Geomaticians’ role in climate change and population development

September 24th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

After 25 years of democracy in South Africa, it is sobering to realise that not a lot has been achieved. Some goals like housing and electricity distribution have advanced significantly, but others like education and job creation have receded. The ebb and flow of politics and economics, nationally and internationally, seem to give progress a stop-start, rather than certain trajectory. In hindsight it could have been better aligned. Geomaticians must help this alignment going forward.

Rather than trying to analyse the past, this article takes a constructive look ahead 25 years into the future globally, and in particular our region of sub-Saharan Africa (S-SA), keeping the perspective and influence of the geomatics profession till the end.

Despite the substantial agenda of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) under the banner of “leave no one behind”, one of the concerns of activists and global organisations is the existential issue of human sustainability. The UN Agenda is in its second incarnation, called the Sustainable Development Goals, and will run for another ten years until 2030. Its 17 goals are sub-divided into 169 sub-sections, with noble aims to eradicate poverty, deliver basic education, health services and land ownership, remove gender discrimination and move towards sources of renewable energy. So why be disheartened by the future?

Fig. 1: The “one-planet prosperity” quadrant points to humanity’s goals, as prepared by Global Footprint Network 2019.

Fig. 1 plots the Human Development Index (HDI) of eight continental regions against their per capita regional ecological footprint. As of 2019, not a single country in the world is achieving both a high HDI and an ecological footprint within the sustainable capacity of earth. All nations are failing to be sustainable, either by an under-developed and rapidly growing population or by over-consumption.

Whilst the 28 countries of the European Union have achieved a very high HDI (above 0,8), they have failed substantially to live sustainably (the chief problems being energy and food wastage). Conversely, whilst African countries are mostly well below an HDI of 0,7 with generally very high birth rates, their ecological footprints are that of 1 to 1,5 earths. This should be more widely recognised.

Humankind has survived for well over 100 000 years – first by hunter-gathering, then through subsistence farming and finally by having large families to compensate for disease, war and famine. But this latter strategy is now counter-survival as the global population has reached a capacity limit. All countries require substantial intervention. The conundrum, however, is this: can Africa shift into the ideal quadrant without wildly overshooting its footprint like the North Americans and Europeans have, and conversely, can the developed world devolve willingly into this same quadrant before the earth runs out of resources?

Unfortunately for us all, there is far less time than we thought to achieve these twin transformations which must now happen simultaneously. As a chartist would say of the stock market, the earth has broken through a trend line.

Fig. 2: Reconstructed global temperatures recorded as natural evidence over past 2000 years.

Fig. 2 shows the output from a scientific study published in July 2019 by a team of scientists led by the University of Bern. It shows that the earth had a thermostat-like mechanism that has kept its average temperature exceptionally stable at ±0,4°C right until the start of the 20th century. Thereafter this forensic study of natural evidence around the world and the global weather station record support each other closely throughout the last 120 years. This offers irrefutable proof that global warming has an anthropogenic agency.

But is it all due to carbon-dioxide increasing from 250 to 415 ppm? Which greenhouse gas (GHG) has the greatest influence?

It is in fact mainly water vapour (50%), then water droplets in the form of clouds (about 25%), then carbon-dioxide (about 20% based on 400 ppm) followed by a mixture of minor gases (5%) that maintain the temperature of the atmosphere. The problem is that there is a positive feedback loop for water vapour: every 1°C atmospheric temperature increase adds more water vapour, which is equivalent to approximately 3% more heat absorption, until a new stabilised temperature range is obtained. The increase in carbon-dioxide and minor gases appears to trigger this larger response of water vapour and droplets.

Climate modelling of water vapour and clouds is highly intricate with negative and positive feedback loops, and differs within each climatic region. However, the nett effect is that more water vapour is held in a warmer atmosphere and more total precipitation in the form of rain and snow will occur globally; But this varies significantly within regions and seasons as Fig. 3 indicates (aggregated prediction from six different climatic modelling algorithms).

Fig. 3: Predicted global change in precipitation by 2080. Dotted regions common for all six models used.

