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From low-tech to nuclear: Fixes for our planet

What will help us solve the critical problems currently facing our planet? An international gathering of thinkers is today mulling that very question … and they see answers in everything from mobile phones and broadband to low-tech fixes and sustainable agriculture.

State of the Planet 2010 — which brings together participants from New York, Beijing, New Delhi, London and Nairobi — this year focuses on four modern challenges: climate change, poverty, economic recovery and the international community’s ability to respond to these and other crises. So far, speakers have offered a far-ranging assortment of insights and perspectives:

  • The number of people who own mobile phones today stands at 4.6 billion, and that number is expected to one day reach between 6 and 7 billion, according to Hans Vestberg, president and CEO of Ericsson. Likewise, the number of people with broadband is projected to grow from a half-billion to 3 billion. Vestberg says that switching to broadband could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 15 to 20 per cent.
  • Climate experts from China point out the problem we’re facing stems in part from the fact that 80 per cent of the population is entering an urbanised, industrialised world. They raise the question, “How do we confront the consequences that this urbanisation will bring to the environment?”
  • Qi Ye, professor of environmental policy and management and director of the Climate Policy Institute at China’s Tsinghua University “addresses the question of the role of democracy in climate change legislation, asserting that it’s hard to get something passed in the US because the democratic system is broken and not working effectively.” That isn’t the case in China, he says, where the government has avoided being bogged down in debates.
  • Jyoti Parikh, executive director of Integrated Research and Action for Development, says technology for dealing with carbon and climate issues must be location specific and cost effective. He cites the example of India, where 700 million people are still without access to electricity. The way forward, he says, is low-cost technology.
  • Wallace S. Broecker, Newberry professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, foresees a resurgence in nuclear energy, although the problem right now is that it’s proceeding too slowly.
  • Allowing for the needs of developing countries means the US will need to reduce its emissions by 100 per cent by 2020, according to Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. He adds that sustainable agriculture can be used to capture carbon.
  • In leading a discussion on green growth for Africa, Economist correspondent Jonathan Ledgard starts with some troubling statistics: the population of Africa is doubling, urbanisation is quadrupling, and the continent has lost 30 to 50 per cent of its biodiversity in the last 10 years. In Ethiopia alone, 3.7 million people are dependent on food aid.
  • Africa could multiply its energy supplies by four times in a low-carbon way that pursues geothermal, wind and solar power, but both the government and private sector must work together to achieve that, says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and UN Under-Secretary-General.
  • In Malawi, government subsidies for seed and fertiliser transformed the country into a food exporter, says Glenn Denning, professor of professional practice at Columbia University. As agriculture grew, people began saving, and the first thing they did with their money was to buy mobile phones. Ericsson’s Vestberg notes that phones are being used for everything from education to health services: “They do things with mobile phones that we in the West would never imagine.”

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