How much longer can the world support our way of life?

By 2050, it's predicted that we will need almost the equivalent of three Earths to sustain the world’s ever-growing population. If the world continues its current way of dealing with resources, it's not going to be possible, says Green Cross International's president Alexander Likhotal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 2:31pm

In 11 years’ time, it may be time to kiss your iPhone, Galaxy Note or other similar devices goodbye. Assuming production of indium continues at the current rate, some researchers have predicted that the rare metal – used in touch-screen gadgets, LDC displays, and flat-screen TVs and computer monitors – will run out in just over a decade. (That’s also assuming human ingenuity doesn't come up with a new material.)

The world’s resources are finite, but most of us live as though there’s an endless supply of resources. As the population and consequently consumption increase, the earth’s resources get more and more stretched.

“By the year 2050, according to the World Bank, the GDP of the world will reach 200 trillion a year,” Alexander Likhotal, president of Green Cross International, tells me during my visit to the Geneva headquarters of the environmental NGO last month.

“That means three worlds sitting on the resources we have today – it’s not going to be possible unless we change the way we deal with resources and energy.”

A sustainable and secure future for the world has been the goal of Green Cross since it was founded in 1993 by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Through operations in more than 30 countries, it responds to the combined challenges of security, poverty and environmental degradation, seeking solutions through dialogue, mediation and co-operation. In other words, it’s like a “Red Cross” for the environment.

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year – culminating with a conference and musical at the UN Office in Geneva this evening – Gorbachev suggests there’s still much to be done.

“As we consider the far from satisfactory outcomes of Rio+20, the stalled environmental agenda, the dismal progress made in addressing such burning issues as climate change, the water crisis, the situation in the Middle East, and the overall state of the global security system, we can see that we clearly need to intensify our efforts,” says Gorbachev in Green Cross’ 20 year report.

Likhotal notes that the organisation has much to be proud of in the past two decades. Such as: more than 52,000 people in China, Ghana, Bolivia and elsewhere are receiving safe drinking water thanks to its Smart Water for Green Schools project; its advocacy has been instrumental in pushing major powers, including the US and Russia, to dispose of chemical weapons; and thousands of people in Southeast Asia, northern Iraq and areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are receiving health care and other support thanks to Green Cross staff.

“But for me,” Likhotal says, “the biggest achievement of Green Cross is conceptual.”

He explains: “Green Cross was created at a time when the international community separated issues into humanitarian and environmental. And at that time, the priority was given to humanitarian issues. I can understand why, but in reality you cannot decouple one from the other.

“Because, as we showed for example in our first report on the environmental consequences of the war in the gulf, it was clear that the environmental consequences that were left untreated only exacerbated the suffering of the people in the region. So it was clear that whenever there was a calamity, the environmental and humanitarian issues should be dealt with in parallel.

“I must say that Green Cross’ achievement was bringing about the change of this mentality in the world. Thanks to Green Cross, the joint OCHA-UNEP [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – United Nations Environment Programme] unit was set up.

“I think today we have the proof that this approach was correct because of the synergistic effect of the global challenges we face.”

In March last year, Green Cross made its first foray into China when it took its Smart Water for Green Schools project to Heinigou Village in Yunnan province. Working with Singapore non-profit Lien Aid and the Yunnan Environment Development Institute, Green Cross built new infrastructure for the secure supply of safe water and hygienic sanitation.

“Using pipes, we captured the water of a spring that was running down the mountain and supplied households and the local boarding school with safe water. We built showers, taps and latrines,” says Marie-Laure Vercambre, director of Green Cross’ Water for Life and Peace programme.

In 2009, Yunnan was hit by one of the worst droughts in 60 years. Heinigou, a small mountainous community that depends on agriculture and farming for both economy and subsistence, was particularly hard hit.

Children in the village had their education cut short because they had to help supplement the lack of income at home. Without basic sanitation infrastructure, water sources were often contaminated and water-borne diseases ran rampant.

The six-month, $500,000 RMB project was co-funded by the local government, Lien Aid and Green Cross, says Lien Aid’s CEO Koh Lian Hock.

“Apart from hardware, we also provided software: we educated the villagers about good hygiene practices and how to make use of the new facilities to improve their health,” Koh adds.

Likhotal says the goal is to do more in this region.

“Our pilot project is tiny, but it’s an extremely important avenue of activity for Green Cross,” says Likhotal, who was Gorbachev’s advisor and spokesman during the former Soviet president’s leadership.

“We do hope that since we’ve started, we’ll be able to show the authorities that we’re there to help the Chinese people resolve the problems that exist, because I think the Chinese attitude towards its priorities in terms of environmental and sustainability issues has been changing. About two years ago, I noticed a dramatic turn.”

With China’s growing middle class and increasing consumption, Likhotal says this will “inevitably add a lot to the exploitation of resources”.

“Of course, we want to understand how these issues are being tackled [in China], and maybe provide some expertise which we have,” he adds. “For instance, a couple of years ago, Green Cross launched a task force on climate change and it has developed very interesting ideas in terms of how we should create the road map to resolve this situation [of diminishing resources].

“We’re trying to find ways to develop economy in a way that doesn’t contradict and doesn’t spoil the environment. We’re ready to provide all our findings to all the relevant agencies in China, and we hope it’ll add value to what is being done by China today.”

Likhotal cites the world’s exploitation of real metals as an example. Of 60 main real metals in the world, he says reprocessing of metals is roughly only 1.2 per cent.  “We’re not that rich to be this wasteful,” he says.

To deal with this, businesses in the US and Western Europe are increasingly changing the way they operate, Likhotal says. Boeing, he says for example, has stopped selling engines for huge aircrafts, leasing them instead. “It means Boeing does not need to produce as many engines as before, and it means it saves on energy and other resources, and this is a win-win for Boeing.”

But what can the layperson like you and I do?

For a start, Likhotal says you can shut down your TV completely – not leave it on stand-by with that little red light still on – and avoid drinking bottled water whenever possible.

“In a megacity of say 10 million people, the amount of energy consumed only by this light is equal to the production of electricity by one medium nuclear power station,” he says.

“Why is nuclear energy being produced? Because we consumers demand that energy. My advice would be to just think deeper in terms of how you live, how much you consume, and how you can live differently. If we all start changing our patterns of consumption, then we change a lot.”

“Mahatma Ghandi once said that there are several social sins, and one of them was faith without sacrifice. This is something that is very relevant to the modern world,” Likhotal adds.

“There are much more people who are ready to announce themselves and environmental or sustainable development supporters, but very few people among them ready to limit their consumption and to prove their faith with just a slight symbolic sacrifice.”


Watch Green Cross International's 20th anniversary musical, 2050: The Future We Want, live at this link at 7pm CET today (1am Wednesday Hong Kong time).