From current extended drought experiences in Mexico, California, Western Sahara and S-SA, it would appear that the predicted drying of, in particular, the southern hemisphere, is already taking effect, decades earlier than predicted. The Mediterranean Belts in both hemispheres are hit hard (Perth in western Australia has experienced persistent drying since as far back as 1976). This will become a serious constraint for the development of much of the SADC region over the following 25 years and adaption will be essential.

Climate is an ever changing feature of earth’s ecosystem. However, we could be entering a period of particularly rapid change due to the rapidity of the GHG change. The World Meteorological Organisation is now estimating that extreme weather events are becoming at least five times more likely due to global warming. This includes extreme heat, cold, flooding and drought.

Against this climatic backdrop of greater flux, the most immediate concern is additional human population growth, particularly in regions where there is diminishing rainfall (extended drought prediction) and excessive heat. It is too easy to view global population demographics as just large numbers that the earth will somehow accommodate. It is better to focus on a few representative countries to establish a relative perspective. Table 1 uses 2017 statistics to show the impact of predicted population growth. Although the 2019 population demographic figures were published by the UN in June 2019 (generally even higher forecast values than in 2017), they do not yet have accompanying statistics (taken from The four African countries chosen are representative of Eastern, Western, Central and Southern Africa and should not be construed as exceptional within S-SA.

Table 1: Demographic modelling for four African countries (according to region) vs the USA for the next 25 years (till 2045). See also Fig. 4 for the projected total Sub-Saharan population change.

Whilst the population of the USA increases by 53-million to a total of 382-million by 2045, the population of just these four selected African countries increases by 382-million over the same period. Extraordinarily, the predicted population of Nigeria alone could be similar to that of the USA, despite it being geographically ten times smaller. Its population density per km² in 2045 will be similar to that of India today.

The new urbanising population increase in the USA is 64-million with a per capita GDP of close to $60 000, whereas the African quartet could have a new urbanising population of 248-million with a weighted GDP per capita of only $4462. The housing challenge is four times larger and the economic capacity of these representative nations is 12,85 times smaller (the DRC alone is approximately 66 times smaller than the USA).

The last point that is particularly relevant from Table 1 is the nett migration column. Whilst the USA takes on about 1-million people per annum, the figures projected for this African quartet are unrealistic due to the impact of climate change, probable crop failures and urbanisation crunches. Over the next 25 years, mass intra-Africa migration on a scale never seen before is a real possibility.

The UN Population Report 2019 has plotted this region’s collective growth against the other seven SDG regions in Fig. 4. This S-SA Region, which faces arguably one of the most severe climate sustainability problems is clearly heading for a population crisis despite the massive land area of the region. This will exacerbate, in turn, the urbanisation crisis and will, in almost all cases, decrease the GDP per capita still further below that of the developed world.

This requires an extraordinary effort over the next 25 years to effectively address the persistent high birth rate in Western and Central Africa in order to rapidly reach the replacement rate of close to 2,1 (fortunately, Ethiopia’s birth rate is expected to decline substantially over this period). Even after reaching this figure, populations will continue to expand slowly for a further 25 years.

Fig. 4: Population by SDG Regions 2019 with 95% prediction intervals from 2020 to 2100.

The potential severity of the counter forces of climate change and population increase are not adequately addressed by the 17 SDGs launched in 2015. The potential for human catastrophe in parts of the globe could be portrayed as a returning wave that rebounds off the hard wall of climate change, colliding at double speed and with double amplitude, made still more severe by the shallow waters of poverty.

Three scenarios for the future

The changes predicted by Fig. 3 do not foretell a sixth extinction, but there will be substantial losses both natural and human. A new warmer stabilised climate will appear once GHG levels have stabilised. Our humane response, or lack of it, over the next 25 years will determine the outcome. The world faces broadly three scenarios, from tragic to punishing to heroic.

Titanic scenario

The 1912 passenger liner tragedy could have been avoided if Captain Smith had slowed down and taken the ice-flow radio warnings seriously. Of those passengers on board, 39% first-class, 58% second-class and 76% third-class died. Of the crew, 76% died. The rich were more fortunate, but certainly not exempted from drowning.

