Strategies to save the only planet we have
This week the seven billionth citizen of the world was born, causing all of us to ponder the future. Does this rapid population growth pose a threat to our planet? Is this development a risk or is it also an opportunity?
One thing is clear: time is running out. When the wall between the east and west fell there were a little over five billion people on the earth. At the turn of the millennium there were already over six billion. By the middle of the 21st century we must reckon with over nine billion. We are already using the earth’s resources faster than they can regenerate. If this development continues unchecked, the requirement for raw materials – whether biomass, fossil fuels or ores – could more than double by 2050, and the same applies to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We would then actually need more than two earths, but we only have one.
The only answer is to use resources more sparingly. I see this as both a challenge and an opportunity. In the energy sector, we must focus much more on renewable energies and at the same time make energy generation, transmission and consumption considerably more efficient. The good news is that we already have all the technology required for this. Buildings can become generators instead of consumers of energy, light diodes use 80 percent less current than light bulbs, electric motors are three to four times more efficient then combustion engines. Modern gas and steam turbines supply twice as much current as the average conventional power plant, and the latest electricity highways transmit electricity over thousands of kilometers with very little loss.
In recent years there have been enormous improvements in microchips and the relevant software so that we can now make power networks intelligent and flexible enough to coordinate supply and demand more efficiently. We already have all the elements required for the energy system of tomorrow. What’s more is that these solutions pay off because of the reduction in power consumption. The same applies to more sparing use of materials: intelligent thinking in terms of lifecycles, whereby products are designed with their eventual recycling in mind, is always worthwhile – whether we are talking about constructing trains or recovering valuable, scarce resources from electrical equipment.
The constant increase in the population, however, is not the only demographic change: the population is also aging. Today around 550 million people worldwide are over 65 – and account for around 40 percent of health costs. By the year 2050, this group will have tripled to almost 1.5 billion. The health systems will only be able to cope with this when people age as healthily as possible and are able to live independently for a long time. Preventive measures are just as important as the early detection and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
In booming emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil, this is compounded by a further development: in Asia alone the cities are currently growing by 100,000 inhabitants a day – by 2050 there will be almost the same number of people living in cities as there are living on the entire planet today. On the one hand, cities attract people with work, education and better healthcare, and on the other hand, city dwellers all over the world have to cope with dense traffic, shortage of space, environmental pollution and noise. What is needed above all to improve quality of life is more efficient public transportation, modern building technology and an intelligent power supply. The main challenge lies in combining existing solutions. If we succeed in linking traffic control systems with bus and rail transportation we will improve the flow of traffic and reduce air pollution at the same time. London is showing that this can already be done: with a networked mobility concept it has been possible to increase the average traffic speed by just under 40 percent and cut CO2 emissions by 150,000 tons in recent years.
Intelligent solutions are also needed for the growing problems of the developing countries. According to estimates of the World Health Organization, 1.8 million people a year die because they have no access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitary facilities. There are technological solutions for this: Siemens is already providing many slums and rural areas, schools and hospitals in 42 countries with mobile water filters, each of which can produce enough drinking water for a thousand people. A further example is a device that monitors the heartbeat of fetuses in the womb – with simple, but ingenious microphone technology instead of expensive ultrasound. So that even in the poorest countries women can give birth to healthy babies. The device was developed in the emerging country of India, which not long ago was itself still a developing country. This is a good example of the dynamics of the growing world population providing opportunities for a livable future – for the seven billion people who are already living on our planet and for all those continuing to arrive.
Photo: A new born girl sleeps with her mother in Muslim Free Hospital and Medical Relief Society in Yangon October 31, 2011. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun; Children queue for free chocolate porridge at a local government feeding program in Tondo, Manila October 29, 2011. REUTERS/Erik De Castro