of it that way). It is far more abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere than the much-talked-about CO2 and has a much more significant daily impact on our lives. We rely on this molecule not only to survive, but to generate electricity, grow food, make our jeans and assemble our computer chips. This vital molecule is H2O - and the climate crisis could mean we run out.
This might sound odd. If there’s one thing Earth has a lot of, it’s water. It covers 70% of the planet’s surface and is also common in the air and in vast reservoirs and aquifers below ground. Every child at school learns how this vast quantity of water continually cycles around the globe - evaporating from seas, turning into clouds, raining onto land and then flowing through rivers back to the sea. And though it is always moving, it never disappears from the Earth. Could this vast, seemingly-endless resource really be in danger of becoming scarce?
To understand the answer, it’s worth knowing a few basics. Not all water on Earth is useful to humans. Though there are more than 1.5bn cubic kilometres of water on Earth, less than 1% of it is available to us. The rest is locked up in the polar ice sheets or floats, uselessly for our purposes, in the salty seas and oceans. Humans have to share that tiny amount of freshwater with every other plant and animal on Earth.
We humans use that freshwater for much more than basic biology. Growing cities, increasing agriculture and industry all mean that more and more freshwater is extracted from ever deeper and more ancient sources. Some of that water is used and returned to the Earth loaded with pollutants. Until the natural water cycle cleans it up - and that could take anything from a few months to hundreds of years - that means less freshwater to go around for the other life that might need it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, climate change has another worrying trick up its sleeve. Perhaps the greatest worry about the water on Earth, however, is not how much there is, but where it is. The climate crisis increasingly means that water often ends up in the wrong places on Earth.
As human activity pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere and slowly heats the planet, the effects of that warming make themselves felt primarily through changes in the Earth’s water cycle. A warming Earth has seen rainfall patterns change so that wet parts of the world have become wetter and dry parts of the world have become drier. In the past few decades, coastal regions have become more prone to flooding as hurricane and typhoon seasons have become longer, and individual storms have become more intense.
It is not only destructive to have too much water. Too little water can ruin lives too. In many parts of the world that were already parched, the climate crisis has intensified droughts and caused harvests to fail. In turn, that has led to famine, economic and political ruin and, in some cases, conflict.
‘It should not be up to poorer nations to curtail their aspirations, but rather rich ones to get more sustainable and smart about their own water footprints.'
Studies show that water scarcity will continue to increase in the future, with around 52% of the world’s population living in water-stressed areas by 2050. Over the same timescale, the United Nations estimates that the number of people at risk of floods will increase from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion. At the current rate of climate change, by 2030, water scarcity in dry parts of the world will displace between 24 to 700 million people.
Water stress is all not only a problem for humans: the changing availability of water around the world will mean vast vital ecosystems - and the plants and animals within them - will be irrevocably altered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that more than 80% of the world’s ecological processes that underpin healthy marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems (such as increasing genetic diversity and seasonal migration) are already showing signs of adverse reactions to climate change.
What can we do about the degradation of this vital resource? The big answer is to reduce carbon emissions so that the Earth's temperatures stabilise, and its water cycle returns to a more normal state.
More immediately, we could all become more conscious of the water we use. Do you really need to flush a toilet with five gallons of water? Do you really need to shower every day with extra-powerful shower heads? Small changes at home could lead to enormous cumulative reductions in water use at city and national scales.
The problem is most apparent, as it often is, in the richer nations. An average American uses around 600 litres of water per day while Europeans use around 250 litres. In a typical developing country, people somehow manage on 20 litres a day each. As the world’s population grows towards 10 billion over the coming decades, it should not be up to poorer nations to curtail their aspirations, but rather rich ones to get more sustainable and smart about their own water footprints.
For the whole of human history we have taken water for granted. This molecule has underpinned every step of our development; from hunter-gatherers to farmers to creators of civilisations. Water has always been present for humans. It’s now our responsibility to ensure it stays that way.
By Alok Jha
Alok Jha took part in Quintet’s webinar ‘For a Richer Planet: Carbon reduction and the role humans must play’. If you missed the discussion, click here to watch a recording of the full event.