Regional apocalyptic extremes such as war, genocide, plagues and disease caused by population excess under climate change stress must be foreseen in this scenario.

This outcome describes human short-sightedness, failure to act in time, despite fore-knowledge and the means. In the context of climate change, there are many Captain Smiths of the fossil fuel industry, business and politics. Many politicians too are not prepared to address family planning as a high national priority.

Dunkirk scenario

The invasion of France and the Low Countries by Hitler’s Panzer Divisions happened so fast (in ten days) that the British and French Forces had less than seven days to try to arrange an evacuation. Whilst approximately 340 000 soldiers were evacuated, over 50 000 were captured and 11 000 were killed. The evacuation of Dunkirk was miraculous in that originally, only 25% of the trapped British Expeditionary Force men were considered rescuable. It was a punishing defeat in that these large armies had to leave all their hardware behind.

An Australian think-tank in Melbourne (Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration) is seriously considering scenarios by 2050 where hundreds of millions of people will need to be relocated, possibly even quite rapidly. It is hard to imagine a thousand Dunkirks actually taking place. It would be a consequence of defeat and ill-preparedness and the recipient nations will need to be politically exceptionally accommodating.

All hands on deck scenario

This scenario considers a military-like mobilisation of industrial effort to de-carbonise power, transportation and agricultural sectors as fast as humanly possible. It is possible to achieve a near zero fossil fuel usage within the next 30 years, but not in ten years as the New Green Deal proposes for the USA. The appropriate renewable generation and storage technologies are coming into play at costs competitive to fossil-based systems.

The industrial effort required will be similar to the mobilisation of the world for a 30 year war and would need to make use of an enforceable global climate bond to finance the effort. On top of that, political and humanitarian effort will need to be made to introduce social upliftment in regions of high population growth. Such a program would upgrade aspects of the SDGs to an Existential Level, introduce funding programmes and mobilise education, medical care and family planning as a national priority with incentives and subsidies. The objective would be to drive down regional birth rates to sustainable levels within one generation, thereby limiting the migration scenario and radically altering the S-SA trajectory shown in Fig. 4. It is quite possible that parts of S-SA will be considered for hosting of climate change migrants in the next 25 years, especially if the 2°C limit is exceeded elsewhere.

The Dunkirk scenario is the regional fall-back scenario if this global all-hands-on-deck effort fails. De-carbonising must be seen as a global effort.

Implications for the Geomatics Professions in S-SA

Geomaticians need to model future changes as best as possible down to town and municipal scales (see the great work done by the CSIR’s Green Book). The geo-informatics professions are going to be critical in modelling the local relationships between predicted climate, soils, groundwater, agricultural output and population. Furthermore, South Africa has valuable skills in this regard that will be needed in many other S-SA countries.

The race against time will place pressure on all professions, in particular those involved with urban planning. The challenge will be to create diversity and economic sustainability in the face of ubiquity. Architectural inventiveness will be important to optimise social cohesion.

Failure to finance housing at a far greater rate will frustrate many of the SDG outcomes. Land Surveyors will need to plan with sustainability and changed transportation needs in mind. This can be extended to thinking progressively about groundwater resources and the need to recharge them from run-off surface water.

Africa at the front line of human development and climate adaption

The evidence is before us, denialism is no longer valid. Whilst the Sustainable Development Goals are still important, they are inadequate to address the urgency of the situation. The World Bank’s Human Development Index support is also commendable, but it lacks the financial muscle to bring about a fast enough turn-around. Africa institutions like the African Development Bank and the Africa Union are now in the front line of human development and climate adaption – they must lead and guide the changes needed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite past experiences of short-sighted political leadership, this S-SA region can become a model of sustainability and sensible development towards that elusive One-Planetary Prosperity quadrant. It will require political parties to commit to long term goals rather than short-term individual leaders. Whilst parts of the S-SA region may be unfairly punished, much can be done to mitigate the worst effects.

The combined forward-thinking leadership of all professionals and a very concerted political resolve are essential to make this critical transformation to sustainability over the next twenty five years.

Contact Gavin Lloyd, Lloyd & Hill,

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