Saturday, January 17, 2015

the great acceleration


igbp |  choosing the beginning of the Great Acceleration leads to a possible specific start date: when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on Monday 16 July 1945.
“Radioactive isotopes from this detonation were emitted to the atmosphere and spread worldwide entering the sedimentary record to provide a unique signal of the start of the Great Acceleration, a signal that is unequivocally attributable to human activities,” the paper reports. The research explores the underlying drivers of the Great Acceleration: predominantly globalisation.
The bulk of economic activity, and so too, for now, the lion’s share of consumption, remain largely within the OECD countries, which in 2010 accounted for about 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. This points to the profound scale of global inequality, which distorts the distribution of the benefits of the Great Acceleration and confounds international efforts, for example climate agreements, to deal with its impacts on the Earth System. However, the paper shows that recently, global production, traditionally based within OECD countries, has shifted towards BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Moreover, the mushrooming middle classes in BRICS nations are driving greater consumption here too.

About one half of the global population now lives in urban areas and about third of the global population has completed the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. This shift is evident in several indicators. Most of the post-2000 rise in fertilizer consumption, paper production and motor vehicles has occurred in the non-OECD world.

Coinciding with the publication of the Great Acceleration indicators, researchers also led by Professor Steffen have published a new assessment of the concept of “planetary boundaries” in the journal Science. The international team of 18 scientists identified two core planetary boundaries: climate change and “biosphere integrity”. Altering either could “drive the Earth System into a new state.” The planetary boundaries concept, first published in 2009, identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The new research confirms many of the boundaries and provides updated analysis and quantification for several of them including phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, land use and biodiversity.

The original 24 indicators were published in the first IGBP synthesis in 2004, when Professor Steffen was IGBP Executive Director. The term ‘Great Acceleration’ was not used until 2005 at the Dahlem Conference on the history of the human–environment relationship, which brought together many IGBP scientists. This new research is part of IGBP’s final synthesis, which will be completed in 2015.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy has set up a working group to analyse the validity of the Anthropocene claim. Professor Steffen is a member of this working group, which is due to report its conclusions in 2